Tuesday night, new Bwogger Bella Tincher braved the snow to sit in on a “POWER TALK” with Athena Distinguished Fellow Shiza Shahid. Shahid is the high-achieving cofounder and CEO of the Malala Fund. Shahid spoke about her new venture capital company and the importance of female education.
Set in the Sulzburger Parlor in Barnard Hall, an overwhelming aura of accomplishment and empowerment filled the room. Women of varying ages — from students hauling backpacks, having just come back from lecture, to business women in pressed powersuits — mingled and spoke of their current business ventures. Eavesdropping, I listened as a pair of women discussed open positions in their start-ups and what that meant for the future of their companies. Simultaneously, a group of friends chattered about how last week’s class shopping period screwed them over. No matter where I turned, I was hit with the sense that this room was filled with female determination.
The night began with Shahid explaining her humble background as woman of Pakistan and a graduate of Stanford University. She sat in the center of the the room, directed by Kathryn Kolbert of the Athena Center, as a camera and keen audience listened to every word she uttered. She claimed that she had always been an activist in her time in Pakistan and the “leisurely” pace at which Stanford students took their time in their undergraduate degree, and how that wasn’t cutting it for her.
In protest against the harsh dictatorship that had overtaken her home country, Shahid returned every summer to secretly teach girls in a girls’ school she organized herself. Among the participants was Malala Yousafzai, whose attempted assassination by the Taliban prompted a full-scale women’s empowerment movement.
Fast forward a few years to the formation of the Malala Fund, focusing on education of women in impoverished and isolated neighborhoods. The same neighborhoods that Malala and Shahid had hailed from.
Shahid then spoke about her new project, NOW Ventures, which helps young female entrepreneurs break into the industry in order to rival current, fast-growing technology companies dominated by men. While she was speaking, she made an incredible point to which I hadn’t previously given much thought. Shaheed pointed out that women tend to put themselves in the role of philanthropist, while men invest in startups and companies. I could see the women around me react visibly to this statement. Why did women put themselves in this weaker position? Why was it considered more masculine to take risks with money? What is stopping women from barging into the investment field and flipping it upside down?
While Shahid didn’t explicitly answer any of these questions, she did say that she was one of only a few women trying to revolutionize the system. And even though it may not be enough to change the field of investment in its entirety, it is something to get the next generation of strong women prepared to have their fair share of opportunity.
Then came a round of questions from the audience. One girl meekly explained that for her Barnard application, she had chosen Malala as the influential person to have a conversation with, and that it was a dream-come-true to be in the same room with someone affiliated with her. Another woman commented on her amazing public speaking skills, which caused a rumble of laughter from the audience when Shahid proudly boasted that Toastmasters was the tool for her confidence in public speaking.
One particular question stood out. Seated next to me, a native-Pakistani student asked, “How can I have an impact on the world?” Shahid, with the youthful glow of a successful woman, replied that a person should try to “have the greatest influence you can have” in order to have any impact. As just one student among this huge community of Columbia University, this resonated with me. All Shahid did was make her voice loud enough to be heard over the roar of others, and thus her success in women’s education was achieved.
The Athena Center for Leadership Studies plans on having two other inspiring talks about women leaders in the current spring semester.