Insights with Mehnaaz Qureshi – Board Member

Insights with Mehnaaz Qureshi - Board Member

Mehnaaz has been one of Sonia Shah organization’s oldest members. Read a quick Q/A with her to know why she’s part of Sonia Shah Organization and what advice she has for young ambassadors:
 1) Why do you believe in SSO’s mission, what inspired you to continue being a part of this organization for over 6 years?

After a certain personal experience, there was a strong desire to give back to humanity in some form of good. When I met Iram and learned about SSO, there was an instant pull towards this cause. It was and still is a perfect match for me. I feel a great sense of achievement working for Sonia Shah Organization.
2) Can you please share your role and everything that you do and the why behind it.
My role is to oversee the logistics of running Sonia Shah Memorial School in Kangra, Pakistan. I am the first point of contact for any issues concerning the school. From faculty to students, uniforms, syllabus, medical needs, maintaining the filtration plant, solar panels & system, vocational centers, etc. I am in charge of making sure the operations of the school are running smoothly. I enjoy doing what I do tremendously.
3) Has SSO impacted you personally in any way? If so, how?
Absolutely, I have learned a lot from SSO. I’ve gotten better at character analysis, problem solving, and open mindedness.  In addition, I’ve also learned a lot from the Board Members to our Respected Donors and Young ambassadors. I’ve also had exposure to other  organizations through SSO which is always cherished. I have had the opportunity to learn and understand a very young girl’s vision and personality, Sonia Shah, and I continue to be inspired by her meaningful insight on life at such a young age.
4) What separates SSO from other organizations? 
A lot of things; The Vision, the passion that the team has, the drive. Not too many nonprofits have been started by a late teenager. SSO is a small organization with a big mission; educating and empowering underprivileged girls in Pakistan (through Sonia Shah Memorial School in Pakistan) and U.S. (Scholarship program funded by SSO for college students). I especially like the fact that it is fully run by volunteers, without a complicated structure or overhead. This allows us to maximize donor impact.The Sonia Shah Young ambassadors are also a unique and important part of this organization, where we are developing the leaders of the future. SSO was a mission of a seventeen-year-old Sonia Shah and is run by a passionate mother with utmost dedication and clarity to honor her daughter. That itself, is what makes us different from other organizations. 
5) What advice would you give to current and future Young Ambassadors of SSO?
 This is a difficult question. Personally, I feel that unless and until the young people don’t have the passion and desire for this noble cause, they will not do justice to it. They have to feel Sonia Shah close to their heart and have the drive to further her dream to contribute to SSO.Unless the present and future young people feel from within for Sonia Shah and her mission they will be doing half the job. This is Sonia’s cause and one has to feel her presence in it. I felt very close to this cause, which is why have lasted over six years!

Quarantine: A Chance to Look Within​

Quarantine: A Chance to Look Within

Quarantine was an unwanted intervention, but truly a much needed one. It put a halt to our hectic lives and allowed time for reflection and evaluation of how we spend our days. Though for SSO, this meant postponing our social events and in-person fundraisers, it redirected our focus towards one of SSO’s main pillars: the young ambassadors. We took this opportunity to build our strength within by empowering each other. Each ambassador is special to the mission of SSO. He/she comes with diverse experiences and strengths, but there is always room for learning and growth. As we reflect on and question the way we live our lives on the daily, our young ambassadors have been asking themselves how they could better serve the world. For the past couple of months, our team has been attending workshops on self development where they can openly discuss traits and habits that keep them from achieving their personal and/or professional goals. The purpose of these workshops is to help them transform into the best version of themselves that they can present to different aspects of their lives. The YA was actually founded on the basis of some core values that are important to possess as future leaders. Qualities such as confidence, accountability, honesty – to name a few – have set high standards for what it means to be an ambassador at SSO. Some traits have been mastered and others can be improved. We have deliberately created time and space to encourage such conversations in hopes of learning from and supporting each other.

