How Shiza Shahid went from the Malala Fund to us
In ELLE’s monthly series, Office Hours, we ask people in top positions to tell us about their first jobs, their worst jobs and everything in between. This month, we caught up with Shiza Shahid, co-founder and co-CEO of Our Place, the kitchenware brand behind the famous Always Pan on Instagram. Shahid, who was born and raised in Pakistan, has long been both an entrepreneur and an activist. In 2013, she became the co-founder of the Malala Fund, a nonprofit organization created to advocate for girls’ education after her namesake and close friend of Shahid, Malala Yousafzai, was gunned down by the Taliban while she was coming home from school. Now Shahid says she is focused on building a business that is both successful and has an impact on the world. “I wanted to prove that these two could coexist,” she tells ELLE. “And in fact, that was the promise of the future.” Below, the home cooking enthusiast shares what inspired her latest business and why conventional career paths are sometimes overrated.
My first job
I volunteered with a non-profit organization and transported medical supplies to a women’s prison in Pakistan. There were no female doctors for the prison, and Pakistan is a very conservative country, so a lot of women didn’t come forward for medical issues. This non-profit organization would visit women doctors a few times a month, listen to women’s complaints and provide basic medical support. I must have been 12 years old. It was the first time I realized as a youngster that I could actually make a difference, and it felt like my path in life. I learned a lot of humility, openness and a desire to listen and understand.
Why you don’t need a traditional career path
I never thought of a career; I just wanted to make the world a better place. It’s been a process of presenting issues that I think need to be addressed and it turned into career opportunities, but I’ve never really looked at it that way. I was lucky enough to get a scholarship at Stanford, but had never heard of Stanford before applying. When I got my job at McKinsey, I didn’t know what McKinsey was. A lot of my classmates had been preparing for these things their whole lives and had a plan and internships, and I hadn’t done any of those things. For a while, I felt inadequate and inferior. Now I’m looking at how unconventional my experiences have been, and it made all the difference. We’ve been told that if we keep our heads down and put our i’s and cross our t’s, then we’ll end up safe and in the right place. And as I look around, industries are uncertain, businesses are closing, the world is changing, we have no idea what the economy will look like a year from now. This ability to reinvent oneself, to be resilient and entrepreneurial is so much more important than a certain career path.
How I know it’s time to make a change
I was working at McKinsey after Malala was shot. I was with her in the hospital, then I resumed my work after having had the opportunity, very generously, to take a lot of time off. I remember sitting in front of my laptop, and I kept going from the spreadsheet I had to work on to a reporter I was writing to in order to bring Malala’s story to the world. in a way that would inspire change. I remember thinking, what am I doing? I have a five-year plan. I’m on a path, and the path is certain and it’s real, and I’m going to be able to go to business school and earn my stripes. But my heart was not there. This moment of misalignment is something I still remember, and it’s something I pay attention to. If for a long period of time your heart tells you, that’s not what i’m supposed to do in the world, how then do you start to solve this problem? For me it was quitting my job, moving to New York City with a suitcase and starting the Malala Fund, but sometimes it’s smaller hubs.
What I learned from the Malala Fund
Globally, 130 million girls are out of school. We have known this for a long time. We know that girls experience unspeakable violence every day. But Malala’s courage and authenticity struck a chord. It made it personal. Overall, girls’ education nonprofits will tell you that when Malala shared her story, they saw that people finally understood the problem. I learned the power of a story to change culture and the power of representation. Now a big part of what I do at Our Place is sharing stories that celebrate all of our traditions because most of us haven’t seen our cultures, our tables represented in the mainstream. There’s a real sense of obliteration when this happens, so what does it mean to refocus the culinary traditions of black and brown communities like mine?
The worst career advice
“Follow your passion” is a bad idea. It is very heavy. Do I only have one passion? How do I know if something is my passion? I love it, and I love it too, so what’s my passion? Instead, I try to ask myself, what’s the most impactful thing I could do right now? When I was 22, the most memorable thing I could do was quit my job and start the Malala Fund. Several years later, the most impactful thing I have been able to do was create Our Place as a company that strives to create a place at the table for everyone. Does this mean that my passion is the education of girls or their belonging and meeting them? I therefore reject “Follow your passion”.
Why rest is so important
It sounds simple, but I want to put a hold on it to do nothing. Sometimes I make myself a good haldi doodh, what you call a turmeric latte here, and snuggle up to a book and go to bed a bit early. Sometimes we do so much and we do things to feel like we’re not doing so much, especially in this new self-care economy. But I’m a huge fan of doing nothing and just letting your brain charge.
How I approach being in the food industry
Home cooking is that place where who we are and what matters to us is centered, anchored and preserved. Our Place seemed like a way to have a larger conversation about belonging, about immigration, what it means for a place to be truly ours? I’m an immigrant, my partner is an immigrant, and we’re a team of mostly women and people of color. For us, work is personal and food is more than food. Food is identity, it is culture, it is politics, it is innovation, it is science, it is heritage. Every story we tell is from this perspective. We are not here to celebrate the culinary arts. We’re not here to make you the next Martha Stewart. We don’t care what you do. Do something with your hands. Recognize where the ingredients come from. Add a spice that honors your ancestors and share it with someone you love. This is what matters to us.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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