With lush green meadows and snow-capped mountains, Pakistan’s Swat Valley is a far cry from the country’s rubbled warzones. But it was here that began the remarkable story of a Pakistani girl who changed the world.
In 2009, at the height of the Taliban’s dominance in Pakistan, 20-year-old Pakistani Shiza Shahid was taking her sophomore year at Stanford University. With her family back in Pakistan in great danger, it was a heart-wrenching time. “Back home, things were going from bad to worse,” she recalls. “There were terrorist attacks near my house, in the hotel where my sister had just got married. I would go to bed at night with my phone on full volume in case I got a call with bad news about my family.”
One area that Shahid was particularly worried about was the Swat Valley, which had been taken over by a group affiliated with the Taliban. They were blowing up girls’ schools and had effected a ban on girls’ education.
Shahid was outraged that school could be banned without anyone knowing. “Girls were pretending to be younger students, hiding their books, taking huge risks just so they could study,” she recalls. Shahid decided to help. She returned to Pakistan that summer to set up a secret summer camp in her city of Islamabad, where she would bring schoolgirls from the Swat Valley with one objective — to teach them how to advocate for change. Shahid knew it was too dangerous to talk about the Taliban — instead, they discussed “childhood dreams”.
But not all of the girls followed her advice and some chose to speak out at personal risk. One of those girls was Malala Yousafzai, a precocious 11 year old whom Shahid mentored. Malala started to write a blog that was published on the BBC. Shahid returned to Stanford, took a job with consultants McKinsey and Company, and made a five-year plan to set up a company that would give back to the world. But one day she received a text message that made her heart stop: “Malala has been shot.”
Malala had been on her way to school (schools had reopened by then) when her school bus was stopped. Two masked gunmen asked ‘who is Malala?’ then shot her in the head, also injuring two of her friends. Shahid immediately flew to Malala’s hospital. The miracle was that not only did Malala survive, but she suffered no brain damage. Once Malala was awake, Shahid asked her: “‘The whole world is praying for you, Malala, what can they do for you?’ And she looked at me and said: ‘I’m fine, tell them to help the other girls.’” It was in that moment that Shahid realised that what Malala had been through could inspire permanent change. So she took a leap of faith on Malala and her father Ziauddin’s request, dropped her five-year plan and moved to New York to help them tell their story and co-found what came to be known as the Malala Fund. She became a buffer between Malala and the press, and took on the role of founding CEO.
Today one of the main focus points of the fund is to help the 66 million girls missing from classrooms. “They are trapped in a life of violence and poverty without education. If we invest in their education we can transform their lives and the lives of their communities,” says Shahid. They have spent the last two years meeting world leaders, advocating for change, pushing governments to spend more on education, and shone a spotlight on some of the most complex issues, such as how to educate female children in refugee camps.
“In the world today we have the highest number of refugees since the Second World War,” says Shahid. An average refugee displacement lasts for 17 years, the entire length of a childhood. “We simply don’t have an adequate response to refugee education at the moment,” she adds. The Malala Fund’s goal is to enable girls to complete 12 years of safe, quality education so that they can achieve their potential and be positive change-makers in their families and communities.
As for now, 27-year-old Shahid has received many prestigious awards for her work. But her experience has convinced her that the way to improve the world is not, in fact, through non-profit work, but through innovative social enterprise. She is now raising capital for a seed stage venture capital fund and platform, Now Ventures, dedicated to early-stage companies with transformative solutions for a prosperous world, delivering venture capital-level returns.
“It makes little sense that companies own the majority of assets, but their only responsibility is to shareholders, while charities, with a tiny fraction of those assets, are expected to shoulder the world’s problems,” she points out. “Charities are inherently dependent on donors and, unfortunately, talented people often go to careers where they can develop quickly and get high salaries.” But now, she says, it is possible to merge both business and impact.
Now Ventures plans to invest around US$200,000 per company in approximately 40 start-ups, structured and managed as a venture fund by Angel Advisors, founder of AngelList. The start-ups must be operating “at the intersection of purpose and profit”, with a core positive impact, a founder with integrity, a strong diversity policy and a positive culture and business practice. Shahid was in Hong Kong earlier this year speaking at the Landmark Mandarin Hotel about her new project, gathering support from some of the city’s wealthiest investors. She hopes Now Ventures will realise returns in line with traditional venture capital funds, as well as addressing some of the world’s biggest problems.
Shahid recalls a quote from Margaret Mead that has always rung true with her, both during her work in charity and business. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”