Meet 2021 American Express NGen Award Finalist – Kashif Shaikh

Under Kashif Shaikh’s leadership as Co-Founder and President, Pillars Fund has invested more than $6 million in grants to create opportunities for Muslims in the United States to tell their own stories, build community, and fight injustice through the media, arts, public discourse, and civil society.

He delves more into their vision for a society where Muslims have access to every opportunity, are free to fully embody all of their identities, and are empowered to pursue their greatest aspirations.

  • It’s been a particularly challenging couple of years. What has kept you grounded and whole in this time?
Kashif Shaikh

I think I have been incredibly lucky to have amazing people in my life. From my wife, to my sister, the outai, to the Pillars team. All of them have contributed to making my life so much richer and happier in ways I don’t think any of them actually realize. I am so grateful to have people in my life that I love and get to work with them on a daily basis.

  • Who or what has been the biggest inspiration to your growth as a leader?

I think I am always inspired by young people in general – but particularly on the Pillars team. The strangest thing about getting older is that you begin to empathize with your parents in a way that you never could have imagined. And it’s really easy to look at the generation or two after you and think ‘we didn’t do it that way’ or ‘what are they doing?’ and don’t get me wrong – I definitely have those moments – but overall I am so inspired by their boldness and audacity. I think about how I wish I had that in my twenties and how so many people I work with are so authentically themselves and unapologetic. I think as much as I tried, I spent a lot of my youth trying to apologize for who I am or at best incredibly uncomfortable in my own skin and when I see my team come together, build vulnerable relationships with one another and have it inspire their work I am just in awe.

  • What attracted you to become involved in your organization’s mission?

I think growing up in a mostly White suburb of Cincinnati as a brown Muslim I didn’t have too many avenues to connect with my culture and people outside of my family. But as I got older, finished college, moved to Chicago, I began to see this really incredible abundance of Muslim leaders, artists, and activists doing some of the most important and inspiring work I had ever come across. The fact that ten years later, the Pillars Fund gets to uplift and support some of those people and even more excitingly the next generation of leaders, is something I only dreamed about ten years ago.

  • Upswell, a meeting ground for Independent Sector’s changemaker community, is focused on creating a healthy and racially equitable nation. How does this vision tie into your organization’s work?

I think the mission of Pillars is working to advance just that – a healthy and racially equitable nation. There is so much the world does not know about Muslims in the United States. To their rich history, to their diversity, to their integral part of the creation of this country, Muslims in the United States are a critical part of the fabric of this country and when we speak about an equitable country, we have to ensure that the more than 3 million Muslims in the United States are represented in that vision.

  • What attributes and perspectives do today’s emerging leaders bring to accelerating the sector’s work to address our nation’s challenges?

I think it’s a lot of what I spoke of earlier – their audacity and boldness. Patience can often be a virtue, but it has also been a tool that has been used by those in power to suppress voices and try and tide them over in an effort to keep the status quo. What I am so excited about in today’s emerging leaders is that they see through that. Their patience has run thin and they do not take no for an answer when it comes to building a more just and equitable world. But it also relies on people like us to listen to them, give them space and work together toward that vision. I have been so lucky to have been supported and mentored by people who I admire and have changed my life. And if there are ways now for us to build that same thing for the next generation of emerging leaders then it is imperative that we do so. Today’s leaders bring an enthusiasm that we have to work to sustain and grow and not extinguish.

  • How would you challenge all of today’s changemakers to become more involved in building a healthier and more racially just nation where all can thrive?

I would challenge everyone to push themselves outside of their comfort zones. I think it is so easy to fall into a world where you think you know everything, or have self-awareness, but to me that can’t be the end goal. We live in a world today with endless possibilities. We have the opportunities to truly get to hear from people who we may otherwise never interacted with before. We have to understand that building a healthier and more racially just nation requires us to come together in a way that is authentic. Our freedom has to be bound to other people’s freedom. And part of the way we get there is by knowing, empathizing and actually building relationships with communities that aren’t just our own. Once we can authentically do that, building that world won’t feel like a job or a task, but it will feel like the only way we know how to live.

Want to learn about our other 2021 American Express NGen Award finalists?

Learn about Richard Reyes, Alejandro Gibes de Gac, Andrew Plumley, Nick Monzi, Meghan Shea, and Maria Yuan, the 2021 American Express Leadership Award recipient.

Types: Blog
Global Topics: Civil Society, Community, Race, Equity, and Inclusion, Religion, Upswell
Focus Areas: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion