SAPPHIRE NOW Unplugged: The Enduring Logic of Mission-Driven Business

In the world according to social justice entrepreneur Shiza Shahid, people and business can stave off the worst effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the host of societal inequities that have resurfaced with greater urgency, if we work together.

“What we’re learning now is if we are to solve the world’s most pressing challenges — like climate change, recovering from the coronavirus pandemic, and racial inequity — we need businesses to step up and to do good,” Shahid said. “All the parts of the system ─ nonprofits, businesses, and governments ─ [need to] march toward the same goal. Some people will want to just work for a nonprofit, others will want to go into government, others will want to start a business or work for a business, change a business, or start an investment fund. Everyone has a role to play.”

First, Explode Business Myths

Shahid, who co-founded the Malala Fund, shared her perspectives on retooling longstanding business assumptions and finding a silver lining to the pandemic during an exclusive SAPPHIRE NOW Unplugged conversation with Juergen Mueller, chief technology officer (CTO) and member of the Executive Board  of SAP SE.

“There’s this myth that doing good and doing well are mutually exclusive, Shahid said. “Actually, if you are a truly mission-driven business, you are more likely to financially succeed because you’re going to attract the best talent. You’re going to build a loyal base of customers. When we look at people who’ve been under-invested in and we invest in them because it’s the right thing to do, we get outsized returns because we’re investing in places that have always lacked investment.”

Building a stronger future out of unimaginable tragedy while exploding business myths is nothing new for Shahid, who founded the Malala Fund to educate and empower girls and women.

“When I learned that one of the girls that I cared deeply about and had supported in Pakistan was shot by the Taliban for wanting to go to school, a young girl named Malala Yousafzai, the best thing I could do in that moment was quit my job and be with her, and try and make something good come of that,” she said. “If there’s a silver bullet in moving the world forward, it’s economically empowering women.”

Second, Adopt a Global View

Shahid’s lifelong commitment to build a better world began with her early work in grassroots poverty relief and women’s rights. After earning a scholarship to attend Stanford University, she eventually co-founded the Malala Fund and launched an angel investment fund for mission-driven startups. Shahid credited her passion for changing the world through technology and people to her multi-cultural background. She was immersed in American culture as a child growing up in Pakistan. Since then, her travels have included time spent living and working in the Middle East and on both coasts in the U.S.

“Living between cultures allows you to observe things,” she said. “[You’re] willing to push the boundaries, less likely to settle for what you see around you. It also makes you more attuned to other people, their cultures and experiences, because you’re constantly navigating groups in which your experience is not a shared experience. You quickly start to understand how to interact, engage, adapt, and get your message across.”

Third, Take Action

To be clear, Shahid’s many socially oriented ventures are far more than messages. They revolve around effecting real social change. Regarding the current pandemic, Shahid suggested concrete steps that businesses could take to prevent a difficult situation from becoming devastating. Organizations outsourcing jobs could create programs that train women in Pakistan and allow them to work remotely. Corporate social responsibility initiatives could direct more resources to girl’s education – specifically, secondary schooling.

“If a girl is kept in school through secondary schooling, she marries later and she’s less likely to die in childbirth,” Shahid explained. “Her children are more likely to survive, be healthy, and go to school. She’s more likely to earn a dollar, and for every dollar that a woman earns, she invests 80 to 90 percent back into her family and community. In this moment, where women are most vulnerable, the more we can invest in those programs, the more likely we are to be able to move through the pandemic with the least amount of harm.”

Can the Pandemic Equalize Education?

Shahid was quick to acknowledge the educational inequities the pandemic has mercilessly exposed yet is hopeful for a different future.

“The question is how do we design systems that are more equitable, that allow people, regardless of their socioeconomic status, regardless of their other responsibilities, to thrive in this moment?” she said. “A huge opportunity is redesigning the education and remote working tools of the future. I believe the human spirit is ultimately one that is good and generous, compassionate, empathetic, and innovative. If we can just tap into the best of ourselves, then we have a better world to look forward to.”


Follow me @smgaler