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Making Wall Street Work for the 99%

An exclusive look at the author's forthcoming book

This article is adapted from the author’s forthcoming book, The Defiant Optimist.

“Bahu!” my friend Radhika called out from a distance. Central Park was bursting with flowers and kids running around when I found a bench under the shade of a tree to rest. I was supposed to meet Radhika here to catch up. And we had so much to catch up about.

Since our days at Smith, Radhika had become an embodiment of the Lower East Side. Free-spirited, creative, and optimistic, she was writing a book about how jazz musicians create music. Rob and I had been back in New York City for a few years: settling into our new careers, married life, falling right back into the intensity of the city with work and old friends. Rob had returned to investment banking and was now equipped with a law degree. He had found his groove doing billion-dollar merger and acquisition deals, helping giant companies join together or buy each other. He slipped right back into the intense routines of New York investment banking like they were a pair of old shoes.

Meanwhile, I had arrived at a dead end — several, in fact. My search to make finance do good for the 99 percent seemed imperiled. Graduate schools did not have the answers for me, nor did the bastion of development, the World Bank. Through my work experience and graduate school programs, I was creating a bridge between the vastly different domains of development and finance, but I felt so alone in making this connection.

I had interviewed with several community development banks in Philadelphia and the Greater New York area. While they were making capital available in a small way to small businesses in underserved communities, these banks were struggling. Their work was happening in a vacuum, without any connection to the larger financial markets and without access to capital to grow and lend to the community at larger scale.

Fourteen years ago, the author established Impact Investment Exchange's first office on Amoy Street, Singapore.

Fourteen years ago, the author established Impact Investment Exchange’s first office on Amoy Street, Singapore.

Small and minority-owned businesses in underserved communities were hitting the same wall of selective bias. Even if they did receive capital from a bank — and that happened only with much difficulty—other operational challenges remained. These businesses tended to lack the “right” contacts, access to the “right” market, and sometimes simply the “right” strategy. In other words, a whole set of invisible business tools, beyond just money, enables small businesses to work — and when lacking, as in the case of many businesses owned by women and entrepreneurs of color, causes them to fail.

I observed micro- and small businesses in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, hitting a wall in their growth and potential positive impact in their community. Here in America, these businesses were bigger than those I had seen with Grameen, but there were a lot of similarities. Both types of businesses were located at the periphery of the financial system, without an entry to the inside. Both needed much more from the financial markets than they were getting. Making finance work for the underserved “takes a village,” to crib a well-known phrase — but where was that village? Who was going to create it? Where was the pathway for these enterprises and the underserved communities they represent to financial markets that truly value their work?

Feeling disillusioned and unable to change a rigid system, I had left the financial sector for a job with Hearst, the multibillion-dollar media company. I was now overseeing the business of a dozen women’s magazines. In my ever-evolving search to find the source of power and turn it inside-out, I had wandered into media, which I believed had incredible potential for public service by influencing hearts and minds. Media also had incredible power to influence public opinion and the financial market. It sat in the nexus of human development and economic opportunity with the power to unleash change. At least that is what I thought.

But now I had a fancy job at Hearst magazines, and I was feeling more disillusioned than ever. Could I really make a difference by informing women about twenty ways to get the man of their dreams or eight ways to make the perfect pie? I struggled to come to terms with what people wanted to read versus what was moral and just. Adding to the tension between consumer desire and what you think they should desire was the overarching pressure to create content that would attract the advertising dollar.

Even while our magazines were offering solutions for women to shape and control their bodies, I was feeling betrayed by mine. I was recovering from an ectopic pregnancy, which takes hold in the fallopian tube and can be fatal to the mother if not detected in time. Without knowing it, I had been six weeks pregnant when I started bleeding at work and fainted.

During the month of bed rest following my emergency surgery, I had spent time piecing together what had happened and how I felt about it. I had been pregnant? We certainly hadn’t planned it. I had been traveling so much for my corporate job that I had lost track of many things in my life. I hadn’t noticed anything different with my body other than chronic exhaustion. Now I had lost one fallopian tube, and my other tube had been severely damaged during my teenage years when my appendix ruptured. Sadness overwhelmed me.

