What started out as a school project turned into a global initiative for social good for Fahad Tariq, Founder of Shift – a non-profit that turns animal waste into clean energy for communities in need. Join Fahad as he talks about how he conceived the idea for Shift and takes us through his entrepreneurial journey. Tune in to learn from Fahad on how to manage your day job and run a successful side-hustle.


TRANSCRIPT

Sufyan Shaikh:

Hello, everyone. Thank you for joining us in today’s Ascend Canada Podcast. One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant, and to face the challenges of change. Social change led by young people is not all about young people. Instead, youth are working for their communities, their families, their cities, and most importantly, their world. I’m Sufyan Shaikh and today I’m joined by one such visionary who is leading social change to make the world a better place for us today, and for our future tomorrow.

Sufyan Shaikh:

Fahad is the founder of Shift, a nonprofit that converts animal waste into reliable inexpensive energy in developing countries. Fahad’s day job is on Bay Street as an equity research analyst at Credit Suisse, where he covers material stocks. Fahad, thank you so much for joining us on today’s podcast.

Fahad Tariq:

Well, thank you very much for having me. Ascend has been very helpful in my personal career and development. I was actually remembering earlier today when years ago I attended the Ascend Conference in the US. In 2013, I was involved at Ascend in Toronto and I was selected to go to the US conference. I used to work at EY at the time, and they were kind enough to pay for my trip and pay for my travel and my hotel. So I went to the Ascend Conference. It was in Washington, and it was at this really, really nice hotel, the Hilton, which some people will know is the hotel where they host the White House correspondents dinner, which is just a really entertaining event. But in any case, that’s where they hosted it. I was just this young person, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and I was really impressed by just traveling, let alone going to a conference.


Fahad Tariq:

So I get to the conference, I meet all these interesting people and it was just one of those things I was remembering today at a very early age in my career or early stage of my career. I met these very interesting, successful Pan-Asian leaders. I think it’s important for people to see others like them who are in positions of leadership and success, because then it motivates you that, and it encourages you to think that that’s possible. Sorry. That was a long-winded introduction, but I was remembering that conference very fondly today. And I’m very happy to be here.


Sufyan Shaikh:

No, not at all. I’m glad that you had the experience of meeting some Ascend leaders and hopefully getting motivated to be a leader yourself. So that is, that is great to learn. Fahad, let me ask you this first and foremost. In a day and age of TikTok and Instagram, we are seeing a rise in a lot of young people influencers like Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai, why do you think these young people are so focused and so interested in social change?


Fahad Tariq:

One of the reasons why you’re seeing it, to answer your question is we’re exposed to some of the challenges that people are facing. I don’t think that that level of visualization used to exist before. The second thing I would say is I think we are at a point now where some of these global issues have just gotten to an inflection point. Whereas we’ve always had income inequality. We’ve always had racial discrimination. We’ve always had some element of climate change.


Fahad Tariq:

All of those issues seem to be bubbling and getting to a point now where if we don’t do something, this is going to be catastrophic. So I think it’s kind of those two reasons. One, we’re seeing things a lot more because of social media and the internet. The challenges that the world is facing. Number two, I think we’re just at an inflection point when it comes to the underlying problems that are facing the world.


Fahad Tariq:

It’s not that we’re in the early stages of these problems, these are some mature, significant global problems, and I think it’s just pushing a lot of people to think, “Okay. Well, if I don’t make a difference or if I don’t contribute or at least become part of the solution, we might get to a point where we can’t go back.”


Sufyan Shaikh:

Yeah. I couldn’t agree more. While you’re describing all this stuff, all I can think of is this episode on Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj talking about, we have access to so many problems in the world because our phones, because of our social media. It could affect our mental health because we want to care about everything, but we can’t realistically because there’s so many things going on in the world. So we need to prioritize what problems we should focus on and stick with them and not really intake all of this negative news that we’re getting constantly and prioritize in that sequence. So, I couldn’t agree more. I think you’ve said it really well.


Fahad Tariq:

I’m a huge Patriot Act fan. I was very sad when Netflix canceled it. I remember exactly the episode you’re talking about, where he talks about this idea of our mind is like an internet browser and we just have so many tabs open and each tab is like a different problem. And he’s absolutely right. I think this is a more philosophical topic, but I think one of the issues that is facing us, our generation is this idea of information overload and that’s information that’s both helpful and then information that can be paralyzing.


