Visiting Utah, activist Malala Yousafzai urges leaders to find common bonds

The Nobel Peace laureate is one of the keynote speakers at the Qualtrics X4 Summit at the Salt Palace.

(Qualtrics) Malala Yousafzai, activist for girls' education and Nobel Peace Prize winner, speaks on March 8, 2023, in the Salt Palace Convention Center as part of the X4 management summit presented by Qualtrics.

Malala Yousafzai — the international advocate for women’s equality and education, and the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize — said she looked at the mountains of Salt Lake City and was reminded of her home town of Mingora, Pakistan.

That’s what Yousafzai does, whether talking to students, parents or world leaders. She said she tries to connect with people and their stories, to find common elements between herself and others.

“It’s the commonalities that help you make that connection,” Yousafzai said in a keynote address Wednesday — International Women’s Day — at the Qualtrics X4 Experience Management Summit at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City. “Then try to talk about what concerns both of you and how you can address that.”

The talk, titled “Dismantling Inequity: The Power of Developing Women Leaders,” was one of the highlights of the second day of the three-day convention, devoted to the idea of “making business more human.”

Qualtrics, co-founded by Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith, is a software company that partners with companies — a list that includes the NBA, American Express, Coca-Cola, Google and Spotify — to capture and store experience data from customers and employees alike.

Moderator Mani Pandher, Qualtrics’ vice president of marketing — and, like Yousafzai, a woman of South Asian descent — asked what lessons leaders in the room could use to inspire their organizations.

Yousafazi noted that younger people, in particular, are much more optimistic about the world, even if they are frustrated with the inaction over injustice. Those young people, she said, hope leaders can work toward the betterment of their communities and countries.

Education, she said, is a way to help serve those purposes.

“When we invest in education, it adds up to $30 trillion to the world economy,” she said. She appeared to be referring to a 2018 study from The World Bank, which said that the world could be losing as much as $30 trillion in earnings and productivity when countries fail to let girls finish their education.

“That’s what I remind business leaders: Investing in girl’s education is not only important for the girls, or their families or their communities, it is important for the economy as well. It is important for sustainability,” she said.

Yousafazi shared her story known around the world, her fight for the right for women and girls in Pakistan to have access to education. Her public advocacy as a teen brought retaliation — a Taliban gunman shot her in the head in 2012, when she was 15. She received the Nobel Peace Prize when she was 17.

In her speech, Yousafzai noted how critical it was that she had her father’s support in her journey.

“That’s the time when I realized that my voice was important, regardless of my age, gender, background,” she said. “I started building that confidence from [that] time. It is really your parents, teachers, elders or mentors who can influence you in finding that confidence and that belief in yourself.”

The United Nations’ theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality.” Pandher mentioned this when asking Yousafzai about her partnership with Apple to help fuel the Malala Fund, the international nonprofit organization Yousafzai and her father co-founded to advocate for girls’ education.

Yousafazi said Apple is helping support activists in nine countries, including Pakistan and Afghanistan, using technology so activists can come together and learn from each other.

“Technology has been pivotal in their advocacy, and it has helped them to make it more impactful,” she said. Her production company is partnering with Apple TV+, she said, to produce content to connect activists around the world. (The production company is also supporting a short documentary, “Stranger at the Gate,” which is nominated for an Academy Award — and Yousafzai has said in interviews that she plans to attend the Oscars this Sunday in Los Angeles.)

Pandher and Yousafazi also talked about the emergence of artificial intelligence in the tech and business worlds, and the statistics for women in that field — 22% of AI workers are women, and AI systems show up to 45% gender bias.

Utah’s statistics around women fall short, too. A 2022 snapshot from Utah State University’s Utah Women & Leadership Project noted that Salt Lake City is ranked as the second-best city in the country for professional opportunities in STEM. But 21% of STEM workers in Utah are women, below the national average of 27%.

To accelerate STEM education and create more STEM jobs for women, Yousafzai said, it’s crucial to talk about gender and diversity inclusivity — and look at how the tools being created are serving everybody.

“If we want tools to serve everyone, then we need to make sure that in the making of it, we are involving everyone,” she said. “If these things are just made by men for a specific age group and specific skin color, then maybe only they should use it — but that’s not the reality of the world.”

Yousafazi ended her keynote by sharing a message that the leaders in the room should take with them as they create products: Don’t take their role for granted.

“Always take a pause and think about how you are influencing and impacting the world around you,” she said. “Ensure that you are making every decision with full responsibility, and ensure that it benefits and serves everyone fairly and equally.”

The leaders at X4, she said, have the opportunity to bring fairness and equity to the world.

“Today: We celebrate, we talk more about it, we remind ourselves what more needs to be done,” she said, “but then from tomorrow onwards, we get back to the work.”