Sheeza Shah

Kent, UK. Social entrepreneur. Founder at The UpEffect. Zebras Unite operations manager. Podcast host. Mother.

A Zebra is…

a beneficial, kind and community-centric company that prioritizes societal welfare alongside profits.

What’s wrong with the status quo?

There are a number of things that I’ve discovered along the way and each learning has  informed much of my own journey, ultimately leading me to Zebras Unite.

The main thing that has driven my work at UpEffect is limited access to funding for social enterprises and social good businesses. 

There are a lot of opportunities for traditional businesses that are being built at the expense of society and our planet; typically led by white male founders. But social enterprises are often led by a diverse group of leaders: females, people of color, immigrants or people  from marginalized backgrounds. This group has frequently experienced the lived challenges that they are trying to solve in the community. But when they turn to banks or investors for financing they’re often turned down because those distributing capital are unable to resonate with these problems (often different to their way of living) and the business models that they’re presenting. 

And so social entrepreneurs often turn to other forms of funding models, such as crowdfunding. But even if you look at the way the crowdfunding industry operates, 64% of crowdfunding campaigns fail, not least because most crowdfunding platforms are venture backed and often built to serve companies that are also venture backed. In other words, they’re serving businesses that already have access to networks, capital and resources and those who understand how to navigate the crowdfunding landscape. However, that’s not the case for every social enterprise. 

I decided to build UpEffect to increase opportunities for social enterprises that were seeking to gain access to knowledge and an understanding of what it takes to build a successful social enterprise. My main goal is to help them get to market and serve communities in the most sustainable way. 

And that’s what drew me to join the Zebras Unite community.

As a social entrepreneur, I was often pushed down the fundraising route that – if we wanted to succeed as a business – we would have to raise venture capital, because that’s what all the crowdfunding platforms were doing. I always pushed against that notion because it wasn’t a good fit for us. 

To this day, we don’t want investors telling us to change the business model and move away from the support element because we feel that that is the fundamental problem to be solved in this space. 

Coming across the Zebras Unite was like coming home. 

At Zebras Unite, I found a whole community of people who were building businesses differently, who were going against the status quo and weren’t opting for the traditional route that is so hyped in the media headlines.

Sheeza’s vision for the future

I hope the future looks very different. Businesses play a very big role in the way our future is designed and I think the success of every member of society lies in how we build new systems for the new economy. That’s really what’s happening at Zebras Unite.

We need to inspire people to think differently, to create different solutions to common problems and new business structures that support these solutions. 

A lot of times founders assume problems and entire businesses are built around those assumptions, often at the expense of communities that don’t actually need those ideas to exist.  I want us to build a kind of world in which we work with community members by bringing them along the journey and start empowering and equipping marginalized communities with the means to access economic opportunities. 

I think a key way to make that happen is through creating dignified sources of employment that embraces shared ownership and power among employees. Our current systems enable a few people to hoard power and wealth which has exacerbated wealth inequalities. I believe this to be a root cause to many other social and environmental issues that we are trying to get a handle on. But it needs to be a collective effort, which is a big task for all of humanity to take on.  

The capital infrastructure of the future

This is where my love for islamic economics comes in! What I think really needs to happen is for wealthy individuals in our society to start sharing their wealth. 

I think much of philanthropy is broken. Global poverty is still one of the biggest moral crises of our time and for us to change that we need to stop taxing income which is the very means of how families provide basic necessities to their families.

If we’re going to change the system, we need to move towards shareholding partnerships.

Debt plays a very big role in our current capital systems. A lot of our systems are designed to increase debt within society and make people dependent on it. In Islam we believe that debt is a way of alleviating someone from their financial circumstances, not a means of exploitation. For that very reason, interest is forbidden in Islam because you’re exploiting someone’s condition and trying to profit off it. 

If we’re going to change the system, we need to move towards shareholding partnerships which is another reason why I love the cooperative model. 

The values of the future

I think these values should be embedded in the framework of every organization:

  • More representative leadership
  • More equitable distribution of capital and power.
  • Collaboration and partnerships over monopolies. 

I’d like for leadership to be a reflection of those that are seeking capital and are at the forefront of serving communities. We need to see those voices reflected when capital, or any other currency of power is distributed.

