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Impactful Problem Solving with Shazia Khan of EcoEnergy

“We sat down to solve this problem in the same way that you sit down to solve any problem. And even though it’s a big problem, it’s not unsolvable. Why not place our time and effort and our brainpower on something really important? How do we provide people with something life-changing and impactful?” – Shazia Khan, CEO & Founder of EcoEnergy

In this episode

Join Vicki Saunders and Shazia Khan, founder of SheEO Venture EcoEnergy, as they discuss Shazia’s journey to creating EcoEnergy and the process to find life-changing and impactful solutions to seemingly big problems. They also touch on:

  • Understanding and using what privilege we have to create something lasting and meaningful
  • EcoEnergy’s business approach to bringing affordable solar technology to under-electrified communities
  • Crafting customized solutions from existing technology to put people on a clean energy trajectory
  • Re-organizing antiquated structures and old power dynamics to care for all
  • The importance of finding a community of support that understands the power of entrepreneurs

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Podcast Transcript:

The podcast is being transcribed by Otter.ai. (there may be errors, run-on sentences and misspellings).

Shazia Khan 0:00
We sat down to solve this problem in the same way that you sit down to solve any problem. And even though it’s a big problem, it’s not unsolvable. Why not place our time and effort and our brainpower on something really important? How do we provide people with something life changing and impactful?

Vicki Saunders 0:17
Welcome to SheEO.World, a podcast about redesigning the world. I’m your host, Vicki Saunders. In each episode, you’ll hear from SheEO Venture founders, women who are working on the World’s To-Do List. These innovative business leaders are solving some of the major challenges of our time. Please sit back and be prepared to be inspired.

Good morning, Shazia. How are you?

Shazia Khan 0:42
I’m good. Thank you so much for having me, Vicki.

Vicki Saunders 0:45
I’m so excited about this. So tell us who are you and what are you doing in the world?

Shazia Khan 0:49
Okay, so my name is Shazia Khan. I’m the CEO and co-founder of a company called EcoEnergy. EcoEnergy brings solar energy to people that are living off grid, and were under electrified in Asia. I started this journey over 20 years ago, I’m Pakistani American. I was born and raised in upstate New York, but I visited Pakistan pretty frequently as a child, because, you know, my mom came when she was quite young. And I started traveling there when I was two years old, went there when was I was 2, 4, 6. I’m 43 now, so I’ve been there quite frequently, I speak the language fluently. And one of the things that really has stayed with me since I was a child was the poverty that I witnessed. Just the traumatic poverty that I witnessed. I also have witnessed a lot of joy, a lot of culturally significant, important magnificent things in Pakistan. But what really remained with me, what haunts me to this day is the poverty that I witnessed, and the stark contrast that it was to the life that I was living in the US. So I grew up with this deep sense of, I don’t want to say obligation, I want to say, just sort of like understanding my privilege in the world, the access that I have to opportunities to resources, and sort of the importance of using my voice to magnify the voices and the interests of those that that would remain voiceless. So that’s, I think, sort of what motivates me who I am. And so I became very interested in international development at a young age and I started looking at issues of poverty. What can we do to help people in developing countries break the cycle of poverty? Well, one of the first things that you can do is give them access to basic infrastructure. That means health care, better health care, that means education, but one of the fastest and most effective and most impactful ways that you can change somebody’s life is giving them access to basic electricity. This provides them with more meaningful opportunities. So in Pakistan, a country of 210 million people, 65 million people have zero electricity, 71 million more, are severely under electrified. So this is a big problem. It’s perpetually an energy crisis. There’s lots of violence, and lots of anger, lots of frustration around this lack of access to basic electricity on a day to day basis, a lot of rioting. So this is where I felt that I could create an impact. So this is sort of where I started, I started my career at the World Bank, I worked in the Africa energy sector, I worked in the Global Environment Facility. And so I really wanted to work on the clean energy space, because I feel like this is an opportunity to take a problem and say, okay, well, the fact that these people don’t have electricity, what if we could put them onto a clean energy trajectory, and give them renewable energy, and they never have to even step foot into this antiquated traditional grid model? And so that’s kind of who I am and what motivates me.