Last month we hosted one such leadership seminar, Leadership in the Context of Pandemic, led by Mr. Zafar Malik, Dean of Development and University Relations at East West University. Prior to moving to Chicago in 2000, he was based in London, working as an Art Director of Arts & The Islamic World, a quarterly journal. He also owns a studio at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston, IL where he paints and exhibits regularly. Zafar Malik has been a supporter of SSO since its inception. He is also an advisor for the Sonia Shah College Scholarship Program.

Though the seminar focused on how we can cope during unprecedented times like the pandemic, the lessons Mr. Malik shared were timeless. He advised on how to seek wisdom during tough times, specifically challenges of isolation and anxiety of unemployment during COVID. He advised on keeping loved ones close and not losing hope. He emphasized the importance of learning from these times but not succumbing to them. It is in this uncomfortable space that we best grow into leaders who take initiative. We have to be bigger than the problem and learn how to give back to our communities. He encouraged self-development through educational resources: biographies, fiction, poetry and documentaries such as Daughters of Destiny, Children of Heaven, and Godfrey Reggio’s powerful Qatsi trilogy . He believes to be a leader is to think differently and to think beyond ourselves.

Mr. Malik is pensive and insightful, sharing experience-based advice on how to tackle internal struggles in order to succeed. He takes the time to address our weaknesses and creates action items for us to work on offline. He has become a valued mentor for us by offering guidance on how to excel in passion projects. This workshop was followed by a round-table discussion on the TedTalk, A Tale of Two Americas in light of the recent Black Lives Matter movement. Team members shared their thoughts on the talk and how perfectly it tied in with current events, encouraging each other to take steps towards making a difference even if on a small scale. SSO also launched a COVID initiative of making and distributing masks to local communities in the months of April and May. Volunteers hand-made masks and personally delivered them to suburbs in and around Chicago. Funds raised were used for COVID relief projects in Kangra, Pakistan.


For the ambassadors, Sonia Shah Organization is a passion project for life and it sets its team on the path of continued development. We can’t change the world truly if we can’t first bring change within.

Training Tomorrow’s Leaders Today

Training Tomorrow's Leaders Today

Sonia Shah Organization’s mission is set in 3 important pillars. The very first is the education of underprivileged girls at Sonia Shah School in Kangra, Pakistan. Without the Sonia Shah School, those girls would have no chance of education and opportunity to improve their and their families’ lives. This is where Sonia’s mission started but it doesn’t stop there. Its mission is also to enable education for girls around the world, offering the College Scholarship Program to allow underprivileged but well-qualified girls to receive higher education. This way, they are able to change their futures but also positively impact the communities around them. And lastly, at the core of Sonia Shah Organization lies its team of Young Ambassadors. A group of sincerely ambitious men and women, our Young Ambassadors are always held at the highest standards of integrity, leadership, accountability and perseverance. 

At SSO, they are encouraged to be well-rounded leaders who think outside the box. Instilled in them is a growth mindset and they push each other to excel in every task – big and small. Many of them are still in school and pursuing higher education, with big dreams. SSO is dedicated to providing them with the tools to achieve whatever they set their minds and hearts to. 

During the year, when Sonia Shah Young Ambassadors are not volunteering, they are given training sessions for personal development. In March, this group had the privilege to attend one such workshop hosted by Sudden Cardiac-Death Awareness Research Foundation’s (S.C.A.R.F)  founders Dr. Rubina and Dr. Paul  Nguyen. S.C.A.R.F’s mission is to educate the community about the signs and prevention of Sudden Cardiac Death/Arrest, the leading cause of death within the United States. S.C.A.R.F.’s teen campers  learn about their health, the health of their communities (and families), how to manage stress, career choices, and the importance of giving back to the community. 

To get more information on S.C.A.R.F., you can go to:

Dr. Rubina and Dr. Paul developed a shorter version of their leadership curriculum for our ambassadors. Along with staff members, they donated their time and space to provide the training in their Elgin, Illinois office. The goal of this training was to empower young minds to be future leaders through their commitment to critical thinking, teamwork and higher education.

