Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

long read

Innovation Agents

Malala Strikes Back: Behind The Scenes Of Her Fearless, Fast-Growing Organization

How Nobel Peace Prize–winning activist Malala Yousafzai is channeling her inspiring life story into a targeted mission.

Nobel Peace Prize–winning education activist Malala Yousafzai

[Photos: Samantha Casolari]

After Pope Francis finishes his opening remarks at the UN General Assembly, the room’s attention quickly begins to stray. Colombian pop star and UNICEF ambassador Shakira launches into a well-intentioned rendition of "Imagine," but the gathered heads of state begin to twist in their seats in conversation and mill in the aisles. Then the song ends, and a gentle but firm voice calls down from the upper mezzanine balcony, cutting through the buzz of distraction.

"Before I start, may I ask for some quiet. Please pay attention to what youth is asking here."

Chastened, the world leaders take their seats. In elegantly simple language, 18-year-old Malala Yousafzai implores the adults below—who have convened to adopt a series of development goals for the world’s most underserved communities—to follow through on their promise to deliver free, safe, quality education for children across the globe.

Three years ago, while she was riding the bus home from school in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, Malala was shot in the head by members of the Taliban. She’d been targeted because of her history of campaigning, publicly and passionately, for her and her friends’ intrinsic right to attend school. She survived and since that heinous day has gracefully become the de facto voice of the more than 60 million girls deprived of education worldwide.

Her appearance at the UN General Assembly in September was part of a whirlwind visit to New York that required her to take a rare two days off from her own schooling in Birmingham, England. The youngest-ever Nobel laureate also attended the premiere of He Named Me Malala, Oscar-winning director Davis Guggenheim’s documentary about her life. She struck allegiances with world leaders on behalf of her two-year-old NGO, the Malala Fund. And, in what Stephen Colbert called his favorite moment to date on his new show, she performed an eye-popping card trick for 3.2 million viewers on network television.

But Malala is doing more than building awareness: She’s creating a network of action and impact. Her still-young Malala Fund has already helped finance projects in six countries—Pakistan, Nigeria, Kenya, Jordan, Lebanon, and Sierra Leone—by opening schools, providing scholarships, and setting up education groups and remote-learning programs. While the fund’s budget today is modest (it spent more than $4 million in 2014), Malala has created a model for other NGOs, local government, and, yes, world leaders that shows how on-the-ground engagement can be effective. What’s more, she’s already had international impact—at the UN—that has gone largely unrecognized, despite all the media she’s attracted. "In the beginning, people ignore you," Malala tells me during a conversation at the fund’s Washington, D.C., coworking space a few weeks before her New York blitz. "And then they say, ‘Okay, now we have to listen because she is not going to keep quiet.’ So you keep speaking. And once young people join the mission, it’s no longer just my voice. It’s the voice of the people."

In person, Malala is both relaxed and deeply attentive, a high school junior who doesn’t wear makeup or carry a cell phone. The left side of her face is still partially paralyzed from where the bullet inflicted permanent nerve damage. When I first meet her, she is wearing traditional Pakistani clothing and the same pair of modest platform sandals she’ll wear in New York in order to give her 5-foot frame an extra inch to see over the average lectern. True power clearly knows nothing of stature or age. As becomes increasingly evident during conversations with her, her family, and her team, Malala has a force that’s completely devoid of bombast or ego.

When the Taliban took over the Swat Valley in 2007, bombing schools and murdering resisters, the world did not send help. Politicians failed to act. NGOs that pledged financial aid and on-the-ground resources were unable to deliver. Malala’s terrorized community was left to fend for itself. Malala and her father, Zia, a peace activist who ran the school she attended in Swat, continued to speak out. When she woke up in a hospital bed in England, ripped from her home and culture, they decided together that still more needed to be done.

In 2013, they started the Malala Fund to make the broad, irrefutable statement that every girl deserves an education—and translate that belief into action on both the local and global level. Its mandate, as set by cofounders who know well the cost of being let down, is to prove there are bolder, braver, more effective ways to support girls than the failed efforts of those who’d left Malala to her fate in Swat Valley.

