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After Malala: Shiza Shahid’s plan to change the world for good

Seven summers ago, global television network CNN ran a short news clip about a holiday camp that had been organised for 26 girls in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. They’d come from the Taliban-controlled Swat valley, about five hours, and several centuries, apart from life in the cityl. By then, girls had been forbidden by the Taliban from going to school; they were, said the (male) reporter, “living witnesses to the central battle within Islam today”. The idea behind the camp was to build their confidence, give them access to new mentors and stimulate possibilities in their increasingly restricted lives.

Two of those involved were interviewed, the younger barely out of childhood. She said that one day she wanted to rule the country, “but in a good way”. She was 12. (The disbelieving reporter says, “How old are you again?” She laughs and replies, cheekily, “OK – I’m 35!”) Because of concerns for the girls’ safety, no questions about the Taliban were allowed and no one was identified. But that merry child was Malala Yousafzai, who, three years later, would be shot on a school bus. Then everyone would learn her name.

The double life of Malala Yousafzai, schoolgirl and saviour of the world

The other interviewee was Shiza Shahid, who was 20, Islamabad born and bred but studying at Stanford University, in California, in the United States. The camp was her idea; she it was who’d told CNN there could be no questions about the Taliban. She likes to play that clip at talks (although, as she says, the fact that the reporter described them as “disorganised” is still a source of embarrassment) and she showed it when she spoke in front of audiences in Hong Kong in September.

Disorganised isn’t a word you could apply to Shahid these days. Like Malala, she’s come a long way, much of it travelled together. But Shahid is moving on. Her new enterprise is called Now Ventures (www.nowventures.co). It’s a fund that will back “mission-driven” start-ups, businesses that will have a positive impact, socially and environmentally, while also making a profit. She was in Hong Kong to find investors.

 

SHAHID HAD BEEN BROUGHT to the city by Quintessentially, which offers “luxury lifestyle management and concierge services” to its strictly limited membership. Its chief executive in Hong Kong is Emma Sherrard Matthew, who heard Shahid speak in Los Angeles in April (“I was blown away – I’m very interested in what she’s doing and I’ve personally invested”) and arranged her trip. The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, in Central, is hosting her stay and the first of our two meetings takes place in the hotel’s MO Bar. It feels some distance from the valleys of northern Pakistan.

Hong Kong immigration obviously had the same thought. On September 7, Shahid tweeted plaintively: “Hong Kong visa process is the worst I have ever seen. Anyone know someone who can help?” Presumably, Quintessentially was able to offer its concierge services; at any rate, she made it from California.

“It’s not easy to travel to Hong Kong,” she remarks, softly. “I hope it becomes simplified. There are so many talented individuals who see opportunity in Hong Kong. The more open we make these processes, the more we foster innovation.”

Before our meeting, I watched some of her interviews and her TED Talk. She speaks with fluid ease, employing millennial vocabulary and with end-game focus. Her demean­­our and accent have, naturally, shifted since the CNN clip. Her ringleted photograph on the Now Ventures website is oddly coquettish, but in person, the external loveliness steps in tandem with smart determination.

She often begins her talks with a photograph of her parents as a prompt to discuss their influence on her child­hood. Although she doesn’t usually mention their current lives, it turns out other children are now receiving the same influence. For the past few years, her parents have been running an orphanage for 110 boys. Was that her influence?

“Their nest was empty, their kids had left,” she says, adding modestly, “My father says I inspired him.”

Why are they only taking in boys?

“They’re now starting to take girls,” she says, and hesitates for a moment. She’s not exactly reticent about discussing Pakistan’s culture but she’s careful. “My mother took in five recently. It’s difficult. Everyone in Pakistan has extended families and they want to take the girls back at 14 to get married. It’s harder to give them opportunities.”

In this regard, she recognises her own good fortune. Her father, whose own father died when he was nine, was brought up in a village. Her mother’s upbringing, as the eldest of four girls, was in a strongly traditional household. They didn’t meet until their wedding day. “Which one is he?” Shahid’s mother asked of the men present.

They could have imposed a similarly rigorous childhood on their offspring, but Shahid’s mother didn’t want her children to be restricted in the way she had been. Shahid – who has a brother, eight years older, and a sister, 10 years older – wasn’t encouraged to go into the kitchen. (She has rued the impact on her culinary skills.) Education was everything.

