TED Fellows

Fellows Friday with Durreen Shahnaz

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From Wall Street to Grameen Bank, the experiences of Durreen Shahnaz’s life are coming together to propel her next project: a stock exchange for socially conscious companies.

What are the most important projects you’re involved with?

I am creating two companies. My first company is Impact Investment Exchange, which is a trading platform. It’s a stock exchange for social enterprises, a platform to allow companies in Asia with a social mission — for-profit or not-for-profit — to expand their impact through raising capital on the platform.

This will be very much a liquid and transparent market, which will bring social enterprises that need capital into contact with the impact investors. These are investors who are actually interested in double or triple bottom lines: more than just financial return, but social return and also environmental return. So that’s sort of the biggest thing in my life right now. It has gotten a lot of momentum on the national and international level.

As I started putting the pieces together for IIX — that’s what they call Impact Investment Exchange — I found out that as there are many entities in Asia that are ready to go to market, there are also many more which are not. I felt there was a need to literally hand-hold them to get them market-ready. So this is where the birth of the second company came. This is actually a not-for-profit, and it’s called Impact Investment Shujog. Shujog is a Bengali word for “opportunity,” and we actually call it just “Shujog.”

ABOVE: Shujog helps prepare social enterprises for the market

Shujog is really focused on fostering growth, maturity, innovation and market-readiness for the social enterprises. So these enterprises that are not ready tomorrow will be ready a few years down the road, to raise capital. In effect what we’re doing is putting the structures in place for better growth and governance, etc. So these are the two companies that are my two new babies and I would say they’re growing up a little too fast.

These are two very big projects. What’s given you the confidence to take them on?

This is the second time around that I’m an entrepreneur. I had my first company, OneNest, 10 years ago. It was a social-purpose business, a for-profit social enterprise, very focused on getting ethical and handmade goods to the market. We worked with all these cooperatives, market finance groups, and artisans from around the world. That’s on one side. But on the other side, I actually did it in a very traditional way in the sense that I wrote a business plan, did the angel round of investment, raised funds there, had some traction and went down and did my equity round — pounded the pavement.

But this time it’s very different. Perhaps because I’m 10 years older, have a few more gray hairs, maybe I know how to do this better. But I think it is because I’m creating something with such a defined goal of poverty alleviation and something so broad — it is really something where I’m creating a platform which is changing and questioning the whole notion of capital markets. I’m creating a stock exchange for social justice. So here you actually will, as an investor, be able to keep on reinvesting your money and getting something out of it, but at the same time, guess what? You’re changing the world. So that’s something that resonates with a lot of people.

Also on the social enterprise side we’re saying, “Hey, this is not a giveaway. You actually are treated at equal parity with any other company. So this is a fantastic way for you to be evaluated for the work that you’re doing on the social side, but also on the financial side. Because you’re a responsible company, and have financial prudence.”

And it was really remarkable how something just struck a chord with people. I always say it was a situation where I had a guardian angel, because even before I wrote a single line of the business plan, I basically had funding lined up. The Rockefeller Foundation read the stuff I was writing on my blog, and they invited me to a four day event, where we talked about capital markets and how to bring the whole social angle into it. At the end of the four days, the director overseeing the discussions came over and said to me, “If you want to do something, we’ll support you.” And it was almost like that’s all I needed to hear.

So whatever it is, the governments got very involved, and by the time I wrote the business plan, I had the Rockefeller Foundation, Asian Development Bank, Singapore government and Bangladesh government all behind me. So maybe the stars are aligned or something.

“Social impact” is very difficult to quantify. How will it actually be measured on the IIX?

We are using various kinds of social impact measurements which are out there already. For example the Impact Reporting Investment Standards, or IRIS. It’s similar to the way you gather numbers for accounting, but this is on the social side. We’re using IRIS, making it a little more Asia-friendly, and from there using a couple of impact measurements to see where the company is. And that’s also showing us where the gaps are with these companies. So, for example, should they be working more with women, are they actually having better repayment rate if they are microfinance, are they not doing enough with the environment? You know, whatever it is.

At the Exchange we are putting the criteria in place, so if they don’t meet certain criteria they will not be able to list. What we are keeping away from is turning all the impact measurement on the social side into a number. The way we look at it is, the investors themselves will base their trading decisions on the impact results. If some entity is not having enough good impact, or maybe they listed and after awhile their impact starts going down, just as in a financial setting, they would basically penalize the company by selling their shares. In this case they can do the same, because again, these investors are concerned not only with the financial return but also the social and environmental.

It is quantifiable, but not the full way. It’s more an activity related to the results. These entities can get a three-star, four-star rating, maybe a single number, but we’ll keep it at that and not turn it into a dollar figure.

