Meet the Activist Entrepreneur Telling the Stories of Immigrant America Through Cookware
On finding community and the joy of perfectly fried eggs.
Published Oct 3, 2019 2:42 PM
What does it take to shake up an industry? In New Voices, we spotlight and celebrate the female founders who are changing the way we live, shop, and style our homes, one bright idea at a time. In their own words, they share the major milestones and less-than-shiny moments—from prototypes gone awry to seeing their first product ‘in the wild’—that make it all worthwhile.
For Shiza Shahid, Malala Fund cofounder, women’s rights advocate, mission-minded investor, and now cookware entrepreneur, none of that was part of a master plan. After all, she could never have predicted that four years after Malala Yousafzai attended an educational girls’ summer camp Shahid organized in her hometown of Islamabad, Yousafzai would survive an assassination attempt by the Taliban and launch a global movement—with Shahid at her side.
In fact, had Shahid tried to check all the boxes during that first camp, driven by oversize aspirations, she thinks she probably never would have made it to where she is now. It’s this mix of humility and authenticity that marks all of her ideas. For Shahid, it’s not about the “giant act or big idea or having Beyoncé behind it.” Mass influence, if it knocks at all, ripples out from a first step, a story, a single act of courage.
In 2017, Shahid partnered with AngelList to cofound NOW.Ventures, a funding platform dedicated to investing in early-stage companies focused on turning social challenges into entrepreneurial opportunities. With this exposure to some of the nation’s most refreshing problem solvers, it’s not a major surprise (though nonetheless still remarkable) that Shahid decided to tackle an everyday issue herself.
Enter Our Place. While we’re no stranger to the emerging class of cool cookware, it’s clear from this brand’s newly launched site that there is more at play than simply pushing slick, millennial-luring products. Indeed, the accompanying imagery steers clear of immaculately styled photography, instead featuring a diverse group of real people cooking and sharing meals in unassumingly vibrant homes.
This inclusivity is distilled directly from the Our Place team, a largely female, majority immigrant or first-generation group of food lovers. Their mission: Position the kitchen as the space where, as Shahid describes it, “cultures are authentically represented and love is fully expressed.” The brand’s bread and butter is the Essentials collection, a soothingly contemporary four-person set featuring the standout Always Pan. Seasonal releases will be timed to multicultural holidays (first up is a Nochebuena collection celebrating Mexican-American holiday food traditions) and paired with charitable give-back programs based in those communities.
But let’s go back to the beginning. We asked Shahid to share the milestones, big and small, that marked her path to disrupt a heritage industry with a new vision for what a cookware brand could be.
I Chose to Learn to Cook
In Pakistan, my mother grew up in a traditional society where home cooking was the center of family life and a woman’s role was in the kitchen. Frustrated by this, she decided, as a gift to her daughters, that she would not teach us how to cook. She wanted us to have careers. When I left home to go to college abroad, I realized I had to feed myself without any support system. When I came back to Islamabad from school for the first time, I told my mother, “I can’t do dining hall food anymore. You have to teach me how to cook.” Keeping me out of the kitchen was her way of loving me, but it was now my choice. I didn’t want to spend six hours a day in the kitchen like she had to, but I wanted to learn how to feed myself and my friends.
I Became a Host
I was 22 years old when I came to New York to start the Malala Fund, and I was lonely. I went to a lot of dinners, but it was all shallow small talk. At the same time, I was building what became a significant nonprofit and was grateful that people were so generous to me, opening up their networks and letting me ask all the questions I didn’t have answers to. And yet I met other women in New York who were building businesses and struggling to get funding or press. So I decided I would host my own dinners and started gathering women in my apartment.
I would set a prompt that allowed guests to share stories, which led to these really beautiful connections, in which people would go deep very quickly and then become friends and invest in one another’s companies. I discovered what happens when you help people let their guard down and just share who they are at a human level. It alleviates loneliness but also creates networks with those who have traditionally been excluded from the table.
I Fried My First Our Place Eggs
My first home of my own in the U.S. was a studio apartment in New York, so I didn’t have much space. I was working a lot and feeling tired and unhealthy from eating out all the time. I wanted to cook the food I had grown up with, as well as all the new food I was discovering in America, like ramen, tacos, and dumplings. My friends and I wanted to create one pan that could do it all and was beautiful enough to leave out on the counter.
We knew we wanted a shape that was not too deep, so you could flip an egg, but not too shallow, so you could boil pasta. A place for your spoon to rest so you wouldn’t need a separate dish. We worked through an extensive prototyping process with an industrial designer who could make the idea on paper a reality. I knew the moment we had finally gotten it right when I fried two eggs, wiped the pan clean, and could confidently say that this was a much better experience than I’d had with any other product I’d ever owned.
We look forward to watching Shahid continue to break down the barriers to cooking and multiculturalism, one great pan at a time.
Learn from more inspiring entrepreneurs: Inside the Creative HQ of Cleo Wade and Elaine Welteroth Meet the Young Designer Behind Our Favorite Otherworldly Decor My Secrets to a Low-Stress, Maximum-Fun Dinner Party