Fahad Tariq:

So to your point into what he was saying is sometimes we’re exposed to so many problems and we just don’t know what to do. There’s so many issues to deal with. How do we make sense of it? How do we figure out what to do? Do we feel helpless because there’s just so many things happening? But I totally agree with what you’re saying. Sometimes it just comes down to you have to figure out where you can make a difference.


Fahad Tariq:

Look, not every person going to try to save the world and solve every problem. It’s impossible. Myself included what the work I’m doing with Shift is solving a very, very specific problem, energy insecurity and climate change, but there’s a million other problems out there. There’s income inequality, there’s discrimination, there’s safety and terrorism and human rights violations. There’s just lots and lots of problems.


Fahad Tariq:

So I do think it’s important for people to maybe not get too overwhelmed, maybe stop watching the news so much and really try to think about the issues that matter to them. Everyone has certain things that matter a lot to them. For some people, they think a lot about women’s education. For other people that care a lot about climate change. And if there’s something that resonates with you and you can also apply your skillset to it, that’s probably the thing you should focus on if you are trying to have some social impact.


Sufyan Shaikh:

Speaking about social change, and I would love to hear how the idea of Shift came about and what are some of the things that Shift has been pioneering in today’s day and age.

 

Fahad Tariq:

Yeah. So in the introduction, you mentioned Shift turns animal waste into energy, and that’s basically the gist of what we do. You said it in a very polite and formal way, but there’s the reality as we turn poo into power. So that’s the way we describe it to everyone. And that’s the gist of the idea. In terms of how it came about, I always joke with people who ask me that. I say, “One day, I was in the washroom…” No, I’m just kidding. That’s not what happened.


Sufyan Shaikh:

That’s the innovation center. That’s where people innovate.


Fahad Tariq:

Yeah. I was just sitting there thinking there’s something here. No, no, no. That’s not what happened. What really happened was I was in business school a few years ago, four years ago, actually. And we were part of a business… I created a team to compete in a business competition. Some listeners might be aware of this competition. It’s called the Hult Prize, H-U-L-T.


Fahad Tariq:

It’s a very large social enterprise competition. I’d heard about it. The winning idea receives a million dollars of seed funding. So in any case, I put this team together and I was researching ideas and I was looking throughout just searching up unconventional different ideas. The one thing I had in my mind, I didn’t have a really specific solution that I was trying to develop, but the one thing I had in mind and something that really appealed to me is that I like the idea of reusing inputs that are already in our system.


Fahad Tariq:

So this idea of introducing a new input didn’t seem very appealing to me. I liked this idea of recycling, but recycling something different. So that was always kind of in the back of my head. And then I came across this… I don’t know how I found this, but I came across this paper by the United Nations where they said… and the title of the report was the energy potential of human waste.


Fahad Tariq:

So when I read the title, I was like, “Okay, well, let me just make sure the source is correct. This is actually United Nations and not some crazy blog.” It was in fact, the United Nations. So I kept reading the report and I couldn’t stop thinking about how crazy and interesting that was. One of the things that struck me was how come I’ve never heard of something like this before. We’ve heard about wind energy and solar energy. How have we not heard about turning waste into energy? That seems unbelievable.


Fahad Tariq:

It’s one of those things, like one of those moments where it really stuck with me and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I knew that that was a winning idea. I knew that there was something there and that the world needed to know about this. So fast forward a little bit, we actually competed in the Hult Prize in London, England. We competed with this particular idea. We actually made it to the finals, which was amazing because there were so many teams there.


Fahad Tariq:

So we’re presenting at the finals and unfortunately another team kind of they won and we didn’t end up winning, which I guess also goes to totally goes to the point that not everything goes smoothly or the way you expect it to, and not everything is a kind of fairytale type situation. Things do go wrong. There are bumps, there are bumps on the road. It would have been an easier story for me to tell like, “Yep, we competed. We won. We won the million dollars and here we are today.”