This past year, the Malala Fund began a phase of explosive growth, fueled by a ramped-up staff; grants and donations from supporters including Microsoft, the Skoll Foundation, and [p]Star Wars[/p] director J.J. Abrams, plus small-dollar donations from a public besotted with Malala and her efforts; and global interest the average NGO could never imagine. All this because of the clear-eyed vision of an 18-year-old.

"Dear sisters and brothers, world leaders, please look up, because the future generation is raising their voice."


"The last thing the world needs is just another high-level cocktail party," says Malala Fund president Meighan Stone. "If that opportunity doesn’t connect us to real outcomes, then what are we really accomplishing there?"

Meighan Stone has a mantra: Don’t get confused.

Before becoming president of the Malala Fund last April, Stone spent 15 years working in the NGO world—including stints at Bono’s ONE Campaign and the UN’s World Food Programme. She knows how easy it can be to mistake an A-list conversation for an actual commitment. "Malala has the ability to sit with world leaders and influential business-world leaders," says Stone, but "the last thing the world needs is just another high-level cocktail party. If that opportunity doesn’t connect us to real outcomes, then what are we really accomplishing there?"

Stone’s team—a group of 20 predominantly young women spread out over coworking spaces in Washington, D.C., New York, and London—is in the middle of a sprint of 18- to 20-hour workdays as they prepare for the UN Sustainable Development Goals Summit and the opening of He Named Me Malala, one of the largest global releases of a documentary ever. The film is both a call to action and a highlight reel for much of the fund’s early activities.

"It’s so rare that NGOs get these opportunities, especially around this issue of girls’ education," says Stone, knocking on her cluttered desk in her cramped office. "We want to make sure we do everything we can in this unique moment. We have the best inspiration in the world, with Malala and her father. They choose every day to do this work, and they work so hard. None of us could work harder than them, ever."

No one would have blamed them if they’d retired from a life of service. After Malala was shot—and transported, in a coma, to Birmingham, England—her family spent several painful weeks wondering if she would survive, let alone return to her vibrant self. Zia blamed himself for letting his daughter stand up so defiantly to the Taliban. "After going through this life-and-death situation, I was worried," he tells me. " ‘What will she be thinking? Why didn’t we stop her? Why did we encourage her?’ But believe me that she woke up the same old girl. I have never heard a single word of repentance or regret: ‘Okay, I have lost my smile or my half-face is not working yet,’ or ‘If I had not done that, I wouldn’t have faced this.’ Never, never, never! And when we saw this new resilience and passion and commitment, it also gave energy to us."

They also drew strength from people worldwide who rallied immediately around Malala. Unsure how to navigate the flood of support during his daughter’s early days of recovery, Zia asked Shiza Shahid, a then–23-year-old Stanford graduate from Pakistan and longtime family friend, to leave her job at McKinsey & Co. in Dubai and join them in Birmingham. Soon came a book deal for Malala’s international best seller, I Am Malala, a meeting with Hollywood producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald—who would coproduce the documentary adaptation—and offers of advice and assistance from heavy hitters like Megan Smith (the White House CTO who was then a vice president of Google X), Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and the international women’s advocacy organization Vital Voices.

In July 2013, the fledgling fund, with an assist from former U.K. prime minister Gordon Brown, arranged for a still-healing Malala to make her first public address at the UN, on her 16th birthday. That October, Stone, then working as an adviser to the fund, helped coordinate a meeting with President Obama at the White House, where Malala took the opportunity to voice her concerns about the U.S.’s ongoing use of drone attacks.

And then, the following October, while Malala was head-down in her morning chemistry class, she learned that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee had announced her as the youngest-ever winner. She shared the honor with Indian activist Kailash Satyarthi. "This award is for all those children who are voiceless, whose voices need to be heard," Malala said in a digitally broadcast Nobel acceptance speech, which the fund coordinated with Facebook to maximize its reach. "And I speak for them, and I stand up with them, and I join them in their campaign."