Vicki Saunders 4:10
That’s awesome. So okay, so let me paint a picture for us. You’re at the World Bank working on clean energy issues. What opportunity did you see that had to step out of that to create EcoEnergy?

Shazia Khan 4:26
Well, I think it was twofold. One was this sort of impatience. I feel like the World Bank has really smart, talented people. But it was just like, I was just pushing papers around, I wasn’t doing anything meaningful. And to me, it’s like, I can’t waste this opportunity. This is my opportunity to create a legacy in the world to create something that I’m going to pass down to my children to use my life as something you know, to create something meaningful, and so I wasn’t gonna waste my opportunity sitting behind a desk. When I was at the bank, I got to evaluate this program by a group called Grameen Shakti. Grameen Shakti is an offshoot, a subsidiary of the Grameen Bank, which, whose founder won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, and created the term micro-finance. So they went back to their micro-finance customers and said, what else do you need to break the cycle of poverty? And these people said, we need basic electricity, I don’t have basic electricity. And so to me, that sort of started my wheels turning, how can we franchise this model? In Pakistan? Are there other people who are making attempts to bring solar to Pakistan? And so then I started doing some research. And what I found was that there were fragmented attempts to bring solar to people, usually by NGOs, or one off government initiatives. But there was no comprehensive approach to bring this new technology to people and to make it affordable. And to me, that was the key. A technology is only going to be rapidly adopted in a widespread manner if it’s actually affordable, and offers a compelling value proposition. So to me, this was a no-brainer, this had to be like some kind of a market based approach, this needed to be a business. This needed to there needed to be a business approach. The only reason why more people in the world now have cell phones that have toothbrushes is because, you know, it’s so incredibly valuable and useful. And in the same way, electricity is, it, you know, it’s like, it’s so incredibly important. But it’s only not become widespread and adopted, clean energy technology has not become widely adopted, because up until now, it’s not been affordable. But now the costs have come down 89% in the last decade. We can be affordable. The problem isn’t of technology, the technology exists. The problem is, how do you get this technology to people that need it? How do you configure customized solutions to people that need it? And how can you use distributed energy to meet this energy problem? This is a new way to solve an age old problem. And it’s one where you’re leveraging technology.

Vicki Saunders 7:14
Well, that’s really interesting, because I, it’s, it reminds me if you sort of go meta level on this sort of outside energy for a minute, which is like we have all that we need. It’s just not distributed fairly. Right. And so it’s like in every area, from food, whatever. So, but that’s a really, I mean, how have you come at that problem of distributing it? That’s a big one.

Shazia Khan 7:37
Well, so a lot of people said to me, early in my career, and I started working on this in 2001, I started consulting to the national development Finance Corporation in Pakistan. This is a group that administers, amongst other things, World Bank funds for large infrastructure projects, like energy projects. People have said to me, Well, solar can’t really that can’t solve the problem, or you need humongous solar parks, are you—okay? That to me is like somebody saying, well, you know, your, your your cell phone is cute, but what you really need to be doing is waiting for the infrastructure for a landline to be built to your house, because that’s the way that things are done. That’s how it’s always been done. And that’s the way you know what I mean, that seems so ridiculous and so antiquated. Actually, distributed solar is much more cost effective, and much quicker and much, much more of a customized solution for people. So how you do it is that, the way that energy access unfolded in the West, was that it was heavily subsidized by the government. And they built these massive power plants, and then had these incredibly expensive grid expansion programs. Well, developing countries don’t have the resources to do that. And it’s not necessary anymore. Now we can piggyback off of mobile phone technology. So what we do is we electrify not just homes, we can do factories. Ironically, we’ve done a bunch of petrol stations or gas stations, they really need energy. We’ve done a bunch of farms, we still we do factories, farms, schools, hospitals. And what we do is we provide these people with a customized solution for them. And instead of building something really, really big, and that costs millions and millions and millions of dollars to build, and then building out lines and expanding them to people and then hoping that people can afford to pay to cover the costs of building this very large infrastructure project. We don’t do that. What we do is instead we build a customized solution for you on your roof, and it’s just going to be configured based on what you’re already paying to, for your energy. So say you’re paying $20 a month for electricity right now so that you’re on grid and you’re paying $20 a month for your electricity right now, well, we can build a solution for you and put it on your roof. That costs you $20 a month. But the difference is, is that when you pay off our solution, within two after two years, then you own it, and it will have a life for 10 to 15 years, and the fuel source, you don’t have a perpetual fuels or that you’re now needing to spend money on, you now have a fuel source that’s free, because it’s the sun. If you’re on the grid, but you’re under electrified, we can give you a grid tied system, that system will help you to generate power, that you can feed back into the National Grid, and they won’t cut you a check like they will do here in the US, what they will do is issue you a credit. And so that can help you bring your electricity bill ultimately down to zero. This is a new way to solve an age old problem, and much, much more inexpensive, because the cost of the technology has come down so much and continues to come down. This is a much cheaper way to solve a problem that people think is incredibly complicated, and doesn’t have to be, you know, this is something that strikes me is that, we sat down to solve this problem in the same way that you sit down to solve any problem. And even though it’s a big problem, it’s not unsolvable. You know, why not place our time and effort and our brainpower on something really important? How do we provide people with something life changing and impactful?

