Social entrepreneur Shiza Shahid visited HNU on October 19 to discuss her journey and her work with the Malala Fund, which she co-founded with Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Peace Prize winner and author of I Am Malala, the 2016 University Common Reading selection. In addition to her work as a social entrepreneur, Shahid is an investor, speaker, and advocate. She has received multiple awards for her work, including recognition as a "30 under 30 Social Entrepreneur" by Forbes. She is now leading NOW Ventures, a platform that invests in groundbreaking solutions to the world's greatest challenges.
Shahid structured her presentation around four stories, all of which related to the ways in which her life had steered her towards her current work. She spoke first about her parents, her upbringing in Islamabad, Pakistan, and how she first committed herself to volunteer work. As Shahid explained, during her childhood conditions in Pakistan were worsening—poverty was increasing, a military dictatorship was in charge of the country, and terrorism was on the rise. “I decided that I had to understand what was happening to my society, and there’s really only one way to do that. That was by connecting with the people who were suffering the hardships that I had only seen from afar,” she said. “So I started to volunteer anywhere that I could. I worked in women’s prisons, and in those prisons were little children who had been born to their mothers in prison and never left, because effectively there was no one outside for them. It was there volunteering, at the age of 13 and 14, that I came to understand what it meant to be discarded before you’re even born and to never really have anyone give you a chance at a better life.
“When I was 16, there was a big earthquake in Pakistan, almost 17,000 people died and it hit very close to home, some of those who died were people that I knew. So I spent the next year of my high school, pretty much every day, in an earthquake relief camp, and I was the only regular female volunteer, so even though I was young, I was given a lot of responsibility. I expanded my horizons and I came to understand what my purpose could be, what my journey could look like, what I could do with my life.”
When it came time to apply to colleges, Shahid applied to a number of universities in Pakistan, but she also looked abroad too. She said that she applied to the top 10 schools in the U.S. on a whim, and was surprised when she found out that she’d been accepted to Stanford University with a full scholarship. At 18, she moved to California and began her college career. However, during her sophomore year at Stanford, she heard worrying news about the Taliban’s draconian rule of the Swat Valley, an area in the north of Pakistan about 200 miles from Islamabad. In January 2009, the Taliban declared an all-out ban on girls’ education in the Swat Valley, and Shahid realized that she had to do something to help the girls who lived there.
“I remember sitting in my dorm room thinking about how I was getting an education for free, and girls 200 miles from where I grew up are being told that girls’ education is banned,” she said. “So I asked myself, if I were in the Swat Valley, what could I do? Could I publish stories, could I reach out to the world and tell them what was happening, could I mobilize support for an intervention? And I thought, could girls in the Swat Valley do just that? But it was so remote there. So I came up with a plan, I would go back home and host a summer camp, bring out school girls from the Swat Valley, and I would empower them to become advocates and tell their stories, so that people with influence inside the country would hear their voices and be moved to intervene, reestablish the rule of law, and open the schools.”
It was at the summer camp that she established that Shahid met and befriended Malala Yousafzai and her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai. Three years later, at 15, Malala was shot in the head by members of the Taliban when she was on her way home from school. Shahid was working for a consulting business in the Middle East when she received a text with the news about Yousafzai. Shahid said she felt devastated and immediately flew to Birmingham, England, where Yousafzai was then being treated. “I wasn’t the only one who cared,” Shahid said. “Malala’s story had hit breaking news and people were outraged. From all over the world, we were getting offers of support, and since I was with Malala, most of those offers of support were coming to me. I told Malala once she was awake and feeling healthier, ‘Malala, the whole world is praying for you, how can they help you?’ And she said, ‘I’m fine, tell them to help the other girls.’ It was in that moment that I knew that what Malala started had the potential to be far more than a day in the news cycle, another story of a victim that shocked people for a few hours. So I had a decision to make in that moment. Would I go back to my career, or would I take a leap of faith and perhaps help Malala and her father tell her story and build a movement that would inspire millions around the world? I was terrified, but I decided it was now or never, and I took the leap and I’ve never looked back.”
Shahid closed the main part of her presentation by talking about the work that she had done with the Malala Fund, the organization that she co-founded with Malala and Ziauddin Yousafzai. The Malala Fund empowers girls and amplifies their voices; invests in local education leaders and programs; and advocates for more resources for education and safe schools for every child. Shahid provided some startling statistics related to the benefits of girls’ education. “If we educate young girls, they are less likely to marry early, they are less likely to die in childbirth, they have fewer children, their children are statistically healthier, they’re more likely to go to school, and they are more likely to earn an income,” she said. “Eighty to 90 percent of the income that a woman in poverty earns, she invests back into her community. It’s typically a lot lower for men. Educating young girls in places where they’re denied education is an incredible way to lift millions out of poverty and to give them opportunities.”
She also provided some sage advice for the students in attendance. “Those are the issues that you should be thinking about [i.e. education of girls and refugees, poverty, and public health], because you all are in the position to create local change, national change, and global change.”
As part of her visit, Shahid served as a judge for the HNU Common Reading essay contest. Shahid selected the winning entries from a group of finalists. HNU students Alejandra Andrade, Juliet Gica, Elijah King, Keo Leatherwood, Billy Martina, Cynthia Padilla, and Pearis Tavares were the winners of the essay contest.