What inspired you to do the work you do?

As I have entered my 40s I feel like a lot of things in my life started making sense and coming together. Being from Bangladesh, I’m very influenced by the philosophy of fate and karma or whatever you call it. In my old age, I’m starting to embrace that as I’m seeing my life come together.

I come from a middle-class family and was fortunate my parents really focused on the importance of education. But what I took away most from my childhood was that although we didn’t have a lot, it was never an issue. The issue was always how we can give back to the society. It wasn’t these exact words, but it was very much a part of our life.

I grew up in a Muslim household and on Fridays, our holy day, all of us kids in the house had assigned gate duty. This was when the beggars would come to the gate, and we gave them rice. It was a spectacular way, now that I think about it, that my mom really instilled in us the concept of giving back.

But of course they’d also added, whatever you do, you  have to be the best at it. That’s the typical Asian parent for you [laughs]. You know, get the Nobel Prize, marry the right guy, make perfect curries.

So anyway, I felt that whatever I do, I had to somehow incorporate the world.

I went to Smith for college, then after some time at Morgan Stanley, I went back to Bangladesh with the thought, “Now I’ve worked for a couple years on Wall Street, so let me see how I can use this.” I interviewed at a few places and ended up at this place called Grameen Bank. It was very different from Morgan Stanley, as you can imagine. No one really knew much about Grameen then; it was fairly small back in 1991.

ABOVE: Durreen with women borrowers at the microfiance institution Bullock-Cart Workers Development Association

After that, I felt that one sector I wanted to go and make my mark in was media, the second major force in my life.  I felt that it was another great way to do public service from the private sector, so I worked at Hearst.

There were so few minorities working at Hearst when I was there, that I took it on as my challenge to bring minorities on the covers, to actually have stories on global issues, stories on alternate ways of living, looking at life from other ways, things like that. It was actually a fantastic time.

What my time at Hearst really taught me was this incredible skill set, which was the art of selling.

I think it all came together when I started OneNest. I was like 30 years old, I had everything going for me and I just woke up one morning and said, “You know what? Time for me to start my own company.” I really felt that calling. And after I sold OneNest and did publishing again I really felt a calling to do what I’m doing now.

So this is my journey. As I was saying, as I look back, I think a lot of things were sort of meant to happen.

You’ve said art is one of your passions. How is art part of your life?

In Bangladesh we are sort of known in the Indian subcontinent as the most artistic people. For example, Tagore, who received a Nobel Prize for literature, was Bengali, and Ravi Shankar, the great sitarist, is, too. I think it’s inculcated in us, from a very early age — not only in my family, but it seems like in every Bengali family.

For me, I had my singing and dancing lesson and so on. I remember when I went off to college my mom said, “Make sure you have some art in your life. That’s the food for your soul.” And I was just like “Yeah, OK, whatever.” But I realized when I went off to college how much I missed that. So I would take time just to go and walk around the museum.

I did Indian classical dance and my mom was really intense about it. At the age of 14 I had my formal coming out and did these performances. I entered the national competition and I actually got the gold medal. I remember when I came down from the stage, I walked to my mom, gave her the medal, and I said, “This is for you. This is the medal you wanted. Don’t ever ask me to dance again.” There was a bit of contention there about my dance.

So when I was in New York and I took up some other forms of dance, this time I did it because I wanted to do it. And I also took up sitar playing in New York. And now after moving back to Asia I do quite a bit of Chinese brush painting. I just feel like it helps me get in touch with a side that sometimes doesn’t get much attention. It’s an outlet and I really, really enjoy that.

I also feel it’s very personal. It defines me, it just makes me into a whole person. It’s a part of my life.

What has your TED Fellowship meant to you?

Frankly, when I went in, I didn’t know what to expect. I was one of the older ones there so I was like, OK, how’s this going to work? How am I going to bond with these people? But each one of us is really good at one thing — not in the traditional sense “the best” but in a creative sense “the best.” It’s like taking whatever they’re doing, the traditional way, but putting this incredibly interesting twist on it. It was interesting to see, talking with each person, the fact that each one had that commonality. To some extent, I think every single person was very artistic in their own way.

I think that’s where the creativity comes in — they really brought that uniqueness into what they were doing. Some of them were outright artists, painters, sculptors or whatever. But I think in some ways I found the people who were not the artists more interesting. Because what they’re doing is creating some sort of fusion without even realizing it. I think if I were going to describe a TED Fellow, “fusion” is the word I’d use. They’re great masters of fusion. Really blending in different disciplines in a very artistic way.

There was information at the conference that probably will not be really important for me in day-to-day life, but it was really this incredible hunger that it took care of — I felt like it was food for the soul.