Running a global non-profit and a cookware brand would typically require very different resumes, but Shiza Shahid isn't a typical business founder. Not only is she the co-founder of cooking equipment brand Our Place, which is famed for its multi-use Always Pan, but she previously ran Malala Fund, an international organization – plus, she's a mentor and friend to Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai.
But, for Shiza, there's been a natural flow between the two sectors – it's just about where she can make the most difference and how she can make an impact with every business decision. Here, she talks about developing products with inclusivity in mind and how the Always Pan gained a 30,000-person waitlist.
What threads connect running a major-non profit and founding a cookware brand?
A. ‘It's always been about trying to have the greatest impact I can – the structure mattered less. Growing up in Pakistan, my first jobs were volunteer work, grassroots, non-profit and advocacy – I organized my first protest when I was 16 years old. And, then, I got a scholarship to Stanford University. When I moved to Stanford, everyone around me was starting businesses. I saw the pace, efficiency and the scale of that and how much more interesting that was, in some respects. So, I thought: well, if I can build a mission-driven business, that's the path I want to take.
‘I took my first job out of college at [management consulting company] McKinsey. I thought I'd do the McKinsey business training, I'd go to business school, I'd get my resume thick, then do my own thing. Then, my friend [Malala] was shot by the Taliban, and she and her father asked me to help build something that would help other girls get an education. And, in that moment, I had to choose: do I stay on my five-year plan, or do I show up for this thing I really believe in? I was pulled back to the non-profit sector – not because I was deliberately mapping my career path, but because I was just showing up for what I thought I could most uniquely impact at that moment.
‘Once I'd helped set the foundation for that, I knew I wanted to return to startups. I first started an angel fund investing in mission-driven startups, thinking I could play a role in other entrepreneurs' journeys. I realized that, at my core, I'm an entrepreneur – I need to be fully devoted to a cause and a mission. Our Place has been that mission. The brand is really rooted in representation – we've spoken out on issues of immigration reform, food justice and anti-racism – but it's also a business that's rooted in gathering, joy and cooking and being together and honoring our identities. I also get to build an amazing team and a great culture. That day-to-day work is really important. It's not just the structure, it's about what you're actually doing every day. Do you feel like you're set up to have your greatest impact? I think there'll be more pivots before I'm done, but I think that's totally OK.’
What impact do you feel you can make by running a company compared with a non-profit?
A. ‘I don't think it's in contrast – it's not that non-profits don't have any impact. I think non-profits do extremely important work. But trillions are traded in the financial markets every day – non-profits are a fraction of that, and you simply can't have sweeping change without businesses doing the work. For me, it's really about how do you get every part of the economy and all of our structures working in tandem and taking on different parts to achieve similar goals? When it comes to business, and I'll speak specifically to Our Place, we have what we call an impact 2.0 model. I look at businesses like TOMS shoes, for example, and I see it as impact 1.0. It was simple – you buy a shoe and give a shoe. That was the starting mission statement and, of course, it evolved from there, but it was easy to understand. Then consumers started to ask: “Well, what about environmental impact? What about diversity on your team and board? And do people really need these shoes?”
‘We make many decisions every day, and those decisions have impact. How do we make better decisions across the board? That's everything from hiring and building a team that today happens to be predominantly female, BIPOC and immigrant or first-gen, putting representation front and center in the brand – not just in front of the camera, but behind the camera – to making sure that, when we tell the story of a tradition, we're partnering with and contributing to the community. Sourcing our products thoughtfully, packaging our products with biodegradable materials, offsetting a portion of our carbon footprint and actively working to reduce it, giving back to causes such as food justice and immigration reform. We're looking at every decision as a chance to do something better. That's not to say we're perfect – nobody is. But we're always trying really hard.’
What challenges did you face creating an ethically and sustainably sourced product?
A. ‘If you order a random pan off Amazon, it'll arrive to you wrapped in bubble wrap, put in a plastic box, wrapped in bubble wrap, put in a shipping box, covered in tons of tape – tons of packaging waste. We spent a lot of time designing biodegradable packaging and we also spent a lot of time making sure that there was just one box. So, the box that [the product] is packed in is also the shipper box – even with glass, which is fragile. [We've taken] the time to go through innovation and design exercises like that and make sure that we're able to deliver on those things.
‘We also work with artisans – next up, we're launching a tagine [a pot with a conical-shaped lid]. We're working with Moroccan masters to make it. The tagine is a culturally significant item, but most tagines today aren't manufactured in Morocco and are stripped of that heritage. Our team spent a lot of time finding artisans who had the capacity to produce the numbers that we were hoping to bring to our consumers, while developing a tagine that they were excited about, but [that] also fits on the Always Pan, because we want to keep that promise of streamlined products.
‘Early on, when we launched our Nochebuena collection [a cookware set based around Mexican-American holiday food traditions], we sourced all of it in Oaxaca from artisans, and many of them didn't have certifications to ship to the US. That's cumbersome paperwork, and it can often prohibit artisans from reaching this giant market right next door. Our SVP [senior vice-president] of products spent a lot of time with the artisans to get those certifications. We ended up getting all of their names and addresses and [putting] the contact information on our website, so that other people could also source from them. I think a lot of these things take time and trust.’
How does creating for multicultural kitchens impact product development?
A. ‘We take product development very seriously at Our Place. If you look at most kitchenware brands, they all make the exact same thing. Most kitchenware brands go to a factory, take the catalog and say: “I'd like this plate, but make it wider and pink.” What Our Place did was say: “How do people eat? What are the challenges, who's not included and why does it feel so hard?” And we start there.
‘I'd never been taught to cook by my mother and I'd moved halfway across the world and had to feed myself. Everybody was buying these six-piece kitchenware sets – that was your starter set. Your starter set [could have] a saucier [pan], a stock pot, a frying pan and a skillet. So, we said: “Can we make one pan where you can fry an egg or a pancake, but [it's also] deep enough to fit a whole chicken?”
‘We also make it really beautiful. The kitchen can be a really oppressive space or [a] joyful space – [through] color and design, [you can] have a product [that] you leave out [and] makes you want to cook, dress up and have a dinner party. That's where a lot of the aesthetic came in – let's bring joy into something really important. Can we make it clean? It has a nontoxic coating. Can we make it easy to use? That's why it's lightweight. It's for anyone, no matter how intimidated they might be [by] cooking.’
You had a 30,000-person waitlist. How did you build up hype for a basic kitchen staple?
A. ‘A lot of people ask “what's the secret?” and I feel like they want me to say: “Oh, there's this Facebook button [that] you press!” Unfortunately, it's a lot of hard work, and [you need to be] doing things as well as you can and better than everyone else. For us, it was beautiful, high-quality products that were innovative and challenged the dominant design paradigm. I was building a brand that was rooted in inclusion and representation, and people felt seen for the first time. It was having a mission that was deeply rooted and gave back to communities. One by one, people would fall in love.
‘People think you can do one thing right and ignore the rest. In my experience, that doesn't work very long. We've always invested in every leg of the stool: culture, our team, our brand, our mission, our impact, our products, our supply chain, our customer service. We were fortunate that people shared it and they continue to share it because, ultimately, if you can make people feel something and they show up for you, then you have a chance. You're out there competing against companies generating hundreds of millions in revenue. We've been knocked off by every conglomerate. What allows us to continue to grow and succeed is our community showing up and saying: “I don't want this cheap knockoff from a Fortune  brand [a list of the biggest companies in the US], [which doesn't] care about any of the issues aligned with my values or have equivalent quality.” That's the trick, that's the secret.’