As a power couple, they took the time to train our Young Ambassadors on some essential skills that will not only help them become future leaders, but also help them align their priorities and goals to become better versions of themselves. It was over 3 hours of intense training, presentation, dialogue and challenge. The more effort we put into our Young Ambassadors, the greater support they can be to our mission. They will stand out as successful professionals willing and ready to give back to society.

One of the Ambassadors, Amina Irfan, reflected on her experience at the training. “The phrase “born leader” truly means that you are born with two aspects of leadership that Dr. Nguyen emphasized – Delayed Gratification & Grit,” she said. “I did not grow up knowing these words, but sitting there listening to Dr, Nguyen, I could see that past versions of myself already had these qualities instilled, but needed to be resurfaced.”

Other Ambassadors expressed that it helped lay out priorities in their lives and how every interaction with the hosts as well as each other was a profound learning experience.

“I feel blessed to have been able to take part in this session,” Irfan said. “Not everyone is given such a chance. But I think not everyone needs it.”

Dr. Paul also talked about his life as a refugee from Vietnam and how he went on to become a successful cardiologist. “It is the adversity that teaches life’s biggest lessons,” he said. “The real philanthropy is to give when you don’t have much. You don’t have to wait to grow older, richer or smarter. Sonia gave when she had nothing, was only 17, had no job, money or title. But what she started will have a lasting impact on humanity.” 

At Sonia Shah Organization, we strongly focus on changing the world, one girl at a time and our Young Ambassadors are the catalysts for that change.

COVID-19 | Sonia Shah Organization’s Food Drive to Help Families in Need


The World Health Organization has warned that the coronavirus pandemic is a “defining global health crisis of our time”, as it urged countries to test all suspected cases. As of March 29th, 2020, global deaths from the virus have surpassed 30,000, with more than 10,000 of those in Italy. However, the US has the most confirmed cases worldwide, surpassing China and Italy.

Situation in Pakistan:

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Pakistan jumped to 1,106 after new cases were reported in Balochistan, Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. So far, eight coronavirus infected patients have died in Pakistan while 21 have recovered. New evidence from the United States and Europe also drew attention toward young adults contracting Covid-19. Twenty four percent of confirmed cases in Pakistan are patients between the ages of 21 and 30 years.

At Sonia Shah Organization, we stand for equal rights, education and a better chance for the future of the underprivileged. In addition to our school in Kangra, Pakistan, the entire village’s workplaces are also closed, due to which the residents of the village are facing extreme shortage of food and other daily necessities. Females are also facing a lack of hygiene related products because of the global shortage of supplies. 

Due to these circumstances, it makes many families vulnerable to the virus, as shortage of food directly impacts the immune system and capability to keep up with an overall unhealthy environment. These families survive on $1 per day income, and with this income now paused for an unpredictable time, it is a lot harder for them to make ends meet. 

Our Initiative: 

In an effort to help some families in the village of Kangra, Pakistan, Sonia Shah Organization is giving 100% of the donations received to them. We will be providing a monthly supply of necessities (Rice, cooking oil, lentils ,tomatoes and potatoes) to several families in the village of Kangra. Each bag will cost $30 for each family and will sustain a family for a month. We have already distributed grocery to over 50 families.

Please contribute any amount you can afford to help these families, as your support and trust in us is critically essential at this time of hardship.

Annual Medical Camp at Sonia Shah School



Author: Shahzmeen Hussain | Young ambassador of Sonia Shah Organization.



Sonia Shah School hosted its annual medical camp, providing students health check ups by certified volunteer physicians. These routine check ups allow to identify and treat acute illnesses, enabling young boys and girls to stay in school. The medical camp at SSS includes vitals, blood draws, vaccines, eye exams and supply of vitamins, prescribed medications and more.

Blood and urine samples were taken from 185 students as well as all the staff to test for 11 conditions ranging from Malaria, Typhoid, Dengue to HIV. Every student is given a medical card with his/her blood group and medical information so they can be monitored. Most of these students would never visit a doctor unless in emergency. Taking preventive measures of testing for and treating illnesses, if any, gives them a better chance at leading healthy lives.

