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ISYE's Shireen Khan, Global Difference Maker

Published in the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine

Jul 5, 2016

Spring 2016 | by Tony Rehagen

Shireen Khan, IE 93, thinks globally and acts—globally. Whether reporting on drought in West Africa as an international journalist, aiding Asian countries in economic recovery through work with the United Nations, or helping corporations like PepsiCo tackle malnutrition abroad from here at home, Khan’s entrepreneurial spirit knows no national boundaries. We caught the globetrotting Khan to ask her about her mission to help save the world.

You’ve lived and worked on several continents, Africa, Europe, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, often during politically tumultuous times. What are you trying to accomplish?
I am driven by social justice and progress and using business as a force for good. Like any entrepreneur, I do what needs to be done. Thanks in part to my education at Tech, I am comfortable with ambiguity and complexity, and I also move easily among cultures and sectors. I have been shuttling between disparate cultures since I was a child [Khan’s parents were Indian immigrants], and I can adapt easily. I am able to synthesize information from different disciplines to create solutions. For me, it has been both a pleasure and a responsibility to take on these kinds of challenges. We’re all in this together. I strongly believe that all people should have the opportunity to live safe and productive lives.

But after “getting out” of Tech, you stayed in Atlanta to work at AT&T.
I focused on implementing quality management principles—one of my favorite subjects at Tech—so I enjoyed my work. But I also had the sense that I was living my parents’ dream. AT&T had a lot of lifelong employees. Every time someone got a gold watch I worried about waking up one day wondering what I might have been. During a review, my boss asked me what I really wanted to do. I told him that I wanted to be a journalist and to explore international development work. He worked out a schedule that enabled me to intern at the CNN International Desk while remaining fulltime at AT&T. After six months, I left both of those and moved to Ghana on my own.

What did you first do in Ghana?
I wound up running an emergency food security project in response to a severe drought. It was essentially a logistics and distribution operation that I had to set up in four rural villages with traditional mud homes and no electricity. The real difficulty for me was the remoteness of the area. It was a 40-minute walk to the nearest phone. Mail arrived a month late. I don’t eat meat, and my food options were limited. It was a 12-hour drive by bad roads to the capital, Accra, and I knew that if I were to have a health emergency, there was little chance I’d survive. But the people who lived there were in the same boat. There are trade-offs. We risk something to gain something else.

What did you gain?
I went there on my own, and I was very proud of myself—I’d accomplished everything I’d set out to do, had published some positive stories and worked in international development. I had always wanted an international experience, and I had to do it once to see what I was capable of.

You’ve done it more than once since. You’ve written that, after grad school, you were very keen to get to Afghanistan in 2003. Why?
I was in New York at grad school on 9/11, and it was an incomprehensible experience. The attacks had originated in Afghanistan, and perhaps it was the journalist in me that needed to go and make sense of things. Since Afghanistan was a failed state, there was also a lot to do in terms of rebuilding the foundations for a robust society. It’s those problem-solving skills I learned at Tech. Afghanistan had been suffering through decades of war, and women in particular were denied opportunities. I felt the people there needed a hand after being lorded over by Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Working with the Afghans was one of the best experiences of my life. Most people who work there fall in love with the country because the hospitality is incredible.

Do you ever face any kind of discrimination?
I’ve always encountered those things everywhere I’ve been, but the worst thing I’ve ever faced was racism from other Americans I’ve worked with. In Indonesia, I was actually told that I wasn’t American by a white man who insisted that I was Indonesian and made me bring my passport for proof. People think of the U.N. as a big bureaucracy, but working there was a relief—they don’t discriminate against people because of the color of their skin.

Tell us about Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami.
That was a completely different setting than Afghanistan or Ghana. It was a post-disaster environment, but Indonesia is a comparatively modern, more developed society. Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province, was the hardest hit, and was crowded with aid groups, who surprisingly were coordinating and not competing. I think that had to do with the immense scale of the disaster. I was tasked by the U.S. government to help businesses get back on their feet. I knew that people didn’t want to live off aid—they urgently wanted their lives back. I worked long hours and barely slept. I lost 7 pounds in the first 11 days. One danger there was related to some anti-American sentiment. Another danger was the anticipation of another major earthquake and tsunami—there were frequent tremors and a prediction of a much larger earthquake at some unknowable time.

You just drop into these dangerous, beleaguered and often hostile lands. Are you ever afraid?
I’m not scared now. There used to be fear. But I believe that when you give into fear you create walls in your life. I was really passionate about what I was doing. I had a purpose. That was enough to carry me past any fear.

Looking back, what role did Tech play in your international outlook?
At the time, I actually didn’t find Tech to be an international campus—we had international students, but they really didn’t mingle very much. That was why I revived the AIESEC [once the French acronym for International Association of Students in Economic and Commercial Sciences] chapter at Georgia Tech. AIESEC is the largest student-run organization in the world, and it’s known as a meeting ground for all cultures. So once I restarted that, we did have a place and exchange program through which people from everywhere could interact and learn from each other.