The way businesses operate right now, wealth is shared among just a few shareholders while the employees are doing most of the work. It’s not fair that they aren’t able to benefit from that; and even worse, employees are, in fact, often exploited. For a better future, we need to see a big shift in how power and capital is distributed. 

I also hope businesses will place a greater focus on how they can serve neighboring communities and other organizations, working towards partnerships and collaborations rather than building monopolies.  

The role of community in the future

Community plays a fundamental role in re-envisioning a better future. We’re all in some way for part of a community:

  • a religious community
  • a school community
  • a business or professional community
  • a neighborhood

We turn to communities for support, companionship and resources. They play a fundamental role in all areas of life. That’s why we need to build for and with them.  

Sheeza’s role in creating that future

I would say I’ve played an active role in sharing this movement with every person that I come across. I don’t think there’s anyone that I’ve not mentioned Zebras Unite to including my own family members.  As long as I can inspire one or two people to think differently about how they’re building their own business, I’m helping us all move in a new direction. Whether they  join the cooperative, attend an event or organize Zebras Unite chapters of their own, come in as a partner or founding member – there’s a place for everyone to roll up their sleeves and help us usher in a better, kinder and more benevolent future. Each one of us has played a very active role in making that happen.

Support Sheeza

If you have an incredible organization where you’re doing amazing work for your community, we want to know about it and share it with our community! We want to find a way of building a relationship so that we can advance that important work that you’re doing!

If you’re looking for support in terms of your business or seeking aligned entrepreneurs who are building businesses in a similar way, we’d love to offer a community of like-minded peers to you.

If you are seeking aligned capital innovators or funding opportunities, there’s a big opportunity at Zebras Unite for you to access that pool of capital.

I feel like the founders of ZU have created something quite unique in the sense that Zebras Unite has an opportunity for almost everyone who is genuinely thinking of doing things differently, who is tired of seeing our systems fail us in so many ways, and who is looking for a promising and a brighter future ahead.  So if you are looking for a brighter alternative path, I think connecting with Zebras Unite is the right place for you. We’d love to welcome you into our community.

Sheeza asks the community…

What kind of future do you envision for your and your loved ones? 

We’re impacted in so many ways by our surrounding systems and processes. Understanding

  • what are the pain points in one’s life,
  • how do we go about solving for them,
  • what does a brighter future mean to each person

… is the first step to building that alternative future and creating something that is in service of one another. 

Shout-out 

A company that’s really inspired me along the way is definitely Basecamp. They’ve really pioneered the way in terms of building a business without external capital and doing things on their own terms. For me it was very important that I built a business that offered me flexibility with my two-year-old toddler. I always envisioned being a full-time mother and I needed a business that allowed me to be able to fulfill both dreams. The founders of Basecamp presented their business that way and they made the concept fairly accessible. They advocate building businesses in whatever way makes the most sense to you, you don’t have to follow the cookie cutter approach. You don’t have to do things the way everyone is doing it. 

I’m very grateful that they’ve recently come in to support Zebras Unite in a bigger way; it’s an incredible opportunity to be able to work with them in that capacity after having followed their journey for such a long time.

Liferaft: How do you keep going?

I need eight hours of sleep. Anything less than that and I’m not able to function. But I’m also very fortunate to have a good support system. I think it’s important to have your close ones that align with your values and the important work that you’re doing.

Having my parents, my husband and my siblings and of course a lovely daughter makes things that much easier.

Also, knowing that the work I’m doing is in service of my religion and represents what I believe in keeps me going. I know that I’m living true to myself and my faith. That’s really why I’ve continued to push through those very challenging moments and the lows of building and growing a startup. Building a business that is socially responsible is no easy task, and it’s not a task that you can do alone. For me, it’s been very important to live up to my core values because this is what my religion tells me to do, to be in service of other people and to be in service of humanity. 

Connect with Sheeza

Find Sheeza on Twitter or LinkedIn (below), learn more about UpEffect and listen to Sheeza’s podcast Re-envision Business

Sheeza Shah

Kent, UK

Social entrepreneur. Founder at The UpEffect. Zebras Unite operations manager. Podcast host. Mother.