In 2005, on the heels of a major earthquake in Pakistan, Shiza Shahid began volunteering at a local relief camp for families. Over 70,000 people had died in the disaster including her best friend, and Shiza, a teenager at the time, was surrounded by trauma. That experience brought tremendous grief, but also a deep resolve to live life urgently and intentionally. Today, she is an entrepreneur, investor, speaker and advocate focused on supporting startups, innovators and entrepreneurs - particularly women - who are creating positive global impact. The former founding CEO of the Malala Fund, which she started with Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai and Malala's father, is now the Founder of NOW Ventures, a venture capital fund that invests in tech businesses that will become fast-growing highly successful companies, and the make the world better as a result. She is also a host of the new MSNBC show ASPIREist. Shiza speaks frequently at major international conferences, including the Aspen Ideas Fest, Forbes Women, Fortune Most Powerful Women, Women Moving Millions, and the World Economic Forum, and she has been named to “Times 30 under 30 World Changer,” “Forbes 30 under 30 Social Entrepreneur,” “WEF Global Agenda Council” and “Tribeca Institute Disruptive Innovator” to name just a few. We talked with Shiza about what motivates her, and how she stays balanced every step of the way.
What’s one practice, goal, or purpose that helps get you out of bed each day?
I learned at an early age that life can change very suddenly, and I use that knowledge as my daily motivation. I recently read an article in the New York Times about meditating on death, and my morning practice is a little like that. When I wake up, I try to think about what I would do if, on this day, I were faced with my own mortality. That doesn’t mean I’m always fully aware or fully alive, but it certainly makes me more grateful and purposeful.
When and how do you feel the most centered?
Two years after starting the Malala Fund, I was very sick. I was traveling constantly, doing extremely high adrenaline work, and was too young to understand how to center myself in the midst of all that. And I was embarrassed to admit that I was tired and unwell, because I thought it would undermine me. But I’ve learned that it’s impossible to be the person you want to be when your body and mind are burned out. I ended up taking time off to get my health back in order and find a sense of calm. During that time, I discovered that I would feel better, physically, when I was around people who were uplifting to me, and working on projects that have a direct positive impact.
On that note, do you have any advice for staying healthy when life gets intense?
My core advice is to try to stop, briefly, every day to identify what you truly need to push through. For me, that’s making time for the things that help me feel calm, like getting a good night's sleep and connecting with my husband. When I travel it’s also about finding ways to continue the rituals that help me feel well. Even on short trips, I pack vitamins, nuts and tea, and I’ll download some simple exercise videos to do in my hotel room.
When you really need to feel good, what do you eat?
I start my day with a cup of mate tea, which gives me a caffeine boost without the acidity of coffee. I live between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and spend about a third of my time on a plane. When I’m in Los Angeles I’m spoiled for choice, and try to go out of my way to eat fresh, because I know I'll be eating protein bars on a plane soon enough! I try and eat fruits and vegetables every day, strawberries are my favorite. I drink a lot of water and herbal tea. My guilty pleasure is sweets and nuts!
Is there a life hack that’s saving your sanity?
I’m always making time do things that will give me the physical and emotional energy to create what I believe I’m uniquely here to do. I travel a lot, and most of my work demands a lot of energy from me as well, such as public speaking in front of thousands of people, or taking back to back meetings with founders I’m looking to invest in. Therefore it's important for me to rejuvenate and recenter. I love fresh and healthy food: going to farmers markets with my husband in Los Angeles and buying things that are in season. And exercise. In San Francisco I’ve been strength-training at FitLife which I love. I try and keep my exercises varied, and I travel a lot, so I find ways to exercise on the go. Lastly as of late, I’ve been getting a lot of value from contemplative practices like meditation. I am obsessed with the idea that the brain is malleable, that we can become better with the right mental exercises, and don't have to be stuck with the parts of ourselves we don’t like!
Whose advice have you taken recently? What was it?
I love the commencement speech Steve Jobs delivered in 2005 at Stanford University. In it, he says, “Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life's change agent.” When I graduated from Stanford, I took a job working in consulting for McKinsey & Co. I had every reason to think it was the right path. Then, in the fall of 2012, Malala was shot, and her father called me and asked for my help telling her story. I had mentored her earlier, and felt a deep sense of responsibility to protect her, and also to make something good come out of this horrible moment. I didn’t plan to quit my job one year in, and build the Malala Fund. In fact, I needed the income and the visa, so the prospect of quitting was terrifying. But spending my days with people whose lives were at stake made me fearless, and I came to feel that I would be cheating myself, and wasting this immense privilege of life, if I didn’t choose a path that I loved deeply. I’m gearing up for some big changes this year, so I’ve been revisiting those experiences a lot.
Do you have a mentor you look to in order to help yourself stay balanced and well?
I came to the US on a full scholarship to Stanford University funded by a wonderful philanthropist named Susan McCaw. She not only funded my entire education, but then also became a mentor, supporting me in every challenge I undertook. It was a life-changing lesson for me regarding the impact women can have when invest in each other. So when I’m having a hard day, I’ll think of her impact on me. That helps me find center and pushes me forward.
What one piece of advice you would you give to women around the globe?
Prioritize your financial independence. Research shows that when women opt out, even in first world countries, they fare worse. So work every day. Earn income. Be independent. And know that women today are a long way from having equal rights, so we need to fight for ourselves, each other and those who will come after us.