When I was a little girl, there was a lack of