Fahad, former Manager at EY and currently working at BMO Capital Markets, started Shift as a side project and continues to grow it while keeping his full-time job. He discovered and acted on his passion, and now shares his advice for others hoping to do the same.
Becoming a CPA
Fahad is a first generation Canadian; his family is from Pakistan, and he grew up in three different countries before settling in Canada. The immigrant mindset was a major influence in his career choice. “In South Asian culture, you can be a doctor, engineer, or accountant,” he said laughingly, “my parents really wanted me to be a CA.”
After university, Fahad joined EY for four years, pursuing his CA designation. He wanted to be a Manager before leaving since he had been told that being a Manager unlocks all sorts of amazing career opportunities. Looking back, Fahad says he didn’t absolutely love audit, but he loved the people he worked with.
“Something that I only recognized after leaving was that you meet great people at accounting firms. The firms are a great place to launch your career – it’s like University Plus where you get to work with young, smart, ambitious people. You learn a ton, and the CPA designation certainly opens a lot of doors.”
Exploring New Paths
Fahad didn’t see himself staying in audit long term so he returned to school full-time for an MBA. It was a difficult decision and he had to convince his wife that he would quit his job for a year. Fahad received a generous scholarship, which made the decision a bit easier. Furthermore, because the accounting designations were amalgamating, Fahad wanted an MBA to differentiate himself.
“The MBA is an interesting degree – you can come into it as anything and then rebrand yourself. You can switch into finance, accounting, marketing, entrepreneurship, and so on. I knew I didn’t want to be seen only as an accountant or number cruncher, so I figured the MBA would let me rebrand myself as something else, something broader.”
Fahad developed an interest in investing after reading books by famous investors like Benjamin Graham and Warren Buffet, and decided to enter the industry through equity research. “Learning how to value companies, how to follow the market, how to think about stocks, it’s all very intellectually stimulating.”
Discovering Waste as an Energy Source
During his MBA, Fahad competed for the Hult Prize—the world’s largest social enterprise competition that awards $1 million of funding to the winning idea. While researching, Fahad came across an academic paper on the energy potential of human waste.
“I didn’t even know that was possible! My mind got to thinking: everyone produces waste, and there has to be a way to make this quickly scalable. Our initial idea for the Hult Prize was to build toilets in Indian slums that would collect human waste and then we would turn that waste into energy, sell the energy, and return the profits back to the communities.”
That was the initial idea, but Fahad quickly learned that reality often doesn’t match the solution you come up with. The idea of toilets that collect human waste and make money wasn’t going to work because people were averse to handling human waste—there was and is a huge stigma around it. “That was a harsh lesson we learned: your idea can’t just be cool; it has to actually work on the ground.”
Fahad’s team presented in London, England for the final round, and people loved the idea. “In the end we didn’t win, but we left thinking we were onto something big here.” Months went by and Fahad graduated, but the idea stuck with him.
One of Fahad’s final MBA projects was to write a letter to his future self, to be read a year later. While Fahad enjoyed his new role at BMO, he also wanted to give back in a meaningful way.
This was when he received a reminder in the form a letter mailed from his professor. Written by himself a year ago, the letter read, “I hope your job is going well, but I also hope you’re doing something to change the world because I know that means a lot to you.” Pushed by the letter, Fahad launched Shift a week later.
”I wanted to do something more—helping people have better lives. The way I see it—we’ve won life’s lottery and it’s our duty to share our winnings with the people who haven’t—i.e. people in the developing world. That was the motivation behind starting Shift.
I started it by myself from the ground up. It was a lot of research. What’s the problem we’re trying to solve, and how can we do it in the most efficient way?
Walking the Talk
Since his family is from Pakistan, Fahad naturally started there. He made cold calls until he found someone there who believed in the idea. Through these calls, Fahad learned that while nobody wanted to deal with human waste, farmers were already used to dealing with cow waste. That pivotal realization allowed Shift to move forward.
Fahad could be the idea, fundraising, and strategy person, but he needed someone in Pakistan to help him execute. In the end he found Rehan, who had a wealth of agriculture and non-profit experience. “We called ourselves Shift Disturbers,” Fahad joked. Their first few projects were self-funded and mostly a proof of concept.