Fahad Tariq:

That’s not what happened. We lost, but I really believed in the idea. One of the things that’s important is a failure is now we really… In our society, we kind of praise failure because it’s important, but failure is only helpful if you learn from it. If you just keep failing, but you’re not actually learning anything, it’s a downward spiral. So we failed in that competition according to our standards, because we didn’t want the price, but we got feedback from the judges. They gave us feedback about how to refine the idea some more. And I really took that to heart.


Fahad Tariq:

I made sure I remembered. I made a note of the ways in which we could improve the idea. Then fast forward, we graduated from the MBA program and everyone on my team started their job. A few months later, I really kept thinking about the idea and I thought there’s some potential here. I would really regret it if I didn’t actually give this a shot.

Fahad Tariq:

So there were a number of other circumstances, and we can get into that in terms of what really motivated me to want to have impact and do something that really helped other people. So anyway, I pivoted the idea from human waste to animal waste, because it just seemed more palatable in many parts of the world. You’d be surprised to know that in many countries, people are very comfortable handling animal waste, but they’re not so comfortable handling human waste.


Fahad Tariq:

I’ll give you an example. If you walk around Toronto, very often, you’ll see who walk their dog. They’re very comfortable picking up the waste. But if in some weird circumstance that was human waste, that would be like, “Absolutely not.” It’s like a global phenomenon that way. So in any case, we pivoted to animal waste. We launched the project in Pakistan, which my family hails from Pakistan originally.

Fahad Tariq:

So we launched a project in Pakistan. I’m oversimplifying this process. There were a number of steps in between in terms of building a team and getting an advisory board and actually finding contractors and funding and so on. But that’s the gist of how the idea came about. And since then, we’ve been expanding to all different parts of the world where this solution makes sense. And just to summarize, it makes sense in basically any environment in which people don’t have access to clean energy, meaning they’re using firewood, believe it or not to get heat and to cook their meals.


Fahad Tariq:

And number two, areas in which there are farming communities. So they have livestock that we can use the waste from. And that’s the gist of where we work. So there has to be a need and there has to be an ability to actually produce the biogas. But what I’m trying to do, and what Shift is trying to do is really bring this to the world. I think it’s something that many people don’t know about and certainly don’t know the immense, immense potential this has.


Sufyan Shaikh:

I commend you Fahad for taking the risks that you did with Shift. You’re now helping basically communities get clean, renewable energy and electricity. So that is something really incredible. So congratulations, again, on that. You touched a little bit on the challenges that you faced while starting Shift. Of course you mentioned that failing is so important in life. Talk to me a little bit about the barriers that you had to overcome to bring Shift to life? I’m guessing you had to convince a lot of people to be on board on this idea?


Fahad Tariq:

Yeah. So I paused because I was thinking, I was like, “Well, I wonder what failure he wants me to talk about? There’s so many.” There’s so many challenges. If you talk to any person who started anything, whether it’s a nonprofit like Shift or an entrepreneur who started a for-profit business, there’s so many challenges. So just off the top of my head I kept my day job. So time. Time was a big constraint and a big hurdle. How do I manage my time? I couldn’t sacrifice my work performance. So that was a bit of a hurdle. Also, just how crazy the idea sounds was also a hurdle.


Fahad Tariq:

It’s like a double-edged sword. It was cool and it got people’s attention, but it was also crazy that people were thinking, “Are you sure you can do this?” So that was a hurdle.


Sufyan Shaikh:

Talk to me a little bit about people’s reaction when they heard the idea for the first time? I’m sure you must have gotten some expressions from people.


Fahad Tariq:

Well, yeah. So I think a lot of people their initial reaction was they would… A lot of people, they would just try to come up with a joke right away. So for example… actually, I don’t even know if I can say this. Anyway, there were a lot of jokes that people made about turning poo into power. So a lot of people joked about it. But I will say most people were very intrigued. I think that was probably the most common reaction. Like, “What do you mean? What do you mean like animal waste like poop?” And I was like, “Yeah, like poop. You can turn poop into energy.”


Fahad Tariq:

Then the next question would be like, “But how.” And then the third question would be, “Why is no one else doing this?” And that’s the one where when you hear that, whether it’s a for-profit business or a nonprofit, when somebody says why is no one else doing this? That should tell you that there’s something there. I don’t want to make it seem like Shift is the only organization in the world doing this. There’s obviously for-profit businesses that are doing something like this and nonprofits that are doing something like this, but I think our differentiating factors that we’re really trying to scale this globally.