I thought I wanted to transform the world for inclusion and gender equality, I told Radhika, but I hadn’t done anything.

Now I still tired easily, but I was healing. I was doing some work every day, trying my best to run a vast overseas media operation while sitting propped up on a bed, with a cordless landline phone, in a tiny New York apartment.

But it was hard to focus on the nuances of growing a magazine business on the other side of the world when my head was in a fog. I could not focus. Little made sense anymore. How strange it feels to mourn for something you did not even know you wanted.

Sitting on the park bench, I smiled as Radhika ran toward me with her big smile, crumpled linen shirt, and torn jeans. “Bahu!” she sang out again, her hair flowing behind her. She thought it was hilarious that Rob called me Bahu. “I mean, honestly, how cute and corny can it be?” she would laugh, and soon the teasing became a part of her vocabulary. So I was bride to Radhika now too.

Radhika engulfed me in a bear hug. “Bahu, how are you feeling? Are you OK?” she took my face in her hands. “You know it’s OK, right? Being a mother does not define womanhood—screw what South Asian culture shoves down our throats. We are in America. Think of all that you have done here as a woman — and as a minority woman at that!”

I saw the love and concern in her shining eyes and started sobbing. “I am sorry,” I said eventually, wiping my nose and resting my forehead on Radhika’s shoulder. “I don’t know why I am crying. I didn’t think I wanted to have a baby. But now that I can’t, I’m overwhelmed with sadness — and I’m angry! I’m angry with my body and my fate.”

The author meeting women from Surovi's computer literacy program in Bangladesh, an organization that is supported by the IIX Foundation.

The author meeting women from Surovi’s computer literacy program in Bangladesh, an organization that is supported by the IIX Foundation.

I thought I wanted to transform the world for inclusion and gender equality, I told Radhika, but I hadn’t done anything. Yes, I could occasionally push through some meaningful content — like magazine covers featuring women of color or stories covering economic inequality. But so what? Did that move the needle at all? I felt full of despair, and my words showed it.

“Hey, this is not the Bahu I know!” Radhika said, pulling back to look me straight in the eye.

“The Bahu I know does not let anything pull her down. What happened to the new idea that was brewing?”

A few weeks earlier, I had told her my idea for a new company: one that would connect the haves and have-nots from across the globe, as producers and buyers on equal footing. I dreamed of an online global marketplace of handmade goods made by millions of women artisans, and small businesses. I had wondered aloud to her whether a marketplace would be the next stage of the microcredit movement. Not only would women have the chance to start small businesses making handmade goods, but they’d also have the opportunity to grow their business by accessing new markets through this new medium called the internet. A new online company for collectibles called eBay was getting people excited, I had mused to Radhika; surely the market would have an appetite for handmade gifts, household items, and fashion accessories from around the world.

“You’re right,” I told Radhika. “I need to put it down on paper and write a business plan.” I smiled, feeling a nudge of something like hope in my stomach. “I mean, maybe this new global equalizer, the internet, can help me do it. It’s 1999!” I said.

“Right!” Radhika said animatedly. “Now this is the Bahu I know!”


Writing a business plan is like taking the first step of a marathon — or maybe the first thousand steps. A business plan is basically a structured research paper in which you outline how you will create the business, who your customers will be, how you will grow, and what technology, marketing, and sales strategy you will need. The plan allows you to think through whether what you want to do is actually possible.

Once you ink the idea, having evaluated all the necessary parts of growth, you turn the ideas into numbers. The numbers tell you how much it will cost to make this idea a reality. It is the first reality check of an entrepreneur’s journey, the stage during which the edge of idealism often collides with pragmatism. How will the revenue streams look? How much money do you need to get the company off the ground? Will you need outside funding and if so, where will you get it? You will not have all the answers yet as to whether your new venture will succeed or fail. But now you’ve got some structure to the thinking, a framework for the idea, and the numbers to back it up. Now you need to make the plan a reality.

Writing a business plan is like taking the first step of a marathon — or maybe the first thousand steps.

