Finding Self-purpose through Social Impact: Shafat's Changemaker Journey

In a conversation with Shafat Khan, we learn about what inspired him to pursue social entrepreneurship, his thoughts on the role of young people, and his journey with Ashoka to date.
Shafat Khan headshot

This story was written by Hillary Alamene.

Growing up in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Shafat witnessed the inequities that came with living in a densely populated city where poverty and child labor was common. From witnessing children living in squalor to learning about the prevalence of children working in factories with abject conditions, these memories became the impetus for his engagement in service. Being made aware of these social constraints prompted him to think about the contributions he could make, especially as the exploitation and discrimination of children forced him to think about these conversations on a broader level.

In particular, Shafat vividly remembers the Rana Plaza disaster in Savar, Bangladesh. On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza building, which houses five garment factories, collapsed. Over 1,300 people passed away and 2,500 people were left injured, becoming one of the most severe industrial disasters in recent time. Shafat knew that for himself and the citizenry, it was a moment that necessitated accountability and reflection. More importantly, as members of a larger community, it would be necessary to consider their responsibility to one another.

Shortly thereafter, Shafat moved to the United States to attend the University of Virginia (UVA). With life in the US, his priorities began to shift. As an experience that is not unbeknownst to many migrants, Shafat began to make calculated decisions about his internships and coursework to ensure his success. Prior to the start of his senior year, his plans were disrupted when he experienced difficulties with his mental health that came from concerns about his purpose and the trajectory his life would soon take. Consequently, Shafat decided to take a year off from school to focus on his mental well-being and determine how he could make a difference within the world.

Shafat had previously worked at an entrepreneurial boot camp at his university called Forge, and in doing so, he taught other students about social impact and project-based learning. Even in his gap year, Shafat aspired to continue to embrace his civic responsibility to his local community, regardless of where he lived. This boot camp enabled him to see the power not only in himself but in others to work together to engender sustainable change. In what seemed to be a stroke of luck, Shafat had a friend who had been working on a summer project in India to reform the garment industry. His friend was assisting women in the process of developing certified stitching and sewing skills to promote economic and psychological empowerment, and with his curiosity, Shafat reached out to inquire about how he could help.

Shortly after, Shafat joined his friend, Janie, to develop the initial idea into a larger clothing brand. In the model, women within rural villages in India designed and sewed pants that were then sold to women in the United States. Women in different parts of the world empowered one another through their purchasing power, and as revenue increased, more sewing machines were purchased.

In an attempt to capitalize upon this growth, Shafat encouraged his friend and his team to participate in the local entrepreneurship cup hosted at UVA, along with an incubator program that would provide participants with additional seed funding. After winning the cup and securing their position within the incubator program, Shafat made the decision to join the team full-time.

Pants handmade by female artisans involved with Shafat and Janie's venture.
Handmade pants produced by female artisans involved with Shafat and Janie's clothing venture. 

He discovered joy through his work, and he realized that this sense of fulfillment was what he had not found in school. It was throughout this gap year that Shafat dedicated his time to developing the clothing start-up. While collaborating with friends, the enterprise was an initiative that posed many learning opportunities, and during that time, the team was able to use the start-up to scale their reach as more “women were leading, managing and growing their own facilities through revenues they earned from [the start-up's] sales.”

Shafat mentions that this experience allowed him to witness social impact in action, but the significance of the team’s expansion was not about what could be measured quantitatively. Rather, Shafat found meaning in their collective ability to contribute to systemic change, which could not have been achieved without the assistance of their partner in India, Mrida.

In addition to amplifying the work of women artisans, Shafat and his team were able to initiate conversations with political officials. In speaking with the local government of the Tahtajpur village in the Bareilly district of northern India, the team highlighted the importance of supporting initiatives that enable women to engage in the local economy as full participants. They also communicated the importance of changing negative perceptions associated with women. To this point, Shafat says, “feminism in the United States is not the same as feminism in South Asia, or Africa, or even Europe for that matter.” With a culture that emphasizes the importance of patriarchy, their project aspired to promote conversations centered around equal opportunities and roles for women in business.

Shafat left the venture shortly thereafter, but having found his purpose and mission, he was ready for his next challenge. He joined Ashoka in 2019 and since then, he feels he has been given a lot of agency to contribute to the movement of inspiring everyone to be a changemaker. His journey has come full circle, as he has spent most of his time working on the Youth Years team to activate the power and potential of young people. By redefining success of what it means to grow up in today’s world, the team aspires to encourage young people to create a culture of changemaking in their homes, schools, and communities.

The concept of the “youth voice” is flawed, Shafat states. “Young people are way more than just a voice. They have a brain, they have a heart, they have emotions.”

Shafat believes it is important for everyone to reflect on how we think about young people. They constitute a minority as well. Often times when that term is used, we may think about racial minorities or we may think of women, and sometimes more specifically, women of color, but Shafat emphasizes that children are often unrepresented in many conversations. The concept of the “youth voice” is flawed, Shafat states. “Young people are way more than just a voice. They have a brain, they have a heart, they have emotions,” and so it remains imperative that in the same way Shafat and his former team sought to find alternative means of uplifting the entrepreneurial efforts of women in India, it’s imperative that society looks to embrace a new relationship with the younger generations by thinking critically about what they have to offer.

Despite having a journey that may have been difficult and even circuitous, Shafat uses the word “passion” to describes his collective experiences in Bangladesh, at UVA, and with Ashoka. Remaining committed to the notion of helping others has fueled this passion, and it remains one of the reasons why he gets up every day, despite knowing how harsh the world can be. Now, he sees this as an opportunity to pay it forward and ensure “that every young person can find their own power to make a difference.”

This story is part of a series to feature the voices and personal journeys of Ashoka staff. Read more stories here