You don’t just walk into The Battery in San Francisco—a converted factory social club in the Financial District—and grab a drink. No, you need an invitation from a carefully vetted member who had to be recommended by another member for inclusion.
It’s a place Ruzwana Bashir never could have imagined would be a part of her future while she was growing up in a poor, isolated Pakistani community in the United Kingdom.
Bashir breezes into The Battery wearing black leggings, a black top and a flowered skirt. She’s at ease in her surroundings, quickly greeting fellow up-and-comers. Bashir is only 33, but she’s already a tech success story. She is the CEO and co-founder of Peek, an online travel company backed by the likes of Eric Schmidt of Google, David Bonderman of TPG Capital and Jack Dorsey of Twitter.
The company is a one-stop shop for online travel planning. You enter your destination, and Peek creates a list of potential excursions, activities and adventures you can book. Peek was founded in 2012, and the following year it announced Peek Pro, which helps professional tour operators run their businesses.
Bashir isn’t some everyday woman with a lucky idea.
Bashir isn’t some everyday woman with a lucky idea. She graduated from Oxford University and earned a master’s degree in business administration at Harvard University on a Fulbright Scholarship. She then went on to work as an investment banking intern at Goldman Sachs and got a job in private equity at the Blackstone Group. But that impressive résumé doesn’t make her story any less inspiring. Not listed is the fact she braved the disapproval of her parents and her small community in Skipton, U.K. (population 15,000), when she spoke out against her childhood abuser and brought the man to justice.
At 10, Bashir was sexually abused by a neighbor and, “paralyzed by shame,” she says. “I said nothing.”
She continued to say nothing until she learned of a report published in 2014 that 1,400 children from Rotherham, only 60 miles from where Bashir grew up, had been sexually exploited between 1997 and 2013—largely by members of the British-Pakistani community. The Times, a British daily newspaper, investigated and found that the crimes were covered up by local government, law enforcement and social workers.
Bashir read the report and felt compelled to speak out about her own abuse. She returned to Skipton after being gone for 10 years to testify against her abuser. She was nervous about speaking out—she wanted to earn the respect of her peers before baring her troubling past. But when the Rotherham report came out, she felt it was her duty to come forward.
“You think your voice only matters after you’ve achieved a certain amount of success, so what you reveal won’t impact your career or your life, but I think success is relative,” Bashir says. “We all have a voice, and you have to use that voice to help others. If it helps one person, it is worth it.”
She says part of the reason she spoke out against her abuser was because he was still living in the community and potentially still abusing children. “I felt I was in a position to protect these kids, and I felt a deep moral obligation to them,” Bashir says. She informed the authorities. The man was charged and later convicted of his crimes against Bashir and another victim, who was 6 years old at the time his abuse began. He’s still in prison today.
Bashir wrote an essay for the Guardian in 2014 that sparked international attention. Julian Smith, Skipton’s Member of Parliament, praised Bashir’s bravery in telling her story.
“It would be easy to assume that our beautiful, mostly tranquil corner of Yorkshire is somehow immune from the horrendous cases of child abuse,” Smith wrote in the local newspaper, Craven Herald & Pioneer. “However, former Skipton resident Ruzwana Bashir’s heartbreaking article in the Guardian shows… how these crimes are in fact happening on our doorstep. Fear has produced a cloak of silence…. This has to end.”
The community Bashir grew up in was deeply patriarchal, which she says contributed to her hesitation about coming forward. “I was split between two cultures, English and Pakistani, and it was pretty segregated,” Bashir says. “Home was not an easy place.” She escaped with school, a place where she could excel and feel worthy.
Bashir smiles when asked how her difficult childhood allowed her to become the self-assured woman she is today. “It taught me a lot about being resilient and having a lot of grit.”
These qualities allow Bashir to simultaneously command a room and make everyone feel at ease. Oskar Bruening, her Peek co-founder, remembers meeting with potential business partners for several weeks in hopes of taking on a new project. He struggled finding someone he connected with until he met Bashir, who had already done several months of research and was working on a business plan for her company. He was immediately struck by her energy.
The two clicked, even though their personalities were starkly different. Bruening says where Bashir is a strategic thinker who runs a million miles a minute, he is more even-keeled, stable and execution-oriented. “We made the decision to work together within days and it was a bit of a gamble, but I’m glad we both followed our instincts and took that risk,” Bruening says.
Having an innovative idea is often the easiest part of starting a company. Getting a team together that can bring that idea to fruition is the greater challenge. Bruening knew he could overcome this challenge with Bashir as his co-founder.
“She is fearless, hardworking and has a lot of drive,” Bruening says. “She deeply cares about the team and their well-being. All of these make her a great role model for everyone in the company.”
This fearless personality helped Bashir bring her abuser to justice, a decision that did not sit well with her parents. “They were not supportive,” she says. “My mother was angry that I was heaping shame on my family, and my family would be ostracized. She begged me not to go to the police.”
After Bashir’s story went public in 2014, fellow entrepreneur Matt Lauzon, who founded tech companies Gemvara and Dunwello, reached out to her. The two connected on the phone. He revealed that he’d been sexually assaulted as a child by a police officer in his small town of Biddeford, Maine. Bashir encouraged him to contact the police. In 2014 Lauzon posted on Facebook that after nearly two decades of being too ashamed to come forward, Bashir inspired him to speak out.
“She has made a profound impact on my life,” Lauzon says. “She gave me a great deal of courage to speak publicly. She let me know that if you are a survivor of abuse, you are not alone and you have nothing to be ashamed of. You are worthy of love and achievement and your definition of success.”
On the surface, Bashir looks like many other tech professionals—poised and radiating with boundless energy and positivity. No one would peg her as a person who grew up in a hardscrabble circumstance with seemingly few options to advance socially or economically. Add that to the burden of being victimized as a child, and it’s remarkable she has emerged with such self-confidence.
I’m a big believer in making impossible things possible. I think many people just underestimate what they can achieve.”
“There is a lot of suffering in this world—death, illness—and the human spirit is able to survive it,” Bashir says. “I didn’t have a choice but to be resilient. What would my life have looked like if I hadn’t pushed myself, getting an education? I wouldn’t be working, I wouldn’t have the freedom I have now or have done the things I’ve been able to do.”
She knew early on that she wanted to be an entrepreneur, a person who could use self-determination to build a life and a career. Bashir initially worked in finance, a world she describes as aggressive and combative. She says her home environment prepared her to be blunt and assertive, qualities that proved beneficial in that setting.
But her goal was always to be her own boss. She wanted to control her own destiny. “I value my freedom more intensely than most people,” she says. “I want to spend my time the way I want, and that’s the luxury when you get to fulfill your dreams. I didn’t come from an environment of wealth, so I know the alternative is that you have no money. And that’s not the worst thing that can happen to you.”
Bashir says she grew up with a feeling of “otherness” that made her wonder what it must be like in other parts of the world. From there, she developed her love of travel. At The Battery, she chats about having just returned from Sri Lanka, where she visited a tea plantation, went on a hot air balloon ride and explored Buddhism.
The young entrepreneur needs to dash. She’s off to another meeting, but first Bashir leaves me with one last bit of self-reflection.
“It’s amazing to be where I am,” she says. “I’m pretty sure if you think this young girl from a small Pakistani community would grow up, raise $20 million to start her own company and live in San Francisco, you would have said that isn’t possible. I’m a big believer in making impossible things possible. I think many people just underestimate what they can achieve.”