A United Nations report from 2018 presents numbers on illiteracy and health disparities among the women of Pakistan. Findings state that 98.8 percent of Pakistani women coming from the poorest rural households have six or less years of education, with the most deprived population being Pashtun women. They suffer the most in terms of having their literacy and healthcare needs met. 

In third world countries, there is an apparent gender gap in quality education as students get older, mostly due to social and cultural factors. Lack of health resources poses a barrier for quality education, especially for women who have reached the age of reproduction. The scarcity or unavailability of feminine hygiene products, insufficient access to water and/or separate toilets has kept menstruating girls from continuing their education, with most dropping out and staying at home. They are asked to take part in domestic labor or forced into early marriages. They are also victims of sexual abuse and trafficking, making them susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases and other health issues. 

As a non-profit focused on promoting education for girls and women, we acknowledge this gender gap in quality education. Our near future goal is to break down health barriers to girls’ education by making sanitary products available for our female population. With the help of the medical camp, we hope to keep our students informed and aware of the importance of maintaining their health. Healthy, educated women means working mothers who will positively impact their families and surrounding communities. 

Mr. Zahir Lavji is director of ZL Advisory LLC, a consulting service to the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical-devices industries, primarily focused on commercialization. He also mentors healthcare start-up companies, entrepreneurs, university technology-transfer offices, and medical faculty. Having grown up in Africa and managed businesses globally for more than 30 years, Zahir is keenly aware of the important role education plays in personal and social mobility.

In 1972, Zahir left Uganda as a refugee during the mass exodus and emigrated to Canada where he established his new roots. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in pharmacology from the University of Toronto, and his MBA from the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University, in Ontario, Canada.

He spent much of his professional career with Abbott Laboratories, an Illinois-based healthcare-innovation corporation working in more than 150 countries, from which he retired as vice president for international marketing. His career included commercializing billion-dollar pharmaceuticals and glucose-monitoring, medical-nutrition and critical-care devices. As regional director for Abbott in Central and Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, he successfully integrated the Knoll acquisition into single Abbott entities. And as president of Abbot Japan, where he spent eight years, he also managed business alliances with major Japanese pharmaceutical companies.

He devotes considerable time and expertise to mentoring healthcare startups from the Chicago Innovation Mentors group; chairs the Supervisory Board of Temple Therapeutics a development stage Biotechnology startup; is an active investor with Hyde Park Angels; is a Consultant with Breuer Partners & Company, a healthcare consulting organization; serves on the review committee for the University of Chicago’s Innovation Fund at the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation; and is a panelist for PROPEL-Sikich Investment Banking’s private workshop series.

In addition to pro-bono work in his field, his charitable activities include assisting the Aga Khan Foundation in the Midwest and serving as a standing member of the Alzheimer’s Association Chicago Rita Hayworth Gala.

He lives in Lake Forest, Ill., with his wife Rozmin and daughter Safina.

Greg Mortenson

Greg Mortenson is a humanitarian and girls’ education advocate. He is the co-founder of Central Asia Institute (CAI), an international NGO that established hundreds of schools, especially for girls, in remote and often volatile regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. He co-authored three New York Times bestsellers about his experiences, Three Cups of TeaStones into Schools and Listen to the Wind. Mortenson grew up with three sisters on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, where his parents helped start a medical teaching hospital and an international school. The family returned to Minnesota in 1973, where Mortenson finished high school. He then served in the U.S. Army in Germany; studied at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., on a football scholarship; and graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1983 with degrees in liberal studies and nursing. For a decade he worked as a trauma nurse, putting in extra shifts to save money for mountaineering expeditions.

The sudden death of his sister Christa from epilepsy led him to climb Pakistan’s K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, in her memory. His experiences there changed his life, prompting the creation of CAI and his enduring vision to promote girls’ education around the world. Mortenson left CAI in 2016, but continues to advocate girls’ and women’s empowerment. He says, “You can drop bombs, build roads or put in electricity, but until girls are educated, a society won’t change.”

He has received many accolades for his work, including the Jefferson Award for Public Service and the Sitara-e-Pakistan (Star of Pakistan) medal, and honorary degrees from 16 universities.