Fahad Tariq:

And to my knowledge, I think we’re the only nonprofit to do this in multiple countries, and in fact, multiple continents. We’re focused exclusively on turning animal waste into energy. There’s some other nonprofits that do similar work, but it’s more on the sanitation side with human waste and things like that.


Fahad Tariq:

The initial reaction, I would say that people, they joked around, but then there was a lot of curiosity around it because it’s not something that you hear very often, right? Imagine you’re at a dinner party and someone is asking you. So what else are you up to? And then you say, “Well, I’m working on a nonprofit that turns poo into power.” They’re not really just going to be like, “Oh, yeah. I’ve heard about that before.” It’s going to be like, “Wait, what? What are you talking about?”


Fahad Tariq:

It was kind of nice. It was cool to get that kind of reaction. So that was a nice kind of reaction for most people. Then one of the elements also is there’s a difference when you tell like your friends about the idea or your context about the idea or people you went to school with about the idea. I find, especially coming from a bit as an immigrant or coming from that background, I find it’s a different reaction when you tell your family about something like this.


Fahad Tariq:

That was also interesting because of course my family was very supportive and they continue to be to this day, but it’s just a different reaction. It’s probably a very common reaction for most people whose parents are immigrants, or they themselves are immigrants to have a sort of different reaction. Basically, anytime you try to do something outside of work, I would say. It’s like why not just focus on your career? That’s a very common sentiment. I know it’s important. I kept my day job, and I continue to have a day job. I continued to do Shift in my “spare time”.


Sufyan Shaikh:

How do you do that? How do you find time to be basically managing a whole new company and then still having your day job? How do you manage all these companies? I’m sure it must be really tough. Talk to me a little bit about that.


Fahad Tariq:

Yeah, a really good question. I get asked that a lot like time management and how do I keep a day job and running a nonprofit? I mean, look, I think the honest answer is you have to put in the upfront time when you’re establishing something. So in the beginning, I spent a lot more time creating Shift. And then even from an administrative perspective, creating a nonprofit, building out the team, finding an advisory board. All of those things took a lot of time.


Fahad Tariq:

I would very frequently have calls with donors at really late into the evening. Sometimes I would be talking to… because we have projects in different parts of the world, in different time zones. I’d be having conversations very early in the morning sometimes. It was really a lot of time invested in the beginning, but I was very conscious of the fact that if I put in the time in the beginning, hopefully if I built out a team going forward, it would be more sustainable.


Fahad Tariq:

I was fortunate that we have an excellent, excellent team. I think I probably use the pronoun I way too much in this podcast, in this conversation. I don’t want anyone to think that I’m the only person working at Shift. We have an amazing, amazing team that does a lot of the legwork. So to answer your question. Look, I rely a lot on my team. It’s not that I’m working 24/7. That’s not a sustainable strategy.


Fahad Tariq:

Look, the one thing I always tell people, a quote that I like is if you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go with the team. We have high aspirations for Shift. We wanted to go far. So I have a team. I rely on them a lot. Other than that, I mean, look, the honest answer is I’ve cut out other things in my life. And that’s not for everybody. But what I’ll tell you is if you’re passionate about something, if you care about something, without you even realizing it, other things will start falling away.


Fahad Tariq:

That’s not to say, there’s some things that shouldn’t fall away. You should make sure you still have conversations with your friends and have social time and spend time with your family. All of that shouldn’t go away. But there are other things that naturally start falling away whether it’s spending time on the internet or watching TV or whatever. Some of those things just naturally start fading away because you’re so passionate about what you’re doing.


Fahad Tariq:

So I would say that’s kind of it. I don’t have any magical tips for anybody. What I’ve realized though, is any crazy, super time consuming thing is not a sustainable strategy. If you think working 24/7 is the only way to have an impact. You’re very mistaken. I get a full eight hours of sleep every night and I think it’s very important for people to have a long-term view. It won’t help anybody in the longterm and you won’t have any impact longterm if you burn out in a month or two or in a year.