The new documentary ends on this triumphant note. What the film doesn’t show is that Malala went on to use her half of the $1.1 million Nobel Prize money to personally finance the building and operation of a secondary school for girls in Pakistan, adding to the work the fund had already begun in the country, such as increasing girls’ access to education, helping revitalize two schools damaged by the 2014 floods, and financially supporting the families of girls who had spent their earlier years as child laborers. "Sometimes I talk to them on Skype, and it is wonderful to see these little girls, most of whom I knew from the streets," says Malala. "Now I see them in the school with uniforms and books."


In 2014, its first full year of operation, the Malala Fund committed more than $4 million toward supporting local education programs in its six priority countries. Malala and her team fervently believe that the last thing a developing country needs is another well-intentioned Western team coming in to fix things yet bungling the details. So unlike many traditional NGOs, they ferret out highly trusted partners on the local level, giving respected community leaders the support and infrastructure they need to make a difference. "People always ask us, ‘How do you find all these developing-country partners?’ " says Stone. "And we’re like, ‘Why haven’t you found them before?’ I think we’re just scratching the surface. We’re hoping to find so many more Malalas and Zias who we can support. There are people in all these countries who have been fighting this fight for a long time with no funding and no recognition."

Zia, now the UN’s special adviser on global education, understands that "if you want to go reach the refugee children, if you want to go to conflict areas, it’s always hard. And if you don’t have a courageous, bold team, it doesn’t happen." He attributes much of the fund’s success thus far to its director of special projects, Eason Jordan, a 23-year CNN veteran who ran the network’s international division in the early 2000s. ("Where there is an Eason, there is a way," says Zia.) After hearing Malala speak of her desire to visit refugees in Jordan in a late-2013 interview with CBS, the newsman contacted Shahid and offered up his services, pro bono. "I told her, ‘That’s a part of the world where I have a lot of experience, and I’d be happy to make it happen,’ " he recalls.

"If you want to go reach the refugee children, if you want to go to conflict areas, it’s always hard," says Malala’s father, Zia. "And if you don’t have a courageous, bold team, it doesn’t happen."

Jordan (the man) made an advance trip to Jordan (the country) at his own expense and returned again to meet Malala and Zia near the Syrian border. "It’s the only time I’ve ever seen Malala cry," Jordan says, "seeing those hundreds of Syrian refugees walk on foot, in some cases without shoes, across the desert to the Jordanian border. Malala and Zia decided they had to help and literally walked into Syria and carried children out across the border and put them into trucks to take them to refugee centers in Jordan."

Jordan joined the team officially in March 2014. He calls his affiliation with the fund "the most rewarding experience of my life." In honor of Malala’s 17th birthday that July, he helped organize a trip to northern Nigeria. Malala sat and comforted the parents whose daughters had been abducted by Boko Haram—and the girls who had narrowly escaped. "It was so tragic, because 100 days had passed and the president had not met with any of them," she says. The same day, Malala sat down with Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan and, with polite firmness, demanded an explanation for his failure to respond. Within a week of their conversation, Jonathan met with the families and offered them financial support.

The following summer, on Malala’s 18th birthday, Jordan took the team to Lebanon, where they opened a school for adolescent Syrian refugee girls—as Assad’s helicopters dropped bombs on opposition fighters 20 miles away. After the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Malala immediately met with Lebanon’s prime minister to urge him to take his own action. "If I can open a school there, why can’t world leaders?" she asks.

When Malala shows up in these desperate communities, most girls don’t know that she’s an international best-selling author or a beloved global advocate. "What matters to them is that somebody their age is coming in and fighting for them and succeeding in helping them get the support they need to get the education they deserve," says Jordan. He wouldn’t say where they were planning to go for Malala’s 19th birthday. "But you can bet it won’t be a Caribbean island. There is danger involved in working and traveling to these places, but Malala feels very strongly that if this is where help is most needed, she has to go."


