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Dhaka Tribune

Q&A with Durreen Shahnaz

Prof Durreen Shahnaz, the founder of Singapore-based Impact Investment Exchange (IIX), recently spoke to Dhaka Tribune Editor Zafar Sobhan about a variety of issues in the context of her new book ‘The Defiant Optimist: Daring to Fight Global Inequality, Reinvent Finance, and Invest in Women’

Update : 19 Aug 2023, 03:02 PM

What advice do you have for a Bangladeshi girl or young woman reading your book and inspired by your story? 

Embrace your identity with pride and purpose. The world is growing to be ready for you, so take your place. Recognize the unique perspectives and strengths of your diversity. Stay true to your authentic self, for this enriches our world. Blend your values with your actions, and never underestimate the power of your voice. Be courageous; let your passion and resilience guide you. Remember, the world needs your voice to create a more inclusive and vibrant future for all. Remember, you are capable of everything.

And what about boys and men? What do we have to learn and what can we do differently to create a better world for everyone?

The problem of systemic exclusion is one where everyone is complicit. It’s everyone’s problem, so everyone is responsible for being a part of the solution. As boys and men, you have the incredible opportunity to use your privilege and champion allyship. Amplify voices and stand against biases. Build a table where everyone is welcome, regardless of gender. Challenge societal norms, rewrite the narrative, and envision an equitable world where everyone survives and thrives – a world characterized by shared opportunity.

Tell us a little about your own children and your hopes for them.

Being a mother to two remarkable young women fills me with pride. In this journey, they are my greatest teachers. My hopes for them are limitless -- that they may stride forward with unwavering confidence, celebrating their individuality and claiming their space boldly. I wish for them to know a world where their potential knows no boundaries, free from the societal limitations that once existed. Finally, I hope for them to lead with empathy, extend opportunities to uplift others and move forward with both determination and grace.

When you come back to Bangladesh do you see a major change from the country you grew up in or is it still much the same?

Returning to Bangladesh is always a mix of nostalgia and amazement. While some things remain familiar, there's a tangible sense of change. The country has made remarkable strides in technology, infrastructure, economy, and opportunity for women. However, challenges persist. The heartening part is witnessing a growing awareness and active efforts to address these issues, particularly in areas like gender equality and environmental sustainability. Bangladesh has transformed, yet its essence remains, and its potential continues to inspire.

Where do things stand now with your Women's Livelihood Bonds? 

The Women's Livelihood Bond (WLB) Series has evolved into a catalyst for transformative change. With the issuance of the fifth instalment in the series, the world’s first Orange Bond, we have opened the doors for a new intersectional asset class called Orange Bond (Orange being the colour of SDG 5). It has successfully channelled investments into women-led businesses and impact enterprises, empowering marginalized women across the globe. The impact has been tangible – from enabling women to expand their businesses to improve their livelihoods and those of their families and communities. The journey continues as we strive for even greater reach and deeper impact, ensuring that the Women's Livelihood Bonds and the larger Orange Movement continue to catalyse positive change and economic empowerment. By the end of the year, we would have put out $228 million of WLB ($400 million in total from IIX between the bonds and other investments) in the market impacting the lives of close to 10 million women across Asia, Pacific and Africa. We have never experienced a single dollar of loss. This is a testament to the deep impact of the bonds and how in effect the impact they created reduced the financial risk, thus ensuring steady returns -- both social and financial for the investors. 

What is the next step for you and your lifelong quest to empower women in the developing world? 

It will be to paint the world Orange. We are going in full force to ensure that every type of capital and growth of SMEs across the world happens at the intersection of gender equality and climate action. We are proud to say that the Orange Movement is off to a great start. We plan to unlock $10 billion by 2030 to impact the lives of over 100 million women across the globe with the bold power of Orange. 

What would you like to accomplish in the next 10 years?

I want to be able to mentor the next generation of leaders -- women and men who will carry on the baton of continuing the success of Orange Capital across the globe. I hope I can do that in the next few years, and that will allow me to pursue full-time my three passions -- painting, dancing, and writing (I am, after all, a Bengali -- every form of art is in my blood!). 

What is the one thing that can better the lives of women in Bangladesh? 

Truly make them a part of the global financial markets. The current regulations don't allow us to do much in terms of financial markets in the country. To make our women compete on equal footing with women across the globe, we need to allow Orange Bonds and Women's Livelihood Bonds to happen in Bangladesh. We need to boldly celebrate Bangladeshi women and allow them to be a part of the global financial system.

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