Vicki Saunders 11:22
This is awesome. I’m so excited. So you’re doing this, when you said in Asia, Asia’s big. Are you focused on Pakistan or you’re beyond Pakistan?

Shazia Khan 11:30
So we’re focused on so we’re focused on Pakistan for now. And that’s because it’s the fifth largest country in the world. And it has, and out of 137 countries, it ranks 117 in terms of reliable energy access. So this is a big country with a continuously growing population. Not only that, but the other reason why we’re focused on Pakistan for now is that Pakistan, because of its population, is said to be on a trajectory to increase its carbon emissions by 300% over the next 15 years. So this is a great opportunity to take a country that will become a big polluter, and put people onto a clean energy trajectory now, so that we—it’s also one of the country’s most vulnerable to climate change. But but the what the work that we’re doing, sizing configuring solar solutions, installing them providing after sales service warranty, all of this, this is a model that can be replicated in other countries. We’re also very interested in Indonesia, we’re also very interested in Afghanistan. Both of those countries are countries that have a massive electrification problem and this is a much cheaper and faster way to solve this problem. Then the other thing that we’re doing is we’re we are, have been on this mission to make energy access affordable, and to use clean energy and to bring clean energy to people in an affordable way. We are in the process of developing a technology, we call it Dosti, it’s a peer to peer energy sharing platform. So this is something that we can license. And then we can license and deploy in other countries beyond Pakistan. How it works is that it’s a peer to peer energy sharing platform. So basically, if I walk into a housing development, or a village, and there’s 100 people there, and 100 households there, and 30 people have an EcoEnergy solar home system and 70 people don’t, well, I can connect all 100 of these homes together, slap a meter for $6.90 into each of these additional homes. And then at the touch of a button, they can order power for a fraction of the cost that it would cost for them owning a system. And then the person that owns the system can sell their excess power to anybody on this network, thereby monetizing their system. So this is a way that we can use the sharing economy or like an Uber model to to create an energy sharing marketplace, this is how we can connect somebody who needs power, but doesn’t want to buy a car, they just need this one unit, they just need the ride. And this gives the person who owns the solar home system a way toearn money, right. And to sell off their excess power. And we can do all of this off the grid completely. This is a new way forward. Yeah, so we’re really excited about it.

Vicki Saunders 14:27
Awesome. I can feel it. And so let’s just talk about some of the challenges that you faced. I mean, really simple. So you have deep chops in the space, you understand this space very well. You’ve come at it from you know an institutional perspective, really understand the challenges. You’re on the ground, working with people understanding what’s going on with them, deeply connected to the challenges they’re facing. What have been the barriers to to scaling this up.

Shazia Khan 14:55
Some of the barriers were really just convincing people to consider a new way of looking at this very old problem. So it took us probably five or six years to convince the World Bank that off grid solar was a viable and a feasible option enough to support. We’re now doing a project with the World Bank and the government of Sindh, one of the provinces in which we’ve been for, like almost, you know, eight years, to accept that this is one way to do rural electrification. So it took many, many, many years, many, many, many conversations, and us personally crossing many, many milestones to prove that this is a viable, feasible way of doing business, that people, that there’s a demand for this, that we can do an installation, that this is something that people value, that this is something that people are willing to pay for. And that ultimately, this is something that can happen on a massive scale. So we’re now, after many many years, about to do a project with the World Bank and the government of Sindh, where we can electrify up to 200,000 homes over the next five years.

