Shakira Niazi is grateful for the life she has lived.

Having escaped Afghanistan as a preteen, Niazi, now 40, has since lived the American dream. She received an MBA, drove a Maserati, earned an average of $250,000 a year in the mortgage banking industry, and both her children attend private high school De La Salle in Concord.

Then, last March, during World Water Day, she stumbled upon a report released by UNICEF about access to clean drinking water that changed the course of her professional life. In the report, she spotted a map with a little pink dot.

"That is my country of Afghanistan, and that color means that more than 52 percent of its entire population doesn't have access to clean water," she said. "Up until last year, I really had no idea. I knew this was an issue, but not to the level that I had just found out."

Niazi remembers her father subsequently planted the seed by telling her she had to figure out how to build water wells for those in need.

"I asked him why water wells and he responded, 'Water is life; with water those poor villagers could survive and become self-sufficient,' " she said.

That made her realize that instead of big paychecks being her inspiration, she wanted to find a career that would be bigger than herself. It wasn't good enough just to "live a comfortable life."

"In life, we can just go for the bigger house or bigger car, but at some point it reaches a point where (it becomes) 'What's next?' " she said. "At some point we feel like we need something more fulfilling."


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Niazi used $100,000 of her own money this month to launch Salvare La Vita Water, a water company with biodegradable bottles that will use its profits to address the lack of clean drinking water around the world. The Italian name "Salvare La Vita" translates to "Saving Lives."

"I've never done anything like this where I'm putting in everything out of pocket, and there is nothing right now in the projections that I can count on it coming back to me," she said. "Yet there's something about it that drives me with this inner contentment that it's all going to be OK."

Even though the company is run as a for-profit business, the profits are designated to help build wells around the world. The first profits will go to a village in Afghanistan where the unsafe drinking water level is more than 80 percent.

Niazi realizes that she could have just made a donation and impacted the lives of many, but she wanted to create a system that would make a difference even beyond her lifetime.

"Everybody is stuck on these other headlines going on in Afghanistan, but this is enormous," she said. "The only difference between us and them is that they are born into a part of the world that doesn't have a chance."

Niazi escaped from Afghanistan in 1981 after the Soviet Union invaded, traveled to Pakistan before flying to Germany for nine months, and then ended up in the United States.

"I remember watching the news and seeing some of the mountains and thinking, 'We actually walked across those,' " the graduate of Ygnacio Valley High School said. "We all very easily could have been one of the statistics."

Through a local nonprofit agency, Niazi has determined that 10 water pump wells will provide clean drinking water for 1,500 families, a minimum of 4,500 people.

Broken down even further, 31 bottles will provide one person clean drinking water for 20 years, a reminder that is placed on every bottle.

"I want to engage the general consumer so they can see how little it takes to impact someone's life clear across the world," she said.

Currently the water is being sold in Bay Area establishments such as Planet Fresh Gourmet Burritos in Pleasanton; Grub N Go and Northside Cafe in Berkeley; Jackson Street Cafe in Oakland; Mama's in San Francisco, and Milano Pizza in Tracy. Her hope is that grocers such as Whole Foods will offer the water, too.

She's also close to landing a deal with De La Salle to have the cafeteria offer the water.

Niazi realizes that Afghanistan is a political issue, and that many will wonder why she chose Americans to be the first target of her clean-water campaign.

But Niazi sees it as a second opportunity.

"If I can help bridge the gap between the two countries, I want to do that," she said. "Not everyone there is the Taliban. There are a lot of simple people like us just trying to make things meet, and if they can't get clean water, many of them won't make it."

SHAKIRA NIAZI

Age: 40
Hometown: San Ramon
Claim to fame: Started business Salvare La Vita Water
Education: Ygnacio Valley High School, Cal State Hayward, University of Phoenix
Quotable: "I've never done anything like this where I'm putting in everything out of pocket, and there is nothing right now in the projections that I can count on coming back to me. Yet there's something about it that drives me with this inner contentment that it's all going to be OK."