“Because my father was in the navy, we had access to good schools for free but my mother said they weren’t good enough,” she says. A large proportion of the family income, therefore, went on education. At the same time, her parents advocated what she calls “benevolent neglect”.

“In America, it’s about violin lessons, swimming lessons … but in Islamabad, you’re bored, you have to find your own way.”

At 13, a boy she describes as her best friend suggested they do some volunteer work. “In Pakistan, it’s not usual for boys and girls to be friends but my parents supported that,” she observes. His mother ran an NGO, and it was she who put Shahid in touch with a women’s prison. She didn’t need to sign legal waivers or age disclosures to get inside and spend time with the women and their incarcerated children.

Three years later, in October 2005, what became known as the Kashmir earthquake devastated northern Pakistan. Only one building in Islamabad collapsed – Margalla Towers, one of the city’s first residential high-rises – killing more than 70 people, including Shahid’s best friend. Faulty construction was blamed. Corruption?

“Yes, corruption,” she says, quietly. She was alone when she heard the news.

“When you go through an experience like that, you’re set apart. You’re not out partying. I was already hanging out with older people, already volunteering. I could take my grief and do something.”

By that stage, her father was working for a government telecommunications agency. He’d set up phone lines in an Islamabad camp for earth­quake victims and he suggested she volunteer there, which she did every day after school – often talking to women confined within hot, stuffy tents because their menfolk wouldn’t allow them out in public.

Her parents seem to have been tolerant even when she lied. In 2007, the then-president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, suspended Pakistan’s chief justice and there were illegal street protests. She told her parents she was going to a friend’s house; the following day, her photogenic, protesting face was on the front of a newspaper.

“They laughed, I think they were kind of proud,” she says. “When I’d do these things, they’d give me the benefit of the doubt. I’m not reckless.”

 

Was seeing herself in the public eye addictive?

“Probably,” she replies. “You know, a lot of things happened that allowed me to feel useful.” These included getting into Stanford; in her application, she said she needed a full scholar­ship because there wouldn’t be enough money other­wise.

It was during her sophomore year at Stanford that she saw a video of Malala with her father. After contacting him, she began to plan the 2009 summer camp for the little Swat team.

 

SOMETIMES IT’S EASY to feel Malala lost her childhood twice: once because of the Taliban and once because of the West, which placed the weight of spotlit saintliness upon her, culminating in the supreme burden of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, when she was 17. (People tend to think Malala was that year’s sole recipient. She was not: she shared it with a 60-year-old Indian man who’d spent at least a quarter of a century working for children’s rights. Award yourself a gold star for global awareness if you can name him.*)

Inevitably, the Madonna effect has also come into play: not Christianity’s own veiled female icon but pop’s indefatigable, me-too exhibitionist who, on the day the girl was shot, stripped down to her bra and knickers on stage to reveal the word “Malala” written on her bare back.

“It’s always complex when it comes to children,” Shahid sighs. “America is an odd place. I’ve been to way too many of these events, the so-and-so glamorous awards – I dislike them but I don’t want to name them and make enemies. There’s Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber and there’s a child who’s been raped in Somalia, and everyone wants to hold her hand. And she goes home afterwards with no resources … But when Malala was shot, I went in to help and protect her.”

In fact, it was another family member who was quickly on the scene. Shahid, who’d started working for management consultants McKinsey Company in Dubai, had just landed in Egypt when a friend texted the news. She rang her mother in Islamabad, who got into her car, drove north and managed to get into the hospital to which Malala had been taken before it went into lockdown. She and Malala’s father could then keep Shahid in the loop. (Eventually Shahid would ring Malala’s anaesthetist for information. She can be funny about her quick-study geekiness. “I’d watched a lot of Grey’s Anatomy at the time,” she told one interviewer. “I’d write down what he said and email it to the McKinsey Healthcare practice.”)

“My mother is very, very good in a crisis,” she says now. “You want to be on the right side of her. She’s tough.”

Is Shiza? “Not as tough as my mother. I’m resilient.”

After Malala was airlifted to Birmingham, in Britain, for treatment, Malala’s father begged Shahid to join the family there. She spent three months juggling journalists, relatives, donations. The family wanted her to stay longer. “But I kept saying, I’m in the middle of my career.” So she returned to McKinsey, lasted three weeks, quit, moved to New York, co-founded (with Malala and her father) the Malala Fund, which works for girls’ rights to a safe education, and became its chief executive.