Vicki Saunders 16:04
Huge. Huge. Congratulations. And the persistence of that that’s hard, right? Like knowing this, like changing minds, changing approaches to doing things, anything, behavior change is a nightmare.

Shazia Khan 16:15
Yeah.

Vicki Saunders 16:16
And requires such a special kind of leadership. So first of all, I just want to say thank you for persisting, I know, it’s so hard, when you see something so clearly, right? When you see something so clearly, and everyone’s like, prove it before it’s done, you know, like, just the challenge of it. So thank you, for sticking with it.

Shazia Khan 16:35
I mean, honestly, like, the thing that’s kept us going beyond just, this is, I feel very lucky and very grateful to be able to work on something so important, you know, to be able to dedicate my life to something so important that my wins are not just my wins, you know, these are, these are wins for millions of people. So that’s really kept me going. But also, over the—I’m sorry, to get emotional. I, the other thing that’s really kept us going is, is people like you and organizations like SheEO, that are so visionary in their own right, have really given us, have really lifted us up and said what you’re doing is important, and we’re going to support you and we’re going to, you know, meet you where you are. And we’re going to help you scale because—we’re just really grateful.

Vicki Saunders 17:26
Thank you. Well, I feel it in you. Right, as you’re getting emotional, I get emotional on these things, too. Because I, you know, when you’re out there, knowing we can do better. We—it does not need to be this way. It was made up for a different time, centering very different kinds of leadership for different reasons. To make money over each other, like just all the power dynamics that are there, and how we are now in a place where we have to massively reorganize everything that we’re doing to care for all. It’s a gigantic hill to climb. Let’s just put it that way. So much more than a giant mountain beyond Everest. And so we’re so grateful for your leadership and to be supporting you on this. And I wonder as, so you just told me you were just on at the Minister of Energy in Pakistan? How cool is that? Tell us about that.

Shazia Khan 18:13
Oh, it’s I mean, it is really cool to now be given these opportunities. I mean, it’s taken probably a decade to be able to have any sort of, you know, visibility into what’s going on and to you know, and still, I’m always at the margins. It’s never like I’m in the conversation. I’m like, part of the sea of 40 people that are all vying for this, this, you know, person’s attention. But it’s taken a decade even to get to this point to even be invited, you know, to even have a seat at the table, and might still not be at the table. But, you know, I think there’s so much has changed over the last decade, that we have been able to take advantage of that. I think that we’ve also driven a lot of the change that’s now occurring. In Pakistan, we’ve been part of this global industry trade association, called GOGLA set up by the IFC for the past five years. And the last time we met was, there’s 5000 people and we met in Nairobi in February, right before, right before I saw you, at SheEO, and then right for everybody stopped traveling. But for the first time, we actually had a delegation from Pakistan come and attend. And we were there as sort of ambassadors for how off grid electrification can happen through solar. And the fact that the government came and was listening was a very big deal for us. So we’re really excited. We are seeing progress, but it was not, it was not easy to get here. It’s just like childbirth, right? Like I felt like I forgot all of the pain.

Vicki Saunders 19:50
This is truly one of the dangers of being, you know, an entrepreneurial person is you’re like, oh, yeah, I won’t be as hard as that. And then you forget and you’re like, wait a minute, like when I started SheEO, I’m like, oh, this is actually another startup. No, I’ve already done so many of these I can’t do it again. You forget how hard it is to get something off the ground, especially something so new.

Shazia Khan 20:10
Yeah.

Vicki Saunders 20:11
And so talk a little bit about how having a community around you, when you’re doing this is helpful.