He lives in Bozeman, Mont., with his wife Tara Bishop, daughter Amira and son Khyber.

Dr. Sairah Alvi is a scientist, lecturer and philanthropist with a passion for the written word. With a PhD in hematology/oncology and extensive post-doctoral work, she works as a consultant for large pharmaceutical companies and an adjunct faculty member at International Islamic University and Shifa International Hospital in Islamabad, Pakistan and Punjab University in Lahore, Pakistan.

Sairah’s first love, however, is Urdu literature. She is director of the Urdu Institute of Chicago, which promotes Urdu language and literature, and an ambassador for Pakistan’s National Book Foundation, organizing events at her home for writers, poets and musicians from Southeast Asia and the United States.

She was educated and has lived and worked in the United States, South Africa, England, and Pakistan. Her husband is an English South African physician and chairman of pathology at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, Ill.

Sairah earned her master’s degree in global management from London School of Economics, two masters’ of science degrees in immunology and molecular genetics from the University of Cincinnati, and a PhD in hematology/oncology from Rush University in Chicago. She did her post-doctoral work at the University of Cape Town and the South African Institute of Medical Research in Johannesburg.

She has published over 100 original articles in peer-reviewed cancer journals, and continues to lecture extensively at various universities, medical centers and scientific conferences.

Sairah hosts most SSO board meetings at her home and plays a key role in organizing annual fundraisers, SSO-related events in Pakistan, and visits to Sonia Shah Memorial School in Kangra. Her other charitable activities include support for the ARCS Foundation, dedicated to advancing women in science and technology; and HDF and TCF, which build schools and health centers in Pakistan. She is a member of Good Samaritan’s Festival Committee and her family supports numerous arts and cultural organization in Chicago, including the Chicago Art Institute and Goodman Theatre.

She lives in Oakbrook, Ill., with her husband. They have three children: her oldest daughter is a physician; her son studies economics and international relations at University of St Andrews in Scotland; and her youngest daughter is in high school and aspires to be a lawyer. 

Ms. Iram Shah is a humanitarian and global corporate executive with a career across multiple industries and countries. A senior vice president at Schneider Electric, a global leader in energy management and automation, she also runs the Sonia Shah Organization, started by her late daughter, which focuses on educating and empowering underprivileged girls.

Iram’s corporate career of more than two decades spans numerous Fortune 500 companies — including Schneider, Gatorade, Coca Cola, BP, and Zurich Financial — in five countries in industries ranging from oil and gas to financial services and manufacturing. 

She has served on several nonprofit organization boards, including Seeds of Peace, Central Asia Institute, Schneider Foundation and Chicagoland Habitat for Humanity. She is passionate about girls’ education and women’s empowerment and has been thought leader and keynote speaker at national and international women’s forums. 

Iram earned a master’s degree in business administration from University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, and is a graduate of Harvard Business School’s Advanced General-Management Program. She was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the UK in 2005one of 11 top international Woman Leaders in Chicagoland by Chicago Women magazine in 2017; received the chancellor’s excellence award from Chicago’s East-West University in 2017.

She lives in Deerfield, Ill., with her husband Mahmood, two sons, and her mother.

Gianni and Giavanna Geati are 11-year-old twins in sixth grade at St. James School in Arlington Heights. Gianni plays basketball and soccer, as well as being a percussionist in the school band. And Giavanna, also a musician, plays piano and percussion in the school band. She also enjoys cooking and sewing. 

A year ago, when Gianni Geati was in fifth grade at Saint James School in Arlington Heights, Ill., his teacher assigned him and his classmates to each “write a news story out someone you know who has done a good deed or performed an act of kindness.” Coincidentally, Gianni, then 10 years old, had just heard about Sonia from his sisters — Giuliana, Liliana and Giavanna. They had just attended SSO’s 2016 fundraising event. 

“When [my sister] told me all about it, I was very inspired about all the things Sonia Shah did,” he said. “The next day in religion class I had to write about somebody who inspired me.”

