“Very few things are rocket science,” Shiza Shahid, co-founder and former CEO of the international non-profit Malala Fund, said to a Richmond Scholar at her lecture Sunday. “Although they seem so from a distance, if you ask the right questions and listen, you get pretty close to an answer.” Shahid’s message to Richmond students was simple: Young people can create the change they want to see in the world if they are willing to work hard for it.
Now just 25 years old, Shahid has been named one of TIME Magazine’s “30 Under 30 World Changers” and Forbes’ “30 Under 30” most successful social entrepreneurs for her work with the Malala Fund. Shahid was also recently honored by Fortune Magazine as one of the “55 Most Influential Women on Twitter.”
The Malala Fund is an organization representing a young Pakistani activist, Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban for her campaign for girls’ education. The fund taps the influence and expertise of local governments and entrepreneurs to overcome obstacles to girls’ education in rural areas of Pakistan, Nigeria, Jordan and Kenya.
At 11 years old, Malala began writing anonymously for a BBC blog about education and growing up in the Swat Valley of Pakistan as the Taliban became increasingly powerful in the region. Soon after, Malala was featured in a New York Times documentary and acknowledged as the author of the BBC blog that spoke so fervently about restricted life under Taliban rule.
Shahid, then a student at Stanford University, watched the documentary and felt compelled to help the young girl and those like her in the area that Shahid had also grown up in. She contacted Malala’s family and began planning a summer camp for Malala and other girls. Shahid’s goal was to empower these girls, give them the tools they needed to speak out against the violence and oppression they faced in their region and meet powerful female mentors in the capital city of Islamabad.
Following the camp, Malala’s popularity grew and she quickly became a national advocate for children in war-ridden areas of Pakistan. Her insistence on education for girls and criticism of the Taliban increased, threatening Talibani leaders, who were gaining more power in the Swat Valley through fear tactics and oppressive restrictions.
When Malala was 17 years old, members of the Taliban shot her while she was on a school bus, attempting to kill her and end the criticism she was voicing. Although they shot her in the head at close range, she was airlifted to a hospital in Birmingham, England for care, and miraculously survived without any lasting damage.
Shahid described Malala’s recovery as a miraculous second chance for the young girl to continue her advocacy. And despite the Taliban’s attempt to take Malala’s life and voice, Malala’s unwavering courage and selflessness remained. When asked what she needed in the hospital during recovery, Malala replied, “I’m OK, just help the others.”
With this, Shahid realized she needed to find a way for Malala’s voice to be heard. She had been asked to fly to Birmingham to be with Malala in the hospital and to protect her from the sudden wave of global media attention that had engulfed Malala.
“As they told their story and as people started to see in a very personal way what girls were suffering across the world,” Shahid said, “I saw an opportunity to create a platform that would take this moment and change it into a movement.”
Shahid worked with Malala and her family to begin publishing the book "I Am Malala" as a response to the Taliban’s marginalizing question, “Who is Malala?” With support and advice from mentors, Shahid and Malala also founded the Malala Fund as a way to harness the global outpouring of support that Malala received in the wake of the shooting.
The work these two young women began that day in the hospital has already had a profound impact on girls’ education worldwide. The Malala Fund is now in its third year of operation, but has already developed grassroots programs in four countries and is working quickly to expand.
During her lecture, Shahid gave advice to students looking for that moment that Shahid had while watching Malala in the New York Times documentary. “Looking back at your own life, see what it’s been that has pulled you in multiple times. What are some of the recurring themes in your life, whether it’s fashion or food or poverty alleviation? What is it that has been interesting?”
Shahid has been a social entrepreneur all her life. Growing up in Pakistan, Shahid protested on the streets against military dictatorship and worked in a women’s prison by age 14. When she was 16, Shahid was moved to serve after her friend died in an earthquake and began volunteering at earthquake refugee camps.
There, her passion for helping women and girls grew, as she was the only young female volunteer and the only one who could provide support for female refugees. From a young age, Shahid was passionate about creating opportunities for women, so it was natural for her to see an opportunity to help when she saw Malala for the first time. As an entrepreneur, she immediately began brainstorming ways to get involved and make a difference in the lives of Malala and girls like her.
Shahid also encouraged students to use tools they already have to create the change they want to see. Before founding the Malala Fund, Shahid worked for about a year as a business analyst for McKinsey & Company. Based in Dubai, she worked in three countries in the Middle East and worked in numerous industries.
Shahid said this short stint in the business world gave her many tools she needed to start a global organization on her own at a young age. Shahid encouraged the students at her lecture to focus on an issue that was close to their hearts and accessible to them.
One of Shahid’s lessons shared during her lecture was that we should be constantly creating and innovating to live more fully and to be better caretakers of our world. Shahid recently stepped down from her position as founding CEO of the Malala Fund, and now works as a global ambassador for the Fund. However, Shahid does not plan to stop there.
“I’m interested in becoming more of a contributor on women’s economic empowerment issues and continuing to find ways to invest in women and girls’ success,” Shahid said, “whether it’s through the Malala Fund or through other platforms by creating other opportunities for women to become economically empowered.”
Shahid has already proven her passion, hardworking nature and capacity for real change by initiating a global movement for girls’ education before she was 25. She now has even bigger plans to create change on a greater scale, and has encouraged other young people, such as Richmond students, to do the same
“Be curious, expand your horizons, and discover beyond the life that you were born into. Expanding what you know, what you believe and what you are is a source of immense joy,” she said. Shahid encouraged Richmond students to find that passion, take a leap and make the change we want to see because, after all, it is up to us to create the world we want to live in.
Contact reporter Rhiannon Bell at email@example.com