“I could have done nothing and, five years later, she could have said, ‘There was this moment and you did nothing’,” Shahid explains. “I could have done what I wanted to do, which was set up a venture fund, and in five years, she could have said, ‘You built something that isn’t mine’. Or I could help her and her father. And that’s the choice I made.”

Now, having advised on a book (I Am Malala, 2013) and been associate producer on a documentary film (He Named Me Malala, 2015), Shahid has stepped back completely.

Malala ‘the most remarkable person I’ve ever met’, director of documentary Davis Guggenheim says

“My promise was to tell her story and to help her organisa­tion get momentum, and I did that,” she says.

When was the last time she saw Malala? “At my wedding, two weeks ago.”

Malala had, inadvertently, played match­maker: Shahid met Iranian-born, US-bred entrepreneur Amir Tehrani three years ago in a coffee shop, as a possible contact to help with the fund. The Los Angeles ceremony, on September 3, was the second to mark their union. There was an earlier wedding in Pakistan but Malala, who hasn’t returned to her homeland since the attempted assassination, couldn’t attend.

“Such a celebration of love,” says the ebullient Sherrard Matthew, who was present. “Her parents could not have been more charming.” She scrolls through a sequence of sunny Californian photos: Shahid, bridally radiant, and Malala, with a smile creased by a bullet so it looks as if she’s still making up her mind whether the world is quite as funny as it used to be when she was 12.

 

THE FOLLOWING EVENING , Shahid gives a talk in the members-only Kee Club, her third of the day, which has also included four meetings. She looks drained. She doesn’t usually drink coffee but, in the jet-lagged circumstances, has made an urgent exception. She has to sound passionate about her “greatest passion”: to create a society without the current “strange structure” in which business drives the world with a single aim – to make money – and NGOs exist to better the world without making any profit. (The word “charity” seems to have gone the way of the quill and the oil lamp.)

“I was on a panel recently with two very fiery, eloquent activists,” she says, beforehand. “They were older than me but reminded me of myself some years ago. They had the ability to talk about issues and pull at heartstrings. On the other hand, they had not enabled themselves to have the power they needed. They relied on grants from outside. I’m going to enable myself to have more influence. Now Ventures is a platform to invest in the greatest solutions to the world’s greatest challenges – it’s at the intersection of business and social impact.”

Potential mission-driven start-ups will be scrutinised for inherent good (“Tesla not Tinder”), founder values (she approvingly cites Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben Jerry’s ice cream), team diversity and business practices. She says Now Ventures will have pulled in enough capital to begin investing by the end of the year.

The other capital she has – in the new, post-Malala era – is herself. This year, she appeared in a pilot segment for a tele­vision show called ASPIREist, “a cross-platform millennial news programme”. She’s one of six hosts of varying races, genders (including trans) and ability, who have obviously been chosen for their youthful, box-ticking, Gap-commercial attributes. When I make this comment, having watched it on YouTube, she looks slightly puzzled, then asks, “Like United Colours of Benetton?” I can see her reassessing the value of her presence through an outsider’s eyes.

“It’s important to amplify the work we do,” she explains. “Television is impactful.”

In her Kee Club talk – which will dwell so exclusively on her Malala years that if you weren’t paying attention you might not realise they’re over – she’ll show the 2009 CNN video clip. What are her friends, those summer camp helpers, doing now?

“It does surprise me how many people I grew up with ended up having more traditional lives. Society, especially for young women, pushes you into that role. In Pakistan, the conversation I’m trying to have is a little frustrating, right?”

Right. For two days, I’ve been thinking about something I read in a 2013 Vanity Fair article, after Malala was shot. Syed Irfan Ashraf, a reporter who’d helped make Malala famous, had been devastated. Wracked with guilt, he’d written about “the media’s role in dragging bright young people into dirty wars with horrible consequences for the innocent”. Has Shahid ever had death threats? For a second, she hesitates.

“No. I keep a low profile in Pakistan. I’m conscious of my security. I’ve had … difficult situations but I don’t take unnecessary risks. I’m cautious.”

* The joint winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize was Kailash Satyarthi.