How Malala Is Turning Her Life Story Into A Targeted Mission
Fast Company|December/January 2016

How Nobel Peace Prize–winning education activist Malala Yousafzai is turning her compelling life story into a targeted mission.

Karen Valby

After Pope Francis finishes his opening remarks at the UN General Assembly, the room’s attention quickly begins to stray. Colombian pop star and UNICEF ambassador Shakira launches into a well-intentioned rendition of “Imagine,” but the gathered heads of state begin to twist in their seats in conversation and mill in the aisles. Then the song ends, and a gentle but firm voice calls down from the upper mezzanine balcony, cutting through the buzz of distraction.

“Before I start, may I ask for some quiet. Please pay attention to what youth is asking here.”

Chastened, the world leaders take their seats. In elegantly simple language, 18-year-old Malala Yousafzai implores the adults below—who have convened to adopt a series of development goals for the world’s most underserved communities—to follow through on their promise to deliver free, safe, quality education for children across the globe.

Three years ago, while she was riding the bus home from school in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, Malala was shot in the head by members of the Taliban. She’d been targeted because of her history of campaigning, publicly and passionately, for her and her friends’ intrinsic right to attend school. She survived and since that heinous day has gracefully become the de facto voice of the more than 60 million girls deprived of education worldwide.

Her appearance at the UN General Assembly in September was part of a whirlwind visit to New York that required her to take a rare two days off from her own schooling in Birmingham, England. The youngest-ever Nobel laureate also attended the premiere of He Named Me Malala, Oscar-winning director Davis Guggenheim’s documentary about her life. She struck allegiances with world leaders on behalf of her two-year-old NGO, the Malala Fund. And, in what Stephen Colbert called his favorite moment to date on his new show, she performed an eye-popping card trick for 3.2 million viewers on network television.

But Malala is doing more than building awareness: She’s creating a network of action and impact. Her still-young Malala Fund has already helped finance projects in six countries—Pakistan, Nigeria, Kenya, Jordan, Lebanon, and Sierra Leone—by opening schools, providing scholarships, and setting up education groups and remote-learning programs. While the fund’s budget today is modest (it spent more than $4 million in 2014), Malala has created a model for other NGOs, local government, and, yes, world leaders that shows how on-the-ground engagement can be effective. What’s more, she’s already had international impact—at the UN—that has gone largely unrecognized, despite all the media she’s attracted. “In the beginning, people ignore you,” Malala tells me during a conversation at the fund’s Washington, D.C., co-working space a few weeks before her New York blitz. “And then they say, ‘Okay, now we have to listen because she is not going to keep quiet.’ So you keep speaking. And once young people join the mission, it’s no longer just my voice. It’s the voice of the people.”

In person, Malala is both relaxed and deeply attentive, a high school junior who doesn’t wear makeup or carry a cell phone. The left side of her face is still partially paralyzed from where the bullet inflicted permanent nerve damage. When I first meet her, she is wearing traditional Pakistani clothing and the same pair of modest platform sandals she’ll wear in New York in order to give her 5-foot frame an extra inch to see over the average lectern. True power clearly knows nothing of stature or age. As becomes increasingly evident during conversations with her, her family, and her team, Malala has a force that’s completely devoid of bombast or ego.

When the Taliban took over the Swat Valley in 2007, bombing schools and murdering resisters, the world did not send help. Politicians failed to act. NGOs that pledged financial aid and on-the-ground resources were unable to deliver. Malala’s terrorized community was left to fend for itself. Malala and her father, Zia, a peace activist who ran the school she attended in Swat, continued to speak out. When she woke up in a hospital bed in England, ripped from her home and culture, they decided together that still more needed to be done.

In 2013, they started the Malala Fund to make the broad, irrefutable statement that every girl deserves an education—and translate that belief into action on both the local and global level. Its mandate, as set by cofounders who know well the cost of being let down, is to prove there are bolder, braver, more effective ways to support girls than the failed efforts of those who’d left Malala to her fate in Swat Valley.

This past year, the Malala Fund began a phase of explosive growth, fueled by a ramped-up staff; grants and donations from supporters including Microsoft, the Skoll Foundation, and Star Wars director J.J. Abrams, plus small-dollar donations from a public besotted with Malala and her efforts; and global interest the average NGO could never imagine. All this because of the clear-eyed vision of an 18-year-old.

“Dear sisters and brothers, world leaders, please look up, because the future generation is raising their voice.”

Meighan Stone has a mantra: Don’t get confused. Before becoming director of the Malala Fund last April, Stone spent 15 years working in the NGO world—including stints at Bono’s ONE Campaign and the UN’s World Food Programme. She knows how easy it can be to mistake an A-list conversation for an actual commitment. “Malala has the ability to sit with world leaders and influential business-world leaders,” says Stone, but “the last thing the world needs is just another high-level cocktail party. If that opportunity doesn’t connect us to real outcomes, then what are we really accomplishing there?”

Stone’s team—a group of 20 predominantly young women spread out over co-working spaces in Washington, D.C., New York, and London—is in the middle of a sprint of 18- to 20-hour workdays as they prepare for the UN Sustainable Development Goals Summit and the opening of He Named Me Malala, one of the largest global releases of a documentary ever. The film is both a call to action and a highlight reel for much of the fund’s early activities.

“It’s so rare that NGOs get these opportunities, especially around this issue of girls’ education,” says Stone, knocking on her cluttered desk in her cramped office. “We want to make sure we do everything we can in this unique moment. We have the best inspiration in the world, with Malala and her father. They choose every day to do this work, and they work so hard. None of us could work harder than them, ever.”

No one would have blamed them if they’d retired from a life of service. After Malala was shot—and transported, in a coma, to Birmingham, England—her family spent several painful weeks wondering if she would survive, let alone return to her vibrant self. Zia blamed himself for letting his daughter stand up so defiantly to the Taliban. “After going through this life-and-death situation, I was worried,” he tells me. “ ‘What will she be thinking? Why didn’t we stop her? Why did we encourage her?’ But believe me that she woke up the same old girl. I have never heard a single word of repentance or regret: ‘Okay, I have lost my smile or my half-face is not working yet,’ or ‘If I had not done that, I wouldn’t have faced this.’ Never, never, never! And when we saw this new resilience and passion and commitment, it also gave energy to us.”

They also drew strength from people worldwide who rallied immediately around Malala. Unsure how to navigate the flood of support during his daughter’s early days of recovery, Zia asked Shiza Shahid, a then–23 year-old Stanford graduate from Pakistan and longtime family friend, to leave her job at McKinsey & Co. in Dubai and join them in Birmingham. Soon came a book deal for Malala’s international best seller, I Am Malala, a meeting with Hollywood producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald—who would coproduce the documentary adaptation— and offers of advice and assistance from heavy hitters like Megan Smith (the White House CTO who was then a vice president of Google X), Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and the international women’s advocacy organization Vital Voices.

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