Durreen speaking at the She is More Opening Night exhibition, 9 May
As the CEO and founder of Impact Investment Exchange (IIX), a global organisation dedicated to building a more inclusive world as the foundation for sustainable peace, Ms Durreen Shahnaz is nothing short of an inspiration. The Bangladeshi-American entrepreneur, professor, and public speaker has devoted herself to promoting equal and sustainable growth by revolutionising the capital markets.
She got her start in investment banking at Morgan Stanley (and was the first Bangladeshi woman on Wall Street), but later founded her first business, oneNest, an online marketplace that connected consumers with ethical producers, before developing IIX, the first social stock exchange in the world.
Through IIX, her efforts in developing impact investment in Asia and the Pacific region have impacted millions of lives worldwide, and she continues to help under-served communities and empower women to take charge.
Most recently, IIX launched the inaugural She is More youth art competition and exhibition to celebrate the dynamic roles of women in society. In the decade since its inception, IIX has brought together partners across all areas of society, from global companies to women’s organisations, business leaders to diplomats, artists to the next generation of change-makers.
From social entrepreneurship to female empowerment, Durreen Shahnaz has a range of causes to champion. And she's only just getting started.
1. When did you first understand the issue of inequality and what was it that drove you to take action?
Durreen with the Canadian High Commissioner Lynn McDonald
My vision, courage and defiance to build a more inclusive world arose out of my personal story.
Growing up in post-war, poverty-stricken Bangladesh opened my eyes to the realities of inequality and the need to empower underserved communities — especially women — to build a sustainable, peaceful future. The country’s economic struggles were magnified by the fact that the half its population — the women, were not being valued, were deprived of equal opportunity, and were not given a chance to be an economically-contributing member of society.
The maltreatment of women was exacerbated by a conservative culture and religion. Growing up in such an environment made me defiant. I refused to accept the practicing norms and did not believe that my gender defined my worth, so I set off to prove them wrong.
Moving to the US at 17 on my own validated the potential I saw in myself and gave me the courage to dream big about changing the world.
Eventually I became the first Bangladeshi woman on Wall Street, where I realised that financial markets were both a powerful force in society, as well as an elite club that excluded large communities around the world.
I made a promise to myself then that I would one day create capital markets (which comprises of various financial products and platforms) that will give value to the most vulnerable in society – especially women — a financial market that would offer opportunity to even the most remote and marginalised corners of the world, and connect the back streets of under-served communities to the Wall Streets of the world.
2. You are strong champion of equality and sustainability in eradicating – or at least alleviating – poverty. How far do you think we have come in terms of that and how much more work lies ahead?
I have been inspired by the growing number of countries, companies, investors, and communities that are joining the impact economy to advance the Sustainable Development Goals. From billion-dollar funds to INGOs, the movement to make finance do good has gained well-deserved recognition for its potential to transform the world.
It is hard to believe that while stock exchanges have been around for hundreds of years, and people have given value to everything from coffee to cotton to copper — only a fraction of that wealth goes towards empowering under-served communities — especially women.
Looking at Asia, which has achieved remarkable economic growth over the years, there are currently over 5.5 million millionaires and close to 600 billionaires. At the same time, over 250 million people in Asia live in extreme poverty, on less than $1.90 a day, and face significant social and economic barriers to opportunity. So there’s a long way to go towards building a more equitable world and alleviating poverty, which is what we’re setting out to address through a unique ecosystem approach.
Our work has grown to span the entire social capital market's ‘value chain’. We empower impact enterprises (companies that are creating social good) that are addressing the root causes of inequality and conflict, and valuing and including their most vulnerable beneficiaries in financial markets. We also support those that are changing financial systems to drive sustainable development, and building opportunities for anyone, anywhere to contribute to a more inclusive world and financial system.
In practice, we accomplish this through our proprietary impact assessments that measure impact (and financial value) of our catalytic accelerator program, financial products (Women’s Livelihood Bond), and education and advocacy work. Through this, our work now spans 46 countries, and we have unlocked nearly $106 million of private sector capital to support more than 150 enterprises, avoided over one million metric tons of carbon and impacted nearly 77 million direct and household lives.
3. What were some initial challenges you faced when establishing Impact Investment Exchange, getting investors on board and drumming up support for your causes, and how did you address those issues?
Our founder @durreenshahnaz asked the important questions at the @theeconomistevents_ Investing for Impact #EconImpact conference yesterday: are you willing to take the #risk? . . #ImpactInvesting #innovativefinance #Financing #investment #financeforgood #impactassessment #economist #socialenterprise #impact #iix #iixglobal #womenhelpingwomen #womenempowerment #womeninfinance #womeninbusiness #womeninwallstreet #wallsteeet
When I first set up Impact Investment Exchange, as a woman entrepreneur, I had to work twice as hard to convince investors to come on board by constantly innovating and trying new things. I had to make a case for how it was all possible, why it was needed, how it was financially viable, and would give financial returns.
Had I been a man, I think it would have been different. A man achieving many “firsts” in the market would have been seen as a leader, someone creating change and having the audacity and gumption to take on the world.
As a woman, it was a different story. I was seen as someone who ‘did not know what I was talking about’. I had risk written all over me. I had to be very creative to work around this. I would have senior men in the team represent me and our ideas to potential clients/investors and the strategy worked. I am often asked if the process was humiliating, and I won’t lie — it was, but I was willing to take on the humiliation if it served in changing the perception of under-served communities and if it allowed for women to be integrated into the financial markets.
Through grit, determination and hard work, IIX has since achieved many firsts: the first social stock exchange, the first crowdfunding platform for impact investing, and the first Women’s Livelihood Bond™, which were needed in order to mobilise society-wide support and enable everyone to participate in the economy for good. Especially in a risk-averse Asia, finding ways to mitigate risk is particularly important to entice the private sector to participate in positive social change.
At IIX, we continue to innovate by addressing the key challenge of risk for Asian investors. By creating an innovative structure that provides the right risk-return-impact profile, the Women’s Livelihood Bond (WLB1) — the world’s first impact investing instrument to be listed on a stock exchange, reporting both social and financial returns — successfully enticed Asian investors to participate in the bond and empower 385,000 under-served women in Asia with sustainable livelihoods. With the success of the WLB1, IIX is now launching a US$100 million Women’s Livelihood Bond series to impact 1 million women across Asia.