A week before Malala’s UN appearance, the team was tired. "Before any big project there’s always this nadir moment where everything is going wrong and everyone is despondent and no one is happy," says Stone. That morning her own spirit was flagging as the fund fought to get clearance for a Syrian refugee named Muzoon, who has become a Malala-level figure to young people in her Jordan camp, to join them in New York as she had in Oslo, for the Nobel acceptance. "She has no papers; she’s stateless," explains Stone. Securing Muzoon’s passage to Oslo had involved calling in favors from the UN secretary general’s office, the king and queen of Jordan, and the prime minister and foreign minister of Norway. On her return trip, at the last minute, Muzoon was denied clearance back to the refugee camp; the girl and her father slept overnight on the floor of an airport. "This is how we treat girls who are refugees," says Stone, her face reddening with indignation.

The fund fights to get girls like Muzoon onto a global stage in order to force the world to recognize both their plight and potential. Malala represents an entire generation of unknown children from unknown places who can have a dramatic, positive impact on our future if just given the opportunity. "When was the last time we heard from a girl who was a refugee?" says Stone. "Can you think of any time, in a meaningful way? It doesn’t happen." On the fund’s website and at events, the girls always speak for themselves, in their own voices. The fund has a strict rule about using photos in their press materials of only girls they actually serve. These girls are never presented as illiterate or hopeless, but as eager, determined, and as ready to learn as the children of world leaders.

In D.C., I meet a program manager named Leila Seradj, who has just returned from a 10-day trip to Kenya, visiting a tech-education program that the Malala Fund supports: makeshift centers in three Nairobi slums set up by the local organization NairoBits. "I was blown away by the work being done there," says Seradj. "It’s a cramped, tiny, dim room, with people doing laundry outside in buckets. But [the girls] are learning to create websites, design them, code, stuff I could never do. They’re hungry to learn and help their families and communities." Seradj tells me about a Nairobi teenager she met named Rose, who was orphaned at the age of 6, has a baby of her own, and knows how to code. Someone as eager and capable as Rose completely upends stereotypes of what it means to be a girl in a developing country.

"Are we taking as an assumption that girls only have a right to basic literacy and numeracy?" says Stone. "Or are we putting a picture out into the world of what we know to be true, which is that these girls have extraordinary ability? And if they can go to school until 18 and beyond, learn physics and algebra and languages, they can be leaders in their communities and countries and the world."

Last summer, the team paid a visit to Muzoon, whom Malala now considers one of her best friends, at her camp in Jordan. The girl appears briefly in the documentary, and they wanted to share the film with her in advance. "When we left the camp, they locked the gate behind us," says Stone. "And I just started crying. I’m the president of an organization. I’m not supposed to cry in front of my colleagues! But this young woman, who has everything to give, is in a camp because the world says she’s stateless. And because I have a piece of paper, I’m allowed to walk through a gate. That’s what keeps me up at 2 a.m., looking at the ceiling, being like, ‘We’ve got to work harder!’ It’s not the time for us to do a victory lap and be like, ‘Oh, look at us!’ So what? What is the impact on a girl like Muzoon?"


"This one’s for Malala," says Eddie Vedder, dedicating a song to the young activist at September’s Global Citizen Festival, the star-studded concert in Central Park featuring Pearl Jam, Beyoncé, Coldplay, and more. Malala had just spoken onstage moments earlier as yet another stop on her New York media tour. She was introduced by Bono and flanked by a small entourage of girls: Shazia, one of her former Swat Valley classmates, who had been hit by bullets while sitting beside Malala on the school bus; Salam, a Syrian refugee who attends a school that the Malala Fund opened in Lebanon last summer; and Amina, a Nigerian girl from an area often targeted by Boko Haram, who now mentors at a Malala Fund "safe space," part of a learning club that serves out-of-school girls. Muzoon would have been there as well; her travel papers ultimately failed to come through.

Malala is aware of the attention that follows her every public move, and she is bent on deflecting it toward the millions of young women whose names people don’t know. "I consider these girls my sisters," Malala tells me. "My life is so connected to girls in Nigeria and girls from Syria who are refugees, that I just feel I am part of them. We belong to the same world."