Fahad Tariq:

I’m in this for the long haul. My team at Shift is in this for the long haul. And I think we’re all trying to do this in a very sustainable way. And part of that is use each other’s expertise, leverage the team. And then also you see if you’re passionate about something, other things, other parts of your life and other distractions start falling away a little bit.

Sufyan Shaikh:

Wow. That’s very beautifully said Fahad and thank you so much for sharing your experience. I wanted to actually go back in our conversation and talk about describing Shift to your friends and family members. I’m sure that would be very interesting. And you gave me some really interesting examples. If I were to talk to you about describing Shift, how would you describe that?


Fahad Tariq:

We’re creating the dome. We’re putting in waste and we’re extracting energy from it and then we’re using that energy to help other people. So I would probably describe it some way like that. One thing I’ll say is I actually have a friend. She’s an elementary school teacher and I think she showed this to… I don’t know how old the class is, but I think she showed it to a grade one or grade two class. She’s been doing this for a number of years now. She showed them a video that we have on YouTube for what Shift does. It’s a little mini documentary that we put together for our projects in Pakistan.


Fahad Tariq:

She shows that every year to her new class and basically talks about social change and, “Look, I have a friend who’s doing something that’s really interesting. She always tells me, she said, “These kids love it and they think it’s so, so interesting.” They get it. It’s not a super complicated idea. They understand it and they find it very, very interesting, just like adults find it really interesting.


Fahad Tariq:

I like your question a lot, because I think a lot of entrepreneurs. They don’t really think about how to explain their idea in a simple way. I find that you should be able to explain your idea in a simple way, just because I think if you can explain something in a simple way, that means you also understand it fully, and it also means it can appeal to a broad audience. So I think that that’s important.


Sufyan Shaikh:

Yeah, absolutely. Talking about kids, do you think kids should learn about social impact in schools? Considering a lot of the elementary schools have started to include coding as a primary language in… I think like third, fourth, fifth grade. So do you think social impact should be a part of schools to make kids aware of what’s going on around the world or should that be left for them to be discovered by themselves?


Fahad Tariq:

Well, absolutely. I think it should be something that is explicitly taught in schools. So obviously the idea of the social contract and common values and good behavior and being courteous, those things are taught in school regardless. But the explicit idea of really making students recognize how fortunate they are. And I’m talking in the context of Canadian students or North American students. To recognize how fortunate they are from a global perspective and how much they owe it really to help other people who are not as fortunate.


Fahad Tariq:

One exercise, I did years ago, I went to an event and somebody did this. They basically lined up everybody in the middle of the room and they said, “Take one step forward if you had breakfast every day. Take one step forward if your parents paid for part of your tuition. Take one step forward if you lived in a house.” And so on and so on. They kept naming all these different characteristics.


Fahad Tariq:

At the end, they just stopped and they said, “Now, look at how far you are in terms of… They had like a reference point for this is where the world is. And then they showed how far ahead we were in terms of our advantages. A lot of people don’t realize how many advantages we have from a global perspective. Without question, everyone living in North America and even anyone listening to this podcast is like the top 0.1% of the world in terms of wealth, and safety, and health and all of those important factors.


Fahad Tariq:

So should this be taught in school? Absolutely. But it needs to be taught in a way that’s rooted in helping other people and understanding that we’re very fortunate and that not everyone in the world is fortunate. It has to be rooted in that empathetic approach. The other way I think it needs to be pragmatic. Right? I don’t think that you can just tell students, “Okay. Everybody needs to be the next Gandhi, and that’s the only way you can make the world a better place.”


Fahad Tariq:

I think it needs to be balanced. I think you need to teach students that everybody has a skillset. Everybody has something they’re very good at and they should start with little projects that allow them to use that skillset. Maybe they’re really good at designing a website. You’re talking about coding. Maybe they’re really good at something like that. So maybe there’s an app idea or something small that they could do.


Fahad Tariq:

Even on a small community scale. I’m talking a lot about helping people in developing countries, but of course there’s still a lot of needs in Canada too. So maybe there’s something they could do at a local level. So I definitely think it should be taught. I think it should be taught from a point of empathy and helping other people. I certainly think it should be based on the skill set that each student has. You can’t do everything. So you have to focus on the things you’re good at and then try to align that with what the world needs and what people need.


