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Alumni Spotlight: Power of the Law

Shazia Khan JD'03: Shining a Light

"The quickest way to alleviate poverty and convert people into a block that can contribute to their local economy is to provide them with energy access," said Shazia Khan JD’03, co-founder and executive director of the non-profit EcoEnergy that provides solar utility services in Pakistan to the 70 million living off-grid.

Born and raised in the United States, Shazia, a Pakistani American, frequently visited Pakistan as a child. Her childhood experience of witnessing the ravages of poverty in rural communities and the disadvantages of being without electricity fueled her motivation to find a way to give back to these villages. After graduating from Vermont Law School in 2003 with a focus on environmental law, she worked as a consultant for the World Bank with the Global Environment Facility and Africa Energy. Throughout her experiences working with large scale projects scaled for dense populations, Shazia started realizing that small, remote, decentralized villages were still being overlooked. She launched EcoEnergy Finance in 2009; two years later, she teamed up with Jeremy Higgs, an acquaintance doing field surveys on energy access in Pakistan. In 2011, the team transformed EcoEnergy into a social enterprise that would offer a sustainable solar solution to distribute last-mile energy services in Pakistan to the 70 million living off-grid.

The Alumni Office recently caught up with Shazia for an interview.

Describe your typical day (if there is such a thing!)

I often have calls at 6:00 or 7:00 AM because I am speaking with people across the world. Then I drop my kids off at school, and then have a daily call with my cofounder Jeremy Higgs at 9:30 AM my time in Washington, D.C., which is 7:30 PM his time in Karachi/Islamabad. We use FaceTime Audio. Then there are several hours of working on financial/investment docs, reading, talking/texting on the phone setting up meetings with potential investors and Development Financial Institutions, several Skype calls every day strategizing and pitching. I check two apps daily- they are Asana and Slack. Asana helps the entire team keep track of on-going tasks and each other's progress. Slack is what we use to communicate with each other. We have several channels that I check daily including general operations, marketing, social media, ideas, competition, productivity, etc. It's great because each member of our 14-person team, from the field staff to Jeremy and I, can communicate with anyone else directly and through each of the channels so we are all always up to date with one another.

Then I pick up my kids and hang out with them, dinner, bed and then usually another call at 11:00 PM or 12:00 AM. Sometimes I hand off my kids to my husband at 8:30 PM and go to my office until 1:00 or 2:00 AM. I know this sounds grueling, but I really never want to stop working because I love my work so much and is so consuming and satisfying at the same time.

How did you decide to team up with Jeremy Higgs and therein transform EcoEnergy?

We met in 2011 when I was about to go into labor with my second child, and I desperately needed a team on the ground. I found out through a mutual friend that a really smart, cool Australian guy was living in Karachi and had taken over a clean energy project for a friend surveying energy access in rural Sindh. It was divine intervention, I think. That friend put us in touch. Realizing how aligned we were mentally, Jeremy and I quickly gelled and decided to be cofounders. I would project EcoEnergy on the world stage from D.C. and be in charge of business development, communications and governance while he would lead the operations on the ground. It's been a phenomenal partnership. He's got an IT background which has been extremely valuable in both integrating the pay-as-you-go technology and mobile money but also in getting us to use technology to get the entire team to seamlessly work together despite the physical distances (I’m in D.C., he’s between Karachi and Islamabad, the management team is in Karachi, and the field staff is in rural Sindh.) He is an incredibly talented problem solver and has become one of my best friends.

What are some of the daily challenges you face in maintaining EcoEnergy’s enterprise within off-grid communities?

Collecting data about the Pakistani rural market. No one had micro-level data or an understanding of these customers so we had to do it from scratch. Also, we had to come up with a financially sustainable and scalable model so that we could sustain growth. This was hard because we had to generate an affordable price point for low income customers and a balance that would cover our costs for providing energy. Another challenge arose when we made a major pivot as an organization. About a year ago, following conversations with the board, we decided that it did not make business sense to continue selling solar lanterns, and that instead, creating something akin to an off-grid utility service using pay-as-you-go solar systems and mobile money would be the best path—for both the organization and customers. There were two challenges: Convincing our organization that had grown used to selling these lanterns that this was the right path and convincing customers to pay through mobile money instead of cash. Getting them onboard with mobile money is really critical because now we are in a position where we can use this channel to provide them with things other than just energy access (like health insurance.) We can shut down their system or account remotely to enforce payment. It also prevents our staff from carrying cash around and getting mugged—something that has happened in the past.

How would you describe EcoEnergy’s approach to energy solutions?

People think that energy access in the emerging economies is going to happen the same way it did in the West: Big power plants sending out electricity over extensive power lines. This is expensive and unnecessary with the widespread proliferation of cell phones. Pakistan has 200 million people and 150 million of them use cell phones! There are more cell phones in the world than toothbrushes. People can have a small solar panel on their roof that generates however much power they want and they can use their phones to pay for it. It's affordable because we don't have to pass on the costs of building infrastructure of huge plants or even mini-grids. When people talk to me about needing economies of scale or efficiency, that’s the same to me as them saying, "your cell phone is really cute but what you really need to do is to wait for landline infrastructure to be built to connect you to the world!” It's antiquated but people are still doing it because that’s all they know and the times just have not caught up with them.

How does your law school education prepare or assist you in your work? Was there a particular professor or course that stands out as especially memorable or influential during your time at VLS?

Critical thinking skills are useful no matter what field you choose to go into and law school guarantees you the ability to digest a complex set of factors and determine the best path forward. Professor Alan Miller taught energy law courses over a summer I did at VLS. For my SIP, I reached out to him and he granted me an internship position at the Global Environment Facility, where he worked at the time. I am greatly indebted him for helping me to launch my career and for providing me outstanding guidance as a sounding board and a mentor in my critical early years. Professor Tseming Yang taught International Environmental Law, which among other things helped me to digest the finer points of the Kyoto Protocol and the Clean Development Mechanism under UNFCCC. We remained in touch even after law school and I found him to be incredibly warm, talented and sincerely interested in my personal growth as environmental attorney with a strong interest in international issues.

What keeps you motivated to pursue your goal of providing solar energy to an increasing number of villagers?

We have built this company over seven years. I have devoted the last decade of my life to this because the quickest way to alleviate poverty and convert people into a block that can contribute to their local economy is to provide them with energy access. I have been tormented by images of poverty that I witnessed as a child to Pakistan. Now I am doing something to change that, and there is no greater satisfaction. I worked so hard to get an internship and then a consulting position at the World Bank. Once I got there, I realized I wanted to do something more hands-on that would have a direct impact. I feel lucky to have found that. Then there are the scores of people that I meet on my field visits. An illiterate woman with three kids and no husband, supporting them and her elderly parents. We hired her because she is an incredibly smart and talented saleswoman and works so hard. She has now earned enough to build her own house! Then there are the small businessmen—tea shop owners, for instance. They have tripled their income by being able to keep their businesses open past dark, making cell phones available to their customers, and where people can come watch the news or a cricket match. Then there are the kids who don't have to walk miles to buy kerosene or cut down fuel wood. They can now study at home at night by a solar light. These people are changing surroundings and reinvesting in their communities.


Read the recent article about Shazia and EcoEnergy published early this month by the Natural Resources Defense Council.


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