Before the Malala Fund stepped in, the language of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals made clear that nine years of education for the world’s children was a reasonable-enough target for the UN to fight for. This was unacceptable to Malala: Why not 12 years? "When she and the fund took on this fight, the overwhelming number of people, organizations, and governments said, ‘It’ll never happen, you won’t win this one,’ " says Jordan.

"Oftentimes problems seem intractable," says Stone, who while working on the ONE campaign learned the art of systematic attack. "But if you really map it out, sometimes it comes down to three, four, five people sitting in different capitals around the world just deciding. And you need to reach them." So Malala spent months meeting with decision makers, from the Global Partnership for Education (dedicated to bettering school conditions in 60 developing countries) to German chancellor Angela Merkel.

She has garnered enough support that when the Sustainable Development Goals were presented at the UN in September, the language of the working documents had been changed to 12 years. If it holds (the terms of the documents will be ratified in March), the world will have taken a stand about a child’s basic right to a full secondary education. It will shift the way international assistance is given, provide a framework to measure how donor and developing countries are responding to new expectations, and potentially grant millions of girls access to the education they need to be globally competitive. And it will be thanks almost entirely to the Malala Fund.

Of course, Malala isn’t taking any of that for granted. In the fall, the fund launched #withMalala, a social media effort asking people to support her petition demanding that the Global Partnership for Education fight for 12 years of school as opposed to nine. During its first four days, according to Keyhole.co, the campaign reached more than 17 million people. In October, the GPE responded. The organization pledged to raise its expectations for girls' education around the world to a full 12 years.


What’s in a name? Malala Yousafzai channels her global support into a movement.

"When I was little, I believed in magic," says Malala, in the D.C. offices, shifting her head scarf back into place. "I used to believe in a magic pencil, and whatever you could draw it would become real. I used to pray to God a lot so that he would give me this power so I can change the world. And I realize that I have this power now. It is education. It is voice. It is the young people standing with me. It is my strong father and mother. It is the strong team of the Malala Fund. So I realize I have found that power, and it isn’t linked to that magic pencil, but rather the pencil of knowledge. It might take time, but things will change. Things will change."

I ask her if sometimes she can’t help but feel burdened by the weight of her pencil.

"No! I wish I had lots of magic pencils," she says. "Okay, the only thing that worries me is to make sure that my studies are not affected."

During the school year, unless there’s a global summit, say, Malala stays in Birmingham, so she can be in class. She reserves all travel for her fall and winter breaks, though she speaks with Stone and the team nearly every day. "And I do work on the weekends," she says. "We have board meetings, calls, the [social media] campaign." After receiving the Nobel Prize, Malala hunkered down for six months to prepare for England’s rigorous GCSE tests. Her father tweeted to the world the results of her efforts: "My wife Toor Pekai and I are proud of Malala getting 6A*s and 4As. #education for every child." Malala’s mother, who dropped out of school as a young girl in Pakistan, has learned to read and is starting to learn English.

Malala hopes to go to college at Stanford or Oxford and plans on studying either politics or economics. She long harbored the dream of becoming the prime minister of Pakistan, but now she’s not sure. "In our country, if you want to become a prime minister you have to be 35 years old," she says. "I can’t wait until I’m 35 and say, ‘Okay, now I’m starting my job!’ So I’ve not decided what I want to do, but I have decided what I don’t want to do," she continues, reaching up shyly to cover her smile. "I don’t want to become a doctor, and I don’t want to become an engineer."

Right now, her most important job is just being a student. "Malala’s school will always come first," says Stone. "She gets hundreds upon hundreds of requests every week from all over the world to speak. But no matter how incredible an opportunity or high level an invitation, if it conflicts with a quiz or a class, she asks that we very graciously decline on her behalf. You’d be surprised how many people say, ‘Yes, but can’t she come anyway?’ "

Malala shakes her head firmly at the idea. "I consider education the key to success for every other girl," she says. "It’s the key to success for me as well."

A version of this article appeared in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of Fast Company magazine.

loading