After they had validation that the idea was feasible, Fahad next wanted to build out an advisory team. “There were other non-profits trying to do something similar, and I wanted to make sure we had the best minds.”
Fahad researched extensively, and came up with a list of four people who he wanted on the advisory board. “I made four calls one weekend and got all four of them to agree to be my advisors.” The most notable member was Dr. Corinne Schuster-Wallace, who wrote the academic paper that initially sparked Fahad’s idea. “Overnight, we became the non-profit for waste to energy conversion because of our fantastic advisors.”
Shift now has ten projects underway, and Fahad visited the first projects last fall. “Last September I went to Pakistan, and it was one of those eye-opening trips. The science behind it is amazing and more importantly it’s having such a positive impact to people’s lives.”
How It Works
Shift builds air-tight domes. Farmers put cow manure into the domes once a day, where it ferments. When there is no oxygen, bacteria breaks down the waste and produces methane/biogas. That gas is piped to people’s homes, where it is used mainly for cooking but can also be used for heating and electricity.
“Biogas and converting waste into energy is the best kept secret in the world. The technology exists, it’s open-source, and they’ve done this in countries all around the world. So the question becomes, why do you need Shift?
- The current technology is inefficient, and
- No one has thought of how to scale it for villages of 20 people or communities of 1,000 people.
Both the people and government in Pakistan have tried to implement it, but the issue is commercialization. Our goal is to commercialize this, scale it globally, and ideally, create a patentable technology that we can use to scale over the next couple of years.”
It’s Not About Being the First
Fahad learned during his MBA that when it comes to entrepreneurship, it’s almost impossible to find an idea that’s never been done before in some way, shape, or form. “Whenever I had an idea and researched it, there was always someone out there already doing it. A lot of entrepreneurs try to search for something completely new, but perhaps a better way is to find a tech that already exists but isn’t efficient, or is missing something, or that can be applied in a different way. Think: ‘how can I make this more efficient? How can I scale this? How can this become more valuable?’ That’s what we’re trying to do at Shift. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, we’re just massively improving it.”
Fahad’s Vision for Shift
“This might be ambitious, but in five years, I want people to be talking about energy from waste the same way they talk about solar and wind energy. I want Shift to be the catalyst for an energy revolution. Waste is a massive untapped resource and there’s potential to implement our solution all over the world.”
Why Start a Not-for-Profit?
“Alignment. What we’re trying to do, at least for now, is give people access to safe energy and improve the environment. To us, a not-for-profit structure aligns best with our social goals.
A big misconception is that NFPs don’t make money. NFPs can make a ton of revenue—you just need to reinvest it back into the cause. We can’t be fundraising in perpetuity. We want to be self-sustaining and generate revenue through energy.
I’m also not closed to the idea of becoming a social enterprise. It would be essentially what we are now, but for profit. It opens up a huge base of capital from investors who seek a return, and would allow us to scale faster. Being an NFP makes sense for us right now, but it could change in the future. We are exploring multiple options as we move forward.”
What Advice Would You Give to CPAs Trying to Find That Meaning in Their Career?
“Before you find the side hustle and figure out what it is, you need to find out what you’re passionate about. Deep down, people know what they care about. Find what your passion is.
Then, I think where people get stuck is: you have to sacrifice a lot for a side hustle. Thomas Jefferson said, ‘if you want something you’ve never had, you have to be willing to do something you’ve never done.’ If you want success, a side hustle, or to build something, you will have to change something in your routine. Come home from work and watch Netflix until you fall asleep? You can’t do that. You need to change. It sounds easy, but it’s actually a huge thing to do. Cut out other distractions in your life.
If you look back at startup history, information was initially not widely available. That is no longer the case. You can learn any skill online. So the challenge of our era and our generation is not that we don’t have access to information – it’s that we have too much information. It’s the challenge of distraction. Few people have figured out that if you cut out distractions and find something you’re truly passionate about, you will be successful. I can guarantee it. It’s just a lot harder than people think it is.
My advice would be: find your passion and limit your distractions. I’m not saying don’t have leisure time with friends and family. What I’m saying is that as a society, arguably we’ve gone too far in terms of constantly amusing and distracting ourselves. We need to get away from that and focus on what we care about and channel our individual talents. That will lead to the success you want.”
To learn more about Shift, visit shiftwastenow.com.