Raised in Saudi Arabia and educated at Johns Hopkins, social entrepreneur Shahd Al-Shehail’s calling to create systemic change has taken her to Rwanda, Turkey, Armenia, and most recently India as an Acumen Global Fellow. This week she’s taking a leap and launching her own social venture, JUST, an online database that injects ethics into the apparel industry.
On your blog your advice for getting through hard times is to “connect to your deep sense of purpose.” What is that for you, and where does it come from?
To be in service to others. Mark Twain famously said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” I grew up in a small farming community in Saudi Arabia; my grandmother used to do a lot of charity work and I accompanied her. Those interactions ignited my thinking about what I would do if I had the power to change the world, especially poverty and inequality. My professional career took me on a different route, to accounting and finance, and though I was good at the work, something was missing. I “found out why” when I realized I could leverage my business skills to solve social problems and serve others.
Working at an Acumen investee company, Hippocampus, you say that at one moment you realized “it wasn’t about me” but about the power of systems to magnify impact. How?
I’m completely invested in the idea of systematic change. It’s not “sexy” work and it takes a lot of time,but it’s what creates real long-term impact. At Hippocampus, we provided innovative, holistic early childhood education to children in rural India. However, it depended on good teachers, who were hard to find. So we had to build the infrastructure from scratch, recruit and train teachers and create our own pipeline. This took a lot of time, effort, and resources, but it was crucial to our ability to deliver quality, and pushed us to innovate.
How does that insight apply to your new project?
We’re igniting systemic change in the apparel industry by creating a market where fashion is not just beautiful but inherently ethical. Fashion industry supply chains are complex and opaque, and this lack of transparency and even basic knowledge of a garment’s journey diminishes quality and hides human rights abuses and the unsustainable use of resources.
We can do better and right away. At JUST, we find, vet and partner with suppliers who are already lauded for their positive social missions. Through our online database and consumer platforms, we connect them to designers and consumers yearning for positive change and accurate information to hone their decisions. The result is accountability in the supply chain, and trusted, celebrated JUST garments and suppliers.