Inspirational Woman Interview: Samar Shaheryar
Samar Shaheryar is the Co-Founder of Baby Hero, a Hong-Kong based ethical children’s clothing company dedicated to reducing infant mortality while maintaining a sustainable supply chain. grew up learning to switch accents, living in 6 countries and 4 continents by the age of 9 when her family settled in the Northeastern US. After studying International Relations at Tufts University in Boston, Samar was an investment banker at JPMorgan for 10 years in New York City before moving to Asia. Concurrent to her job, she co-founded and ran YOUR DIL, the youth arm of the charity Developments in Literacy, which educates girls in Pakistan. In Japan and Hong Kong she co-founded Tokyo Helps and Hong Kong Helps, fundraising organizations dedicated to raising money for emergency disaster relief. She is of Pakistani descent, a distinction which provides inspiration for her every day, fueling her desire to work on social issues, especially those that impact the most marginalized segments of society, women and children.
Previously, you were a credit/fixed income trader in JP Morgan in New York. Can you tell us more about your time as a trader and how your career in finance impacted you?
Samar Shaheryar: After university, I chose to go into finance for two reasons. 1. I wanted to be financially independent and 2. Being in a fast-paced, intellectually challenging environment suited my personality. I’ve never regretted it. I worked with some incredible people in that time – many women who were responsible for chipping away at the glass ceiling and taught me the importance of mentorship. Women and men who were juggling careers and family, teaching me how to tackle that balance. Most valuable was learning how money works and how people with money think. That is an important lesson no matter what your career path, because, ultimately, whether you are an academic, a scientist, an artist or a businessperson, understanding money and the power it wields in this world is crucial to achieving your career aspirations.
What was your transition from a finance career in New York to a nonprofit leader in Japan and Hong Kong like?
Samar Shaheryar: The first few years in finance I was working 60-80 hour weeks but once I was out of the testing ground that is analyst-life I had enough time for more meaningful pursuits. Along with 9 other young professionals, I co-founded YOUR DIL – Youth Outreach, Developments in Literacy, a fundraising organization dedicated to educating girls in Pakistan. At the time there were few charities targeting young professionals and our events drew a crowd that wanted less formal but meaningful events that helped others. I ran YOUR DIL for 3 years while a banker and am on the HK board of its parent organization, DIL, today.
Shortly after I moved to Japan with my husband, the earthquake in Haiti happened. In the US, after a natural disaster, communities come together to fundraise, donate items, volunteer, even when the disaster is happening half-way around the world. In Tokyo, there was little being done to raise awareness or funds for the devastation that was unfolding in Haiti. This was not an issue of not caring, but in Japan people assumed their government would send relief and didn’t see it as their individual responsibility to get involved. I founded Tokyo Helps to change that, to bring people together to help others around the world, to encourage the idea that we are all connected and witnessing and helping is an important part of being a responsible, compassionate individual. The concept spread and we had Hong Kong Helps and Singapore Helps and Sydney Helps events lead by volunteers.
How did you come to Co-Found Baby Hero?
Samar Shaheryar: My first daughter was born after an emergency c-section and had some complications in her early days. We were so fortunate to be giving birth in a city like Hong Kong with excellent healthcare. While I had always been aware of injustices related to poverty, I never realized how significant the problem around maternal and infant health was until I become a mother and really started paying attention to the statistics. 99% of the almost 3 million newborns that die every year, from mostly preventable causes, are in low-income countries. That means that we know how to solve this issue because we’ve done it in wealthy countries. What an incredibly horrible fate – to have a multiples-higher chance of dying in childbirth or of losing your baby just because you weren’t born in the “right” place. I kept thinking, how does a country like Pakistan, where I was born, move forward when, in some parts of the country, 1 out of 10 babies die shortly after they are born? What does that do to parents, a family, a village to have so many babies and mothers dying? It is wrong and it is our responsibility to help. Technology, travel, information mean that we are all more connected than ever before – misery half-way across the world will always affect us in some way, eventually. When we make this world a more equal place, it isn’t just right, it helps us all prosper and live better lives.
From this desire to help mothers and newborns in the developing world, Baby Hero was born. We wanted to connect parents in developed countries who are buying necessary items for their babies with mothers and infants in need. For every item you buy, we donate life-saving medical products for a safer birth and neonatal period.
That wasn’t enough, however. We have vowed to make our supply chain as ethical as possible to tackle the root cause of the poverty that leads to these poor outcomes. This is why we insist on fair-trade cotton and only use fair, well-paid, dignified labour for our garment work. And we know that the greatest crisis facing our children is likely environmental – we have misused and abused our Earth and our kids will, unfortunately pay the price. We use organic cotton for all of our products because it is best for the planet, it is completely biodegradable and it lasts longer than conventional fabrics. We call our model, 360 Degrees Ethical, and believe it is how we should all be doing business.
What are some of the maternal and child health programs that Baby Hero helps finance?
Samar Shaheryar: We partnered with Dr. Shaun Morris and his team at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto. He created an innovative Neonatal Survival Kit of low-cost, easy-to-use but highly effective items that help prevent infection in newborns and keep them warm enough if they get sick to get them to medical help. This Kit, when brought up to scale will cost about $5 USD but is reducing infant mortality in the areas it is used significantly. As the Kit has been studied in a randomized controlled trial, later this year we will be able to release results showing how many newborn lives our customers have saved with their purchases. It is potentially a game-changer for infant health in low-income countries.
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
Samar Shaheryar: My grandmother, Atiya Jafarey. Exceptionally intelligent, she didn’t get an education beyond high school, because she was born in 1930s India when it was mostly unheard of for women to go to college. She insisted on higher education for her three daughters, all of whom went on to get their masters degrees. She is fiercely loyal, highly engaged with the world, would likely be described as a “difficult woman” by some, but is as loving as she is fiery. Her and I disagree about many things, as she is much more conservative in her views than me, but it doesn’t get in the way of our love for each other. That fact has been a tremendous lesson to me, and I think holds great lessons for our polarizing times. We are so much the product of our times and circumstances but on an individual level most of us are good and loving and offer tremendous value to the world. If we refuse to engage with those with whom we disagree, we deny their humanity and their worth, and we are all poorer for it.
What advice do you have for women entrepreneurs?
Samar Shaheryar: My favorite quote for entrepreneurs: “It doesn’t matter how many times you have failed, you only have to be right once.” Mark Cuban.
Specifically for women – seek out women’s networks for help and always give help when asked, it will get paid back to you. Men still tend to control most money and thus power, but there are many women-led networks now that are trying to balance out the equation and they are looking to help other female-led companies.
What are your favorite books, websites, films and/or resources?
Samar Shaheryar: Let My People Go Surfing by Yves Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia – what an incredible, inspiring book for an ethically motivated business owner. A must read for anyone who wants to be part of the solution.
When Things Fall Apart, Heart Advice for Hard Times by Pema Chodron. Chances are, you will at some point need a book like this – one that teaches you that whatever negative feeling you’re feeling is really just fear, and how becoming comfortable with our greatest fears will help us move forward.
Invisibilia Podcast – a podcast about all the hidden parts of life – our emotions, thoughts, motivations. You’ll always walk away with a new perspective which, for an entrepreneur, is gold.
A Plastic Ocean – a documentary about how plastic, the never-dying substance, is choking our waters, our sealife and getting into our food chain. Even if you are skeptical about man-made climate change, you cannot deny after watching this that we are destroying a significant part of our environment with our consumption and something has to change.