Shazia Khan 20:20
Yeah, it’s so, so helpful. It’s so it’s invaluable, really, because, like when I, when I started this when I came up with the idea, so we started as a nonprofit, in 2008. And the idea was, let’s go and do the market research first and try to understand, you know, who this market is, what their purchasing power is. And then we’ll start working on product market fit. And we’ll sort of figure out all of the pieces, raising grant funding. And then once we have built a business case, we can go out and and raise up investor funding. And this one won’t blow our opportunity and blow through a bunch of cash too quickly before you know. But so but when I started in 2009, 2010, social enterprise wasn’t even really a word. Nobody knew what it was, nobody understood why I was leaving the World Bank to go and do what what are you gonna do, you’re gonna sell what, solar lanterns? Nobody really knew what I was talking about. There was no community, there was no entrepreneurs, and I was pregnant with my son, too, when I, when I started. So people were like, why are you going? Why are you leaving your child, you know, to go to this country and do really sketchy, weird stuff and deal with dangerous people and what, you know, so I went from having no community, and really nobody understanding and I think many entrepreneurs face this, to over time, like, I just now feel overwhelmed by love and support. And it’s just like, coming at the right time, you know, because we’re actually finally building the traction. But how to have that a decade ago, maybe I could have done things more quickly, but just to constantly be questioned, what are you doing? Why are you doing this? Why don’t you just get a normal job? Why don’t you know, like that kind of, like, that’s relentless, and that and then, you know, being pregnant and then having kids and why are you going out? What are you trying to prove? That’s also relentless, and exhausting. And so not only did you not have a community around you, but everybody’s constantly questioning you and doesn’t understand what you’re doing, or why you’re doing it, or why you think you can do it, why think you can solve such a big problem, you know, so going from there to having people like you who are visionaries who get it and who understand that there are women like me that are committed to this, it doesn’t matter, we have support, we don’t have some more support, we’re committed, this is going to be my legacy to the world. And there’s nothing else that I could do that could be more important and more thrilling or gratifying than this. But to have the support of a community like yours, to have the support of a fund, like yours, just helps us get there’s so much more quickly and helps us to galvanize people and, and to kind of like catalyze and build the momentum that we need to get there to achieve these, this impact much more quickly. You know, like, we can’t do it without you. We will do it, but it’s a difference of doing it—are you gonna, are you gonna achieve your goals in five years? Or are you going to do it in 25 years?

Vicki Saunders 23:22
Totally. Yeah. And I think, certainly just looking at the state of the world right now, I feel very honored to be leading this organization too and be part of this community. Because now is not the time to be working alone. Right, we need to lock our arms together, working across all the SDGs the sustainable development goals that we are, and use everything that we’ve got to collaborate to get to this as quickly as possible. Like there’s such urgency in your leadership.

Shazia Khan 23:48
Yeah, yeah, we have climate change. But you know what, it’s beatable. In our generation. When I was growing up, the ozone layer was a big problem. And guess what, we solved it, we solved that problem. We can also solve this problem. We have the tools that we need to solve it, we just need the will. And I think even the will exists, where we just need organization and leadership and kind of like support behind initiatives that are already doing this. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Vicki Saunders 24:17
Yeah. Is it—do you have an ask for the community? Is there something that you need that we can support with these days?

Shazia Khan 24:24
I mean, you guys have already been so helpful. I had a call yesterday with Tanya, my mentor, Lauren Walsh, has been amazing. I really just.

Vicki Saunders 24:33
She’s incredible.

Shazia Khan 24:34
She’s incredible. I appreciate her so much as mentor as as a person. But if there’s an ask that I have, I do need some support with, we’re crafting our first digital media marketing campaign. We’re trying to get to customers to reach customers in a way that’s contactless so that they can be safe, and my staff can be safe. So if anybody is interested or willing or has the time to work on digital media marketing content are something with me I would be extremely, extremely grateful.

Vicki Saunders 25:06
Oh, cool. Okay, well, we’ll put that out there because that’s a good one that we probably can help with. We’re so thankful for all of your leadership, Shazia. Thank you for everything you’re doing in the world. And thank you for your commitment. I feel it with all in capital letters. We will prevail, right? It’s like, you will not solve this, you will change the system around it. And thank you for all you’re doing.

Shazia Khan 25:30
Thank you, Vicki. It’s been so great to talk to you.

Vicki Saunders 25:34
Thank you for listening to the SheEO.world podcast. If this conversation resonated with you, please share it with a friend and subscribe on your favorite podcast player. If you’d like more information about SheEO, please visit us at SheEO.world. That’s s-h-e-e-o dot world.

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