The introduction to Durreen Shahnaz’s bio says that she’s a “global leader of social impact and impact investing.” That’s a humble way of summarizing Durreen’s many titles and accomplishments which include her work as a social entrepreneur, former investment banker (the first Bangladeshi woman to ever work on Wall Street, to be exact), businesswoman, and professor, to name a few. She’s won prestigious awards, including the 2017 Oslo Business for Peace Award (aka the “Nobel Prize for Business”) alongside Elon Musk, and now, she’s on track to revolutionize the way business is done all over the world.
We were lucky enough to have an inspiring conversation with the do-gooder about aspects of her personal and professional journey across the globe, how she emerged from a cash-strapped, war torn land to found and lead multiple successful organizations, and much more.
In your own words, what does your work with IIX (Impact Investment Exchange)” entail? How did you find yourself in this line of work?
The inspiration to found IIX (Impact Investment Exchange) and my broader commitment to doing good through business is inspired by my roots. I grew up in Bangladesh—a post-war country that was, at the time, reeling from famine. My experience watching the country struggle to get back on its feet, both economically and politically, inspired me to be a relentless optimist and begin my search for a unique way to build a more equitable society. This search led me to work at Morgan Stanley as the first Bangladeshi woman on Wall Street, to explore micro-finance at Grameen Bank, as well as to become a social entrepreneur and start two of my own companies (my first company was oneNest, an online marketplace for handmade goods. I grew and sold it to National Geographic).
After the financial crisis, a group of thought-leaders and I participated in a conference hosted by the Rockefeller Foundation in Bellagio, Italy where we began conceptualizing impact investing and how to harness the power of capital markets for good. Following this conference, the Rockefeller Foundation offered me the support to begin IIX and spearhead the impact investing movement from Asia. Hence, IIX was founded in 2009 and boldly began building the foundation for inclusive markets worldwide.
IIX aims to connect the backstreets of underserved communities to the Wall Streets of the world through impact investing. To do so, we have developed a range of investment platforms, products, and capacity building services to mobilize impact investing capital and build the impact investing ecosystem in Asia and beyond such as the world’s first social stock exchange, the Impact Exchange; the first-of-its-kind Women’s Livelihood Bond; and Asia’s largest impact investing crowdfunding platform, Impact Partners.
In 2010 I also founded the IIX Foundation, formerly known as Shujog, a non-profit organization that shares IIX’s mission to promote impact investing as a means to improve society and the environment by focusing on ecosystem building, advocacy, and technical assistance. To date, IIX’s work has mobilized over $75 million of impact investments, impacted the lives of over 15 million people and has offset over 400,000 tons of CO2. IIX has managed to put women, climate and disadvantaged communities at the front and center of capital markets.
How do you see your work evolving over the next 5, 10 years, within the ever-growing tech space?
Technology and the ability to collect data hold much potential for bringing impact investing to scale. To attract impact investment, impact enterprises must be able to accurately measure, monitor and communicate their impact. At IIX, we are currently exploring the role of technologies, such as blockchain, in taking the impact assessment to the next level. By leveraging technology, we aim to within the next five years have effectively democratized the process of measuring impact and have made it more accessible for enterprises across the globe. We are also pushing on democratizing the financial system though technology, policy initiative and innovative solutions so that everyone has a role and voice in the financial system. We have to make the financial system work for the 99%.
What kinds of challenges do you face as a woman in your line of work?
I am a woman from Bangladesh. I come from humble backgrounds and had to make my own path. Thus, all the challenges I faced in my life prepared me for the challenges of my career. Sadly, my challenges are not unique. It is still challenging to be a woman, especially a woman of color. It is also difficult to break people’s stereotype images of you. I have spent my career as a banker, media executive, professor and entrepreneur and each profession had its own set of challenges. However, I was very clear about what I wanted with each of the professions and it made it easier for me to focus on my goals and try not to have the challenges bring me down.
How have you overcome those challenges?
I overcame the challenges by my sheer determination and passion to do good for the world.
When I look back, I see that at every stage of my career, I challenged myself and the establishment. I created companies where there was nothing in that sector. I brought in minorities in the very white, male dominated world of publishing. I proved that women are equally good with numbers in investment banking. So, I always took the hard way. I was the first Bangladeshi woman to work in Wall Street, work as a senior executive in a publishing house, create and run an internet company and now create the world’s first social stock exchange, an impact investing equity crowd funding platform and innovative impact investing products – all with the goal to create an equitable world. Thus, I was always driven by my passion rather than the right career.
What inspires you in your day to day life, and in your work?
The possibility of making the world a better place than how I found it. I look at the children around the world and my own daughters and I want to give them the gift of a better world, a world where one is not discriminated against based on gender, race, religion or economic status. I want to give them a world which is governed by a system, a financial system that works for all.
As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be the Prime Minister of Bangladesh to make the country better or a super hero who was going to ‘fix’ all the misery of the world.
Why did this appeal to you as a kid, and do you feel that it’s similar at all to what you wound up doing?
I grew up in a war-torn country. I had no other point of reference. The rest of the world for me was through books and newspaper – very far away. As I traveled and my perspective widened as an adult, the desire to make the world a better place and erase misery still is what drives me professionally. In some way, I do think I became the superhero I dreamt of and my power is finance.
What are some of the topics you’ve covered as a professor, to help students better understand social innovation and entrepreneurship?
I covered social innovation and impact investing. I had a lot of material from my own company, working at Grameen Bank (microfinance institution which received the Nobel prize) and I was also part of a group of people who were creating the thoughts and structures around impact investing so I had a lot of interesting topics to cover.
What kind of advice do you have for the youth who are looking to become entrepreneurs?
Just do it but do remember, while you need the passion to be an entrepreneur, you also need to know how to run a business and how to sell. As an entrepreneur, you are constantly selling – whether it is your idea, products, vision, and so forth. Also, develop a strong stomach because it is not an easy ride.
How do you overcome your fears when talking for example at a TED talk, how do you prepare yourself?
I do a lot of public speaking so it was not a big fear to speak at TED. What surprised me was when I went to TED, they really focused on me telling ‘my personal story’ which I was not comfortable with. So, at TED they taught me how to tell my own story.
What are three things you love about your line of work?
There aren’t only 3 things, I love everything about our work. I love that we are changing people’s lives, we are changing systems, we are changing markets, we are unlocking millions of dollars of investment to do good, we are measuring the impact we are creating, we are creating ‘value’ for things that were not valued, we are putting women, climate and disadvantaged communities at front and center of everything as it should be. I am very lucky to have the life I have and the life I have lived. I am excited every morning to wake up and go to work, so I guess it is a good sign! ☺
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