How to Really Change the World: An interview with Shiza Shahid

(Marisa Gomez / Fordham Political Review)

Shiza Shahid grew up in Pakistan where she started volunteering at a prison at age 13. Since then, she has continued her outreach on a much larger scale. As the co-founder and former CEO of the Malala Fund, Shiza Shahid was instrumental in Malala Yousafzai’s growth and success and the success of the organization. Shahid continues using her business knowledge from Stanford and her passion for service to promote women’s education and the betterment of the world through socially conscious businesses.

You said that you became involved in social justice and volunteering at a very young age. How does a thirteen year old believe in themselves enough to pursue some sort of ability to help others. Did your family have a lot of involvement in volunteering? Where did you get that from?

Yeah I guess I was too young not to believe in myself. I think when we’re young we see things that upset us and we say, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this person’s homeless” and then our friends say, “It’s okay, don’t worry about it” and we start to normalize poverty and injustice… we start to notice it less and then even when we do notice it, we enter a space of self doubt where we think, well who am I to really make a difference? I believe that most people are good and want there to be a better world, but most people don’t notice injustice and if they do they feel like it’s not their place to fix it.

Certainly it’s not one person’s place to fix everything but I do believe every time I felt passionately about an issue and have stepped forward I’ve come to realize I was one of the few people who stepped forward and was in a position to really make a difference.

So when I started out I was growing up in the Capital of Pakistan. It was a small community of people there and I found myself under the mentorship of women who ran non-profits and I would ask to volunteer and I would do internships with them and they would let me and so I got exposed to women’s prisons, micro-finance, micro-enterprise, refugee camps, disaster relief and I think with each experience, sort of saw myself able to play a larger role. As I matured my understanding matured.

There was a massive earthquake in Pakistan when I was sixteen and by that point I had become very involved and it was a personal tragedy for me. And I just started going to that camp for survivors everyday and ended up being able to raise donations and organize community events to serve children and girls and organize protests when the earthquake victims became forgotten by the national media and the government, to raise awareness again about the importance of supporting them. So learned both how to organize at a grassroots level, how to fight poverty, but also mobilize large numbers of people to influence public opinion and that just became my childhood.

When you moved to California to go to Stanford what was the biggest cultural difference compared to living in Pakistan your entire life?

I think because of this work, I had grown up and become quite serious very early and the American college system while it has many strengths, it also in many ways is a way to prolong the sort of a carefree youth. So I just kind of showed up at Stanford which is this incredible school but came in thinking we were there to solve the world’s greatest challenges, whereas in fact in many ways it was kind a period of limbo where we were learning through books and classrooms but not really applying that to actually make a difference in the real world and I really wanted to be in the real world. I think that was tough. It was a tough adjustment for me so I just kind of refused to adjust and kept doing things in the real world.

And I now have the access and brand of Stanford behind me so it actually did enable me to have greater influence but I would, you know, continue to go back to Pakistan and work in government, in media. I held a summer camp when I was twenty, where I mentored young girls including Malala and I continue to think that the American college system, colleges in general and the school system, in general needs to integrate learning into the real a little bit better. So I was restless at Stanford, to be honest.

That sounds like a good thing to be, at certain points.

Yeah, I guess so.

So what prompted your passion for women’s education? Was that your main focus for awhile?

Women’s education has always been something that’s been one of my interests. For one, just working in all these situations as a young girl, I was always interacting with young girls and women who came from cultures that were more restrictive and had fewer opportunities and saw sort of the incredible barriers and also the incredible strength that they had. Pakistan traditionally has a number of barriers for women to succeed so I got to witness that growing up.

When I started working on the summer camp that I mentioned, I had read that in the north of Pakistan in a town called Swat Valley, the Taliban had taken over and were banning girls’ education and I remember I had written in my college essays that if I could just get an education I would give back to other girls in my community. And I remember sitting at my dorm room at Stanford thinking here I am with all of this access and this education that is world class being given to me for free, through scholarship, and girls 300 kilometers from where I grew up are being told they can’t go to school. I just felt, once again, that I had a unique responsibility to help and so that’s sort of been a theme in my life.

When Malala was shot, again, it sort of pulled me back into the work of girls’ education and now with the fund that I am launching, education will certainly be one of the areas that we’ll focus on. Education is so important, so central and it’s also so primitive. We haven’t evolved education for at least two centuries, so I am passionate about finding a way to move it forward and it’s been sort of been a running theme in my life for sure.

And would you mind explaining a little bit about that new fund that you’re starting?

Sure, sure. It’s essentially a venture capital fund and I came straight from Pakistan to Stanford, which is in the heart of Silicon Valley.