My company, oneNest, would manifest my quest to connect the worlds of the haves and the have-nots. I wanted to empower women, artisans, and microbusinesses from underserved communities by connecting them with a global market to sell their goods. These goods would be handcrafted personal items and household goods — jewelry, shawls, scarves, photo frames, tablecloths, bedspreads — anything that you need in your day-to-day life and made with hands and from the heart from artisans all over the world. The market would improve not only their individual incomes but also the fate of their communities, mightily. We would give women access to a market to sell their products so that they could pay off the loans they had taken to expand their production, avoiding the fate of the Grameen borrowers who defaulted on their loans after a few years because they had no access to new markets to grow their business.

In my research for the business plan, I found that such a marketplace simply did not exist. The internet presented a perfect opportunity for bringing exquisite, fair-trade items, made by artisans around the world, together in one marketplace. Beautifully woven fabrics from Bangladesh, silk shawls from Cambodia, silver jewelry from Indonesia, glass-beaded purses from Kenya, ceramic bowls from Mexico: the oneNest platform would show photographs of these products and share the stories of how they were made and by whom, as well as the positive impact created by every purchase. By connecting the two worlds of the buyers and the sellers, we could move the needle on global income inequality.

Turning an idea into a plan and then into reality hinges on an entrepreneur’s ability to convince friends, family, and acquaintances to contribute labor and funds. The two first believers in oneNest were Mohsin, a childhood friend of mine, and Vance, a friend from the corporate world. Both men believed in the power of the internet to democratize the market and connect the haves with the have-nots for sustainable growth. All three of us put in some seed money to pull together a prototype of the website.

We got to work right away. Mohsin pulled together the web developers, while Vance took care of operational aspects like logistics and delivery. My job as CEO was to design the platform, source the goods that would appeal to the Western market, ensure pricing and quality, attract the buyers, find the right partners for marketing, and start building the team and the business as a whole.

The author with President Bill Clinton announcing the creation of the Women's Livelihood Bond at Clinton Global Initiative.

The author with President Bill Clinton announcing the creation of the Women’s Livelihood Bond at Clinton Global Initiative.

A market requires two sides to come together simultaneously: buyers and sellers. On one side, we built a list of artisans and small businesses making beautiful handmade products. Watching the first artisans post product listings on the website was thrilling. There was Usha from India, uploading pictures of her gorgeous blue-and-white block print cushion covers and bedspreads. Maria from Guatemala uploaded photos showcasing the thick silver jewelry that she made that honored Indigenous designs. Grace, an artisan from the Philippines, shared a touching story of how she and her daughter collected seashells from the beach next to her village to create small, delicate capiz bowls from mother of pearl. Each item had a heartwarming story of the creator’s passion and purpose wrapped around it.

Even as listings from sellers began pouring in, we had to get their goods in front of direct consumers and small retail businesses. We started pulling together the buyers — mom-and-pop stores, gift companies, anyone and everyone who would buy artisanal gift items.

The technology had hiccups. In these early days of the internet, it was difficult to capture the beauty and exquisite artisanship of the handcrafted items. The photographs uploaded by vendors were often of poor quality and the descriptions inadequate. Sourcing and delivering the products, as well as enhancing their appearance on the website, were difficult tasks. Vance, Mohsin, and I were all working part-time from home, but we soon realized that arrangement was not sustainable. We needed to get an office, we needed to start working full time, and we needed to raise money to grow the business.

Even as the stress of our start-up began to build, I could feel an almost physical sense of satisfaction as the dots between my three domains — development, media, and finance—began connecting. I reached out to my contacts at various microfinance organizations, fair-trade organizations, and artisan groups around the world to get their members to list their products on oneNest. I reached out to my media friends to develop creative marketing channels for oneNest. My experience of running multiple offices across multiple time zones at Hearst was coming in handy as I engaged microbusinesses and media houses across multiple countries and faced hurdles of cross-border commerce.

We were ready to move into the next gear: figuring out how to harness the power of finance to help our embryonic business.

We needed funding.

Durreen Shahnaz has worked both in high finance on Wall Street and in microfinance in the back streets of rural Bangladesh. Following stints as an investment banker, development worker, educator, media executive, and social entrepreneur, Shahnaz founded a pioneering impact investment firm that brings together investors, development agencies, and entrepreneurs ... Read more
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