Investing to Create 1B Sustainable Livelihoods by 2030
17 February 2021 - Impact Hub

We were honored to host our first ever in-person Impact State of Mind featuring our guest lecturer Professor Durreen Shahnaz of IIX, the Impact Investment Exchange: the first ever social impact stock exchange.

Born in Bangladesh during the war of liberation, Professor Shahnaz witnessed firsthand the result of failed systems. As a woman of color, she existed in a society that didn’t consider her voice. This was such second nature to her that when she arrived to the United States with just one suitcase to her name, she was astonished to see that women had a voice- and that they were being listened to.

While attending Smith College, Shahnaz was excited to see that women’s voices mattered, yet she struggled to find her own. She remembers a specific moment where students were invited to take a break from studying during exam week to join together in a collective scream. While stressed with assignments and impending finals, Shahnaz found herself unable to scream. It was then that she realized she needed to find her voice.

After graduating, Shahnaz went to work on Wall Street. “I wanted to be able to scream and bring it back to Bangladesh,” she explained.

From Wall Street she went on to work with Grameen Bank, where she was disappointed to see she wasn’t able to move the needle as much as she had hoped. While she saw the value in micro-loans, she envisioned something much bigger. She was then invited to visit the Rockefeller Foundation for a focus group of sorts, where attendees were asked to tackle “insolvable” issues. “Out of this came the term ‘impact investing’,” Shahnaz said of the remarkable moment where some of the stars began to align.

Now on a mission to connect Wall Street to her home in Bangladesh, Shahnaz launched the early phases of IIX. “I was determined to give a voice to the voiceless,” Shahnaz explained, noting women as the target audience she set out to uplift.

As she worked to grow IIX, she found that her own voice was once again limited. It was only when her white Ivy league husband stood by her side that the pocketbooks began to open. Not only did investors see her as a risk, they saw her grantees as a risk. “The market doesn’t want to buy into the livelihood of women,” Shahnaz noted.

Forced to back it herself, Shahnaz put her entire savings on the line to see her dream of the first ever gender bond series to reach the market. It went on to oversell and outperform all benchmarks.

IIX has now successfully invested over $200 million in woman-run and women-focused enterprises throughout the Asia Pacific to date. Furthermore, they now have a foundation where they focus on the health, livelihood and empowerment of women.

“It took over 800 years for the capital markets to back women,” Shahnaz exclaimed.

And while it was no easy feat, Shahnaz credits what she calls defiant optimism. “If you’re going to be an agent of change, you need defiance and optimism,” Shahnaz explained, “You need to have the courage to question what you’re seeing and have a vision for how you’d change it for the better. And from there, innovation is born.”

Thank you to Professor Shahnaz for hosting a truly inspiring and empowering event, and thanks to our guests for joining us.