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Learning from Malala


Pakistani education activist Shiza Shahid, left, talks with Smart Girls founder and Gabelli student Emily Raleigh.

What does Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani education activist who was shot by the Taliban, keep in her purse? Time magazine and ChapStick, said Shiza Shahid, CEO & co-founder of the Malala Fund. It was a small detail that Shahid said should inform smart girls everywhere.

“She’s the anti-Miley Cyrus,” Shahid told a diverse crowd of young women at the 2014 Smart Girls Conference, held July 9 and 10 at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus and co-sponsored by the Fordham Foundry and the Gabelli School of Business.

In a blunt assessment of Western values, Shahid told the young women that there are far more pressing concerns in the world than “thinking you need more money and shining your hair.”

Shahid, who grew up in Pakistan just three hours south of Malala’s hometown, said that she had heard of her neighbor’s mission to get an education for herself and other girls when she was just 19 and Malala was 11. Shahid contacted her via telephone and asked how she could help, and the two became very close.

Shahid received a scholarship to Stanford University, where she said she struck her classmates as “too serious,” and where she said she struggled make connection with a youth culture that seemed more interested in the Kardashians than in world affairs.

Her relationship with Malala, she said, began through the desire to “help and support people.” Then Malala’s struggle gained international attention after a Taliban gunman’s attempt on her life.

“I thought, my God, that girl could’ve been me,” she said.

At the time, Shahid had graduated from Stanford and had settled in to “a very shiny, exciting job” as a business analyst with McKinsey & Company in Dubai. In a life-altering shift, she decided to abandon plans to earn an M.B.A. and start the Malala Fund instead.

“When she was shot the world was shocked, but Malala chose bravery over fear,” she said. “Afterwards we said, ‘OK this needs to be more than a moment; this can’t be a tragic thing that everyone moves on from; this has to be a changing point in history.’”

Shahid, whose language easily segued from that of a businesswoman to social worker to NGO official, now works to empower girls through education so they can become agents of change at the grassroots level.  She said she held no illusions about the complexity of the problem.

“I wish there was one thing we could do help the girls, but it’s an issue of access and quality,” she said. “Very often, learning is different than educating.”

-Tom Stoelker


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