I saw, at 18, the power of technology to change the world and create a world of abundance and prosperity but I also saw that entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley wanted to build apps that picked up your laundry and delivered your food and found you a girlfriend and weren’t really trying to take on the world’s most pressing challenges. And I started to think, on one hand you have all this ingenuity and capital and entrepreneurial spirit and on the other hand, you have perhaps a limited perspective or exposure to the greatest challenges in world and I thought can you bring innovation, entrepreneurship together with social impact to think about impact, it’s scale, and do so through a fund which generates returns versus a non-profit which is constantly dependent on fundraising and is a fraction of the financial markets? So that’s the idea behind the fund now. I have partnered with a leading fund and platform add in Silicon Valley called Angel List and we’re launching a seed stage venture fund that will invest in startups at the intersection of impact, innovation, and returns.

In today’s age of technology, many individuals are taking to social media to express their concerns for social justice issues and politics but that seems to produce minimal change. What is a more effective way to get involved in social justice and what would be some advice to young people who want to make a change and don’t know how?

I mean I think that it’s not something you can do on a Sunday in between brunch and soul-cycle. I think that, for a long time, we thought you have your career and then volunteer. You know, you do something on the side. Whereas in fact, impact is very hard to have.

Most of the issues we care about are deeply complex and I think approaching your life thinking I want to do something that I’m good at, I need to get paid for what I do or make some amount of money. I want to have a good career and I want all of this to drive toward something that makes the world a better place. I think that’s kind of the formula at which we need to look at it with, versus I am going to have a career and it’s going to be soul sucking and at a bank and for a few hours a week I’m going to volunteer at a homelessness shelter.

The reason that doesn’t work is because the issues are not that simple, right? Homelessness is actually a very challenging issue to solve. And you need help to solve policy, you need to solve business, you need to solve housing markets, you need to solve education, you need to solve hunger, you need to solve so many issues. And so to me, can you go deep on issues that you’re passionate about? Whether that’s women’s rights or refugee crisis or education. Really develop a deep understanding and then pair that with your talents. What are you uniquely talented at? Are you a great writer, Are you a great coder? Are you a great inventor? Are you a great marketer? And then pair that, of course, with your desires. I want to make a good salary. I want to have a have a career that’s fulfilling and fast paced. And bring those together because that’s when you start to build sort of a sustainable career. That’s when you start to find and understand issues in a way that you can actually affect change.

Your age is frequently referenced in lots of articles written about you. Do you see that as an advantage or how has that changed kind of your perception of your climb to success, I guess?

Yeah, I think I am growing…I think I am slowly growing out of the place where people talk my age. When I started out I was 23 in a very traditional sector and that was tough and now I am 27 in Silicon Valley and it’s slightly more acceptable. Still less for an investor.

It’s easier to a be a young entrepreneur than a young investor. But I’ve also found a way to make my identity more of my strength and this comes again back to being a woman. I think for a long time I didn’t quite understand how to be a young woman in the workplace and didn’t have female mentors and didn’t have female role models and now I do and I think I am coming to that place with my age as well and I have friends who are younger and I have a lot of friends who are older. Of course, there’s a wisdom that comes with age. I also think there is probably some benefits to being younger and just doing things for the first time, right? So I think keeping both in mind and saying that this is this is the first time I am doing this and that gives me a certain risk appetite and excitement and passion and energy and also this isn’t the tenth time I am doing this so I need to be surrounded by wisdom and experience and so just kind of being real about that.

With the current political climate in America is making many individuals uneasy. The divisions in America and worldwide are causing a lot of people to look for advice to cope with the injustices and the biases that are happening. What’s your advice for that, having grown up in a country that has been divided for quite some time and seeing America as we’re still advancing and having these struggles? What’s your advice to people who really haven’t dealt with that before?

In terms of bridging divides?

Yes.

I mean I think that, you know, we spoke a little bit about the echo chambers earlier and I think that the we are starting to live more and more in our own echo chambers and we’re all guilty of this. I think a lot of liberals and progressives were very shocked, myself included, by the outcome of the election and I think that means we weren’t listening. I think that this happened for a number of reasons. There’s no one answer and I think people like, “Everyone who voted for Trump is a racist.” That’s not true. Some people are. Some people also feel left behind. Some people are sick of the establishment and there are a wide variety of reasons and I think we need to get outside those echo chambers and build a deep understanding and a deeper engagement.

I come from a country where at night we would all sit around and watch the news and you’d go to dinner and everyone would sort of be shouting across the table about politics. America is not a very political place. You don’t talk about politics over dinner. People have quite separated that. I think increasing engagement again is quite important.

I think if I asked most people to name all the countries America is currently bombing, most people don’t know about it. In particular, foreign policy is something Americans tend to turn a blind eye towards. So I think it’s about increasing engagement, increasing listening, increasing understanding. And at some level you know you have to stand up for certain values, right? And so America has made progress in marriage equality and while yes, it’s important to listen to all sides, it’s also important to protect those who are vulnerable and so I think it’s about playing both of those roles.

Thank you so much for sitting down with me. This was wonderful.

About the Author

Marisa Gomez
Marisa Gomez (FCRH '19) is from San Diego, CA. She is a political science major with a possible double major in English. Contact Marisa at mgomez46@fordham.edu.