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 canadian hc

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?

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.



4. How would you define a strong woman?  


An amazing PM of Norway in lending her voice to promoting #businessworthy @iixglobal #impinv

A post shared by Durreen Shahnaz (@durreenshahnaz) on

To me, a strong woman is someone who is defiant — someone who can stand up to an unjust system or situation and at the same time someone who is an optimist — someone who believes in the good of people and has the desire and ability to change things for the better.

I am the fourth daughter of a traditional Bengali Muslim family. In my part of the world, being a daughter is far from the ideal situation, and being fourth—even less. My own situation and the plight of the women in my culture made me defiant.

However, my optimism was bolstered by my education (and books. I was — and still am — an avid reader). I am always learning and testing on what is possible and how I can slowly break down age-old boundaries that perpetuated the inequalities of this world.

Together with my inherent defiance, this optimism enabled me to get on the audacious path of creating change, from my journey in Wall Street to the founding of Impact Investment Exchange (IIX) — and a few other interesting journeys in between, including another company that I founded, grew and sold — oneNest in the US, which was a global marketplace for handmade goods.

Ultimately, the term “defiant optimist” resonates with who I was as a child and who I am now as a social entrepreneur, constantly striving to redefine the narrative and challenge established systems towards the betterment of society. With that motivation, I continue to channel that defiant optimism in all that I do, and hope that other women are empowered to do the same.


5. How do you think regular women can fight for their rights and empower themselves?

One of the greatest injustices in society is the ongoing, overwhelming exclusion of women from financial markets, especially in the developing world. Women are structurally denied access to education and finance, which traps them in subsistence living and dependency, and perpetuates their inequity and inequality.

Because of this, I think that the question should not be how women can empower themselves, but rather how we need to change society to remove the structural barriers that continue to hold women down.

One way IIX has done this is through our Women’s Livelihood Bond™ (WLB1), which was the first financial instrument listed on the stock exchange to have women at its heart. This bond mobilised private sector capital for investment into women-led or majority women beneficiary impact enterprises, which enabled these enterprises to grow. WLB1 sought to empower women to take control of their lives and businesses. As such, the first step towards sustained empowerment is to create opportunities for women to have dignified, sustainable livelihoods.

One of the key barriers to the global fight for gender equality, especially as impact investing becomes mainstream, is the extent to which we are truly giving under-served women a voice, and ensuring that our financial markets are valuing them for the force that they are in society. At IIX, we’re addressing this challenge through Values, a platform solution that helps enterprises better serve vulnerable communities by incorporating their voices in impact measurement.

By giving value to those who are excluded and invisible to financial markets, we can better ensure the long-term sustainability of impact enterprises, as well as the sustainability of investments. By tying the voices of beneficiaries to impact assessments, and impact assessments to investment dollars, we also hold everyone accountable to building an equitable and inclusive future.

Each of us has more power than we think we have. The first step in recognising is to stop seeing ourselves as victims and start seeing ourselves as the key ingredient for a sustainable world. Without us the planet would not survive, let us give our voice to everything and start making change happen through little things.

We have the power to change the world with something simple as our purchasing habits and having a say over our financial matters. Let us buy and live more sustainably. Let us have the courage to take risk and invest in companies who are doing good. Let us bring other women into this journey and give them the chance to flourish. Let us take control and use our voice for value.

Women across the world need their voices to be valued. 


6. What kind of role model do you wish to be for your daughters?

The biggest gift my parents gave me was the belief that giving is better than receiving. That it is a responsibility to build a more equitable future. This is something I hope to impart to my children—the spirit of giving, inclusiveness, and leaving the world a better place than when we enter it.




International Women's Day