On any given day, Shiza Shahid might be meeting with a head of state to talk about education funding or having a conversation with a tech entrepreneur about the latest innovations in education. If she’s not there, she might be on an airplane headed to a region where girls are not permitted to be educated.
At just 25, Shahid has been fighting to make a difference for most of her life. The cofounder of the Malala Fund, named for Malala Yousafzai, the then-15-year-old girl whom the Taliban shot in the head as she was on her school bus returning home from school. Shahid is on a mission, along with her friend, Yousafzai, to increase girls’ access to quality education worldwide.
Shahid has never been one to follow the rules. As a high school student in Islamabad, Pakistan, she would occasionally skip school and then study hard to ace her final exams. She would tell her parents she was going to a friend’s house and end up on the front page of the next day’s newspaper as part of a protest rally.
She bristled at the violence, poverty, extremism, and women’s right abuses she saw every day, even though she was in the capital city, which was a bit more well-developed and secure. She volunteered with various organizations to help women, earthquake victims, and others. If she felt she could make a difference, she was there. Her parents, who had come from traditional backgrounds, were always supportive, she says. They were raising a strong, independent educated daughter.
During her sophomore year at Stanford University, where she had earned a scholarship, things were getting worse in Pakistan and the Taliban wasn’t allowing girls to go to school. Shahid decided to return home the following summer and start a camp for young girls, introducing them to ideas and technology. It was that summer she met Yousafzai, who was only 11 at the time.
Shahid remained in touch with the young woman and had landed a dream job as a consultant at McKinsey & Co. a few years later. She was stepping off a plane in Dubai when she got a text message that Yousafzai had been shot. She returned home to Pakistan almost immediately and, soon after, took a two-month leave of absence from McKinsey.
During that time, she and the Yousafzai family discussed a plan to create a fund that could partner with community organizations worldwide to help improve access to education for the 600 million adolescent girls in the developing world. At the end of the two-month leave, Shahid told her McKinsey bosses that she wouldn’t be back—she was leaving to launch the fund. They responded with an offer to help her get it started. When she told her parents about her decision, the reaction wasn’t surprising.
"It was similar to when they would see my picture on the front page of the newspaper and they’d smile—a little bit terrified, but mostly proud," she says.
Because of the international attention the incident garnered, Shahid says that the team had access to some of the best minds in education, technology, and public policy. They realized that, in order to make educating girls a reality, they would have to work on two levels. First, they would need to advocate that governments deliver universal high-quality education, working with organizations like the United Nations or the Global Partnership for Education. Then, they would have to work with local education leaders to show them what works and help them create places where girls can attend school.
Changing attitudes toward girls’ education also requires effort in some areas. Shahid and her team of five employees focus on the economic benefits. They work with community elders and leaders to champion education and present it within the context of the local culture.
The benefits of keeping young women in school longer are many. Girls who remain in school typically don’t get married as young as 12 years old. As marriage is delayed, so is childbirth, which has health benefits for both the girls and their children. Through their education, girls are taught skills that can help the community and bring income into the family, mitigating poverty. Shahid says that women in developing countries typically put $.90 of every dollar they earn back into their families while men put $.30.
As this becomes the norm and areas become more economically stable and educated overall, Shahid says that economies, cultures, laws, and societies change. Even in areas where women are oppressed, they begin to have stronger leadership voices.
Shahid and her team are currently working on programs to allow Syria’s child refugees to get back to school. Yousafzai and Shahid are also using their influence to raise awareness to bring home the young Nigerian school girls who were abducted on April 14, 2014 by militant Islamist group Boko Haram. Yousafzai visited Nigerian president Goodluck Johnathan and brokered the first meeting between the leader and the girls’ parents, bringing worldwide attention to the ongoing issue. The visit raised more than $200,000 and the fund identified two local organizations to assist. Fifty-six of the girls who escaped will receive scholarships to finish their educations out of state, where they will be safer.
"We’re at the brink of a world where every child can [receive] a high-quality education," she says. "If it’s attainable, why not do it?"