The Massey Boardroom was packed on Wednesday with students excited to hear this year’s Moench Entrepreneurship Lecture featuring Shiza Shahid, co-founder of The Malala Fund with Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai. Shahid shared her inspiring story of co-founding the Malala Fund, as well as her journey to success in entrepreneurship.
While growing up in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, terrorism and war in the country were increasing. Shahid longed to understand what was going on in society. So, she showed up at nonprofits and asked to volunteer. At a nonprofit organization that provided micro loans to women in poverty, Shahid volunteered writing case studies.
“Over and over again, I was struck by the power of women to transform their communities when given the opportunity to be entrepreneurial,” shared Shahid. “So, if there is a silver bullet in ending poverty, it is economically empowering women.”
At only 18 years old, Shahid moved to the United States to attend college with a scholarship from Stanford University. Surrounded by entrepreneurship and students pursuing entrepreneurship, Shahid saw that innovation in Silicon Valley was not coming from a global perspective. She explained that many entrepreneurs were building technology to take care of their own problems, such as laundry services and grocery delivery, rather than problems in places like Pakistan.
While studying at Stanford and becoming more curious about the intersection of startups and social good, things were getting much worse in Shahid’s hometown in Pakistan. There was a terrorist attack close to where her family lived and Shahid was constantly travelling home in the summer and winter to volunteer her time.
In 2009, a terrorist group linked to the Taliban had taken over a small town in Pakistan known as the Swat Valley and placed a ban on all female education. A sophomore at Stanford during that time, Shahid began to wonder what she could to do help. While doing research on the internet, she came across a diary written by a school girl in the Swat Valley writing about her experiences being denied education. The school girl wrote, “This is my plea to the world. Save my school. Save my Swat Valley.” The young school girl who had written the diary online was Malala Yousafzai.
That summer, Shahid returned to Pakistan and created a secret summer camp in Islamabad to provide Malala and 26 other young school girls with access to tools, resources and networks to teach the value of education. “Somehow, from my dorm room at Stanford, while drinking my Jamba Juice, I found a way to empower a little girl who would go on six years later to change the world,” said Shahid.
Upon graduating from Stanford, Shahid began working as an analyst in Dubai for a global business consulting firm called McKinsey & Co. “I combined my desire of a well-paying, fast paced, prestigious career with my desire to have an impact in places like Pakistan,” Shahid explained.
In 2012, Shahid had just landed in Egypt for a project she was working on and received a text message that she said made her heart stop. Malala had been shot on the bus on her way home from school by the Taliban. Two of her friends were also shot but luckily suffered injuries less severe than Malala. Shahid was devastated and immediately flew to the hospital in the United Kingdom where Malala was receiving treatment.
The story of Malala’s shooting gained traction in the news cycle, outraging people worldwide. Shahid knew that Malala was not a victim, but that Malala and young girls like her all around the world were change-makers fighting for a chance to go to school. “Malala made a near full recovery. It is the greatest miracle that I will ever witness,” she said.
Shahid decided to leave her job and fight for equality in education. She said, “What I’ve learned in making these difficult decisions is that when you do something that is difficult, you will be scared. You will be fearful. The more you achieve, the more anxious you feel. It is about learning to move forward.”
Shahid moved to New York with a suitcase and started an organization called The Malala Fund. The organization is a global nonprofit that has given more than $17 million in grants to educational organizations around the world, and it has mobilized significantly through works of advocacy.
“The thing about entrepreneurship and change is that it is gradual. It is intimate. It is grassroots. But sometimes, it becomes catalytic, which is something we cannot foresee,” shared Shahid. People often asked her how to do something “big.” Her response is, “You cannot do something ‘big.’ You can only do something and hope that it becomes ‘big.”
Shahid is now the founder of a funding platform called NOW Ventures, dedicated to enabling startups with transformative solutions to creating a better world. The company combines positive social missions and values-driven founders with diverse backgrounds with an innovative business model enabled by core technology. Through this organization, Shahid has invested in companies such as Human Kind, Pachama and OurPlace.
“As you can see, I’ve had many different careers and have approached my own search for meaning in many different ways. I’m definitely not done. I’m constantly asking, ‘What is it that I can be doing with my one wild and precious life?’ It will shift and change.”
In closing, Shahid urged students to recognize and take advantage of the privilege they possess and to stand for something they believe in. “Entrepreneurship is not just about building companies. Some of us will start companies, but I think what we’re saying as entrepreneurs is something else. I think that we’re saying we want to have meaning. We want to be creative. We want to come up with ideas, think about them and execute them from beginning to end. We want to have autonomy. We want to know that our lives mean something.”