Here’s what he wrote: 

“This girl, Sonia Shah, went to Pakistan and built a school for girls. In the past, only boys were allowed in school. Sonia helped many other girls go and get their education. She was only 17 years old when she raised money and made the plan to build a school. Unfortunately, Sonia died in a car crash. Her mother then founded the Sonia Shah Foundation.”

In an appearance onstage at SSO’s 2017 fundraiser in Chicago, Gianni explained, “I chose to write about Sonia Shah because I have three sisters and I think it’s very important for girls to get education.” 

Shayaan Alvi Borok,16, lives in Oak Brook, Ill., and attends Hinsdale Central High School. “My mom is one of the board members, so she told me about the organization and I wanted to get involved,” Shayaan said. “I support Sonia Shah Organization because it is truly trying to make a difference in Pakistan, a place that I have a strong connection to. I am also a woman and undoubtedly believe that all girls deserve a quality education.”

Shahzmeen Hussain, 22, graduated in May 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois-Champaign- Urbana, and now lives at home with her family in Skokie, IL.

“I came across Sonia Shah Organization at a dinner gathering over a year ago, where Iram shared the compelling story of Sonia’s sincere vision and goals for the children of Pakistan,” she said. “I come from a family that is dedicated to primary, secondary and higher education, so it was a no-brainer for me to become an ambassador for Sonia’s dream.

“It is true what they say, ‘If you educate a woman, you educate a nation.’ That change begins here, with us at SSO, and I’m proud to be able to improve the lives of children across the globe,” she said. 

Mehreen Zakeri, 31, immigrated to the United States from Pakistan in February 2017 and now lives in Chicago with her husband. Prior to her move, she worked at the Oil Marketing Company in Karachi, Pakistan. Her decision to volunteer for SSO was sparked by her experience at the organization’s 2017 fundraiser in Chicago.

“During the event, I got to listen to one of Sonia’s letters,” she said. “It touched my heart, and her passion towards girls’ education inspired me to contribute towards this cause. I believe, as I quote John Dewey, an American educational reformer, ‘Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.’ Hence, education is the basic right of each child and specifically, an educated girl equals to an educated generation. So, this revolution is so powerful that being a part of it is an honor in itself.”

Enxhi (Angie) Uzeir, 22, studies biology at East-West University in Chicago, and is one of two current SSO scholarship students.

I support SSO for the reasons of enabling me to achieve goals that might otherwise be impossible,” Angie explained. “Through it I became the first person in my family to be able to attend college and follow my dreams.” 

When Rory McKee, a fifth-grader in Evanston, Ill., first heard Iram Shah speaking on the radio, she was stunned to learn that there are places in the world where girls can’t go to school.

“The radio person said there was someplace in Pakistan where girls don’t get to go to school because [their families] need help running the house and doing chores, so they choose their daughters to do that,” she said. That made her mad. “Girls should go to school because boys and girls are the same. Neither one is better. They should both go to school.”

Guided by her mom, Rory went to the Internet to learn more about how Iram’s daughter Sonia had started a girls’ school in a rural Pakistani village

“Sonia’s relatives live in Pakistan, and she visited them and was moved by meeting girls there that didn’t go to school,” Rory said. “[Sonia] wanted to do something about it. And I thought, there are a lot of people at my school. I could do something there. I wanted to get more money so more girls could go to school.”

So she did. Then a fourth-grader at Lincoln Elementary School in Evanston, she raised $200 for the Sonia Shah Organization (SSO). She said she wanted to tell these girls “that other people in the world care about them, their education.”

Zuleyma Cordero, 25, is a Sonia Shah Scholarship Program recipient, attending Harper Community College in Palatine, Ill. and on track to graduate in spring 2018 with a double major in accounting and business. She also works full-time and volunteers for SSO.

The first person in her family to go to college, she has said that Sonia’s legacy provides constant motivation, she added.

I think of what a great inspiration Sonia was and still is to this day,” Zuleyma said. “I like to reflect on how she is changing lives of young girls, including myself. And that it all started with the passion she had, and with the idea of making history. She didn’t give up at the sight of any difficulty, she pressed forward to achieve her goal.”

Zuleyma’s volunteer work includes help with fundraising campaigns and events.