Durreen Shahnaz, WG’95
As Wharton’s first Bangladeshi alumna, Durreen Shahnaz, WG’95, strives to make her alma mater proud – and to make an impact as a social entrepreneur and professor.
What is your occupation?
I wear two hats: one as a social entrepreneur and the other as a professor. I am the Founder and Chairperson of Impact Investment Exchange—a social stock exchange in Asia. Additionally, I am Associate Professor and Head of Programme on Social Innovation and Change at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
What effect has Wharton had on your life?
Wharton had tremendous effects on my life. The School taught me the importance of leadership and finance in today’s complex world. I want to make the Wharton School proud of their first Bangladeshi alumna.
How would you describe your career path to fellow alumni?
My career path is to follow my heart, while keeping my business mind sharp. My passion was and continues to be bringing positive social change to the world.
I came to Wharton after an interesting finance career that began at Morgan Stanley in New York and ended in the villages of Bangladesh at Grameen Bank. After completing my MBA, I felt the need to tackle yet another powerful industry that influences social change—media. I rose up through the ranks at Hearst Magazines very quickly, becoming the youngest VP in the company’s history. While I was there heading up Reader’s Digest Asia I worked vigorously to incorporate social responsibility at both companies. However, my true passion for significant social change came to fruition when I started my first social enterprise, oneNest. oneNest was a New York-based social purpose business that created a marketplace for products produced by microfinance, micro enterprises and artisan groups from all over the world. I successfully ran and sold oneNest and moved to Asia. Now I reside in Singapore, and teach students how to bring about positive social changes to the world. I am busy working on my second social venture, which will impact the lives of millions throughout Asia.
Do you have a story that illustrates the Wharton ROI?
I never looked at Wharton education in terms of ROI. How can education be equated to a monetary return? My education at Wharton was priceless, especially as a woman from Bangladesh. It opened numerous doors for me and continues to give me the branding and confidence to create one social venture after another while questioning the status quo.
Please describe your experience with the Wharton alumni community and share any instances in which you have remained a part of the community as an alum.
My relationship with Wharton is a personal one—I reach out to fellow alumni and students on a one-to-one basis. This has been effective for me in my professional and personal growth.
What is it about your work that most excites you?
Creating incredible social impact through Impact Investment Exchange Asia (IIX) (www.asiaiix.com) excites me. IIX will be first social stock exchange, providing a trading platform and an efficient capital raising mechanism for Asian Social Enterprises (SEs), including both for-profit and not-for-profit entities with a social mission. IIX will connect these SEs with impact investors seeking to achieve both a social and economic return on their investment while providing capital to fund innovative social businesses.
IIX is itself a social enterprise with a social mission: to provide greater access to capital for Asian SEs, allowing them to grow more rapidly and expand the impact of their activities. IIX intends to accomplish this by creating a marketplace to bring together SEs and impact investors that prize the social value they create. IIX will benefit impact investors by giving them access to a group of investment-ready SEs with strong corporate governance practices and a commitment to transparent reporting of both financial and social results, and by providing a source of liquidity.
How have you been able to make a difference at work?
Yes, absolutely! I work and wake up in the morning to make a difference.
For example, by working with thousands of artisans across the globe over the years, oneNest became the primary supplier to UNICEF’s global catalog—a business worth over $150 million. Through its network of thousands of small gift stores, large retail stores and catalog companies, oneNest created markets for thousands of artisans around the globe. The company was solely responsible for lifting thousands of weavers from the brink of starvation when it sold over $500,000 worth of silk hand-woven shawls after the devastating earthquake in the weavers’ home state of Gujarat, India.
And with IIX, we will have multiplied social impact across Asia. IIX will provide access to risk capital for sustainable SEs. Because these entities are sustainable, this capital should provide evergreen benefits. For example, if a microfinance institution (MFI) is able to raise $5 million of risk capital through an IPO on IIX and match this with 3:1 leverage from a bank or other lender, it can increase its loan base by $20 million. If the average loan is $200, this MFI can provide loans to an additional 100,000 borrowers, positively impacting households of several hundred thousand people. Since the MFI is sustainable, this increase should be ongoing—as loans are repaid the money can be relent. If IIX can mobilize $100 million per year, the impact can be multiplied by 20. Of course, IIX will not only focus on the microfinance sector; similar logic applies in other sectors as well. IIX is critical infrastructure needed to allow sustainable SEs across Asia to grow and foster inclusive growth throughout the region.
What are the top three lessons you’ve learned about effective leadership?
• Mastering the art of persuasion
What books are you reading today?
I like to read several books at the same time. Currently I am reading The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly, The Bottom Billion by Paul Collier and Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez—all giving me a reality check on life.