When 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban for her vocal support of girls’ education, the public outcry was deafening. Amid the world’s shock and grief, McKinsey business analyst Shiza Shahid stood in the Cairo airport, silent in her distress.
“I met Malala and her family when I was in college,” Shiza explains. “When I was a sophomore at Stanford, I set up a summer camp for Malala and 30 other young female activists who were fighting for their right to go to school. The camp gave the girls a break from the chaos of their daily lives—the Taliban was actively shutting down schools for girls at the time—and the chance to learn to be activists, both for themselves and for their communities.”
After Malala participated in the camp, Shiza’s relationship with her and her family continued. Shiza graduated from Stanford in 2011 and started at McKinsey as a business analyst based in Dubai at the beginning of 2012.
“I’ve always been very politically curious, and I was deeply affected by the situation in Pakistan,” Shiza says. Her own upbringing in Islamabad, and subsequent acceptance to Stanford, made Shiza acutely aware of the opportunities she had been given—opportunities that the young women in the Swat Valley where Malala and her family lived were denied. “I wanted to do something to give back,” she says of the camp and her passion for girls’ education.
Malala and her brothers with Shiza Shahid
That desire would eventually lead her from the Cairo airport to Birmingham, England, where Malala was airlifted to receive ongoing medical treatment.
In the early days following the shooting, every day was uncertain. “It was incredibly painful. We didn’t think she was going to make it,” Shiza recalls.
She flew to Birmingham during the Eid holidays, when the McKinsey Dubai office was closed for a week, and then stayed for a few extra days thanks to the support of her team. She helped the family manage the chaos in their lives by assisting them in navigating the unfamiliar environment in Birmingham, channeling offers for support from around the world, and establishing the privacy they needed to allow for Malala’s recovery.
While she was there, former UK Prime Minister and United Nations Special Envoy on Global Education Gordon Brown visited Malala and her family. “He asked Malala’s father, ‘What do you need?’” Shiza recalls. Malala’s father said that one of the things the family needed most was for Shiza to stay with them. When Gordon Brown discovered Shiza worked for McKinsey, he placed a call to Dominic Barton to see if the firm would be willing to temporarily second her to support Malala and her family.
Soon, this business analyst with less than a year at McKinsey found herself in a one-on-one meeting with Dominic. “Dom offered the firm’s full support,” Shiza says. “The Dubai office, under [Director] Tarek Elmasry, also offered its support. Mona Mourshed [leader of the Education Practice] offered to help guide my work for the next few months, and my secondment was arranged immediately—the firm was amazing.”
With a 3-month leave of absence approved, Shiza began her work in earnest. Meanwhile, Malala continued to make incredible strides in her recovery.
“I was getting so many e-mails and phone calls from people who wanted to donate or do something to help,” she says. A few of those people were quite well connected, and knowledgeable about harnessing the power of social media for humanitarian causes, so, in typical McKinsey fashion, Shiza started asking a lot of questions. She talked to non-profit leaders, marketing executives, and of course, her McKinsey colleagues, who were generous with their time and knowledge.
“Throughout this entire ordeal, Malala wanted to keep fighting for girls’ education,” Shiza says. “We wanted to create a platform for her to do so and find a way to capture the passion and interest her story inspired.”
The Malala Fund quickly took shape as that platform. Vital Voices, an organization devoted to empowering women, offered to temporarily host the Malala Fund while the permanent organization was being registered. The Malala Fund is now up and running, supported by an advisory committee, including a VP at Google, the CEO of Vital Voices, Malala, and Shiza.
“The Fund—and its advisory committee—will give Malala the support she needs to develop as a leader,” Shiza says. “She’ll be surrounded by smart people who can help her solve the problems she wants to solve.”
Shiza also helped Malala find a way to share her story. “The number of people she’s inspired is immense,” Shiza adds. While Malala initially became known as a blogger for the BBC, it became clear that writing a book would allow her to share her experiences in greater detail. Shiza helped the family find an agent and a writer to assist Malala in writing the book, which will be published in October 2013. A children’s version will follow in 2014.
After three months helping Malala and her family, Shiza has transitioned back to McKinsey. She plans to continue to support Malala—she's currently helping the family negotiate the idea of developing a movie—by taking advantage of the flex-time option, which gives firm members the option of working less than 100% of the year. “I care so deeply about this family, and we're all heartened by what we have managed to create so far," she says. "And, most importantly, Malala is headed back to school.”
Indeed, Malala enjoyed her first day of school in Birmingham on March 20. But the journey is far from over, both for the girl whose miraculous survival inspired millions and for Shiza, our McKinsey colleague who supported her through it.