Sufyan Shaikh:

Yeah. I couldn’t agree more. I really liked the fact that you emphasize that how blessed we are to be in Canada, to be in a developed country. But as an entrepreneur who was doing something so special regarding social change, I think I wanted to ask this question to you from the get-go, how do we living in first world countries prioritize the basic human needs of under developed nation?


Fahad Tariq:

Well, there’s different degrees of contribution, right? Sometimes it says easy as you signed a petition. That’s something that sometimes you can even share something that you think is valuable or helpful or something that other people should know about. And then of course, there’s more degrees of involvement. You can actually try to find out how you can join that organization or start something if it doesn’t already exist.


Fahad Tariq:

But I do think it starts with a mindset. A lot of people, whether it’s in our education system or otherwise, they need to really start reconnecting with this idea of empathy. Human beings are generally… We’re empathetic. We care about other people. But I do think that sometimes, honestly we get desensitized to some of this stuff because we just see it so often. So taking a moment, thinking about what you’re looking at, being conscious about it, and trying to think about if you were the person who in that picture or video, what that must be like.


Fahad Tariq:

And that exercise of trying to put yourself in their position, I think can be really eye opening sometimes. The reality is sometimes seeing it on a screen is very different than seeing it in person. And I’ll give you a story. So years ago, when I started Shift and we fundraise for our first few projects, I actually flew to Pakistan, went to the villages where we were going to build these energy domes.


Fahad Tariq:

It’s not something I’ve shared with a lot of people, but when I went there, it was really, really eye opening. It was very sad to see the condition in which a lot of people live in the 21st century. I can’t even describe to the listeners how sad it was. Just to give a small example, for example, you see a child that was only wearing the bottom half of their clothing. So they weren’t wearing a shirt for example.


Fahad Tariq:

I asked them in Urdu, I said, “Why isn’t he wearing a shirt? It’s really hot outside.” And they said like, “That’s all the family can afford.” Just something like that is so heartbreaking. I get it. Not everyone can see that. Not everyone can fly to these places and see that. But what I am saying is just try to be more conscious about what you’re looking at and try to think about the person that you’re looking at in the video or the picture or the article.


Fahad Tariq:

Try to think about what if that were you? You and I did nothing special to end up here in this circumstance. It was nothing that we did. We didn’t decide to come here. We didn’t decide to be born here. We didn’t decide what our parents did or didn’t do. We were given all of these things and I think it’s really important for people to be very conscious of that.


Fahad Tariq:

That’s the first step. The rest of it is more pragmatic. You have to look at your skillset. You have to see what you’re good at, where you can contribute. You have to be practical. You might be in a phase in your life where you are really focused on your career or you really are focused on your family or you’re dealing with someone who is not well or you’re trying to raise a family.


Fahad Tariq:

Everyone is in a different stage. So it’s also not fair to say everyone should be doing something to change the world. Not everyone has to be doing it right now. You have to do it at a time where it makes sense for you and where you can actually have a meaningful impact. Because again, if you do it at a time where you’re juggling everything in life and you won’t be able to give it your all, you’ll burn out and you’ll let down other people in your life that depend on you.


Fahad Tariq:

So I think you also have to be honest about where you are in your life. And if there is a cause that you care about, it’s totally fine to park it and to say, “You know what? I care about this and I think it’s important. For now, I’ll sign a petition. For now, I’ll make a donation. But I won’t be able to volunteer or join the organization or a start an organization for another few years because I’m raising a family.” Or whatever. Everyone has different circumstances, but I think you have to just be honest about where you are in life and take it from there.


Sufyan Shaikh:

Absolutely, Fahad. Thank you so much for taking the time out today and talking to us and our listeners, and dropping some really, really interesting gems. It’s been a pleasure to speak with you.


Fahad Tariq:

Thank you very much. To anyone listening, I’m always happy to help in any way that I can. Everyone, please feel free to add me on LinkedIn. If there’s any way I can help or anyone that I know that you might want to be connected to, I’m always happy to help.


Sufyan Shaikh:

Thank you, everyone for tuning into yet another Ascend Canada Podcast. This is your host, Sufyan Shaikh signing off. Stay safe and stay blessed.

This transcript is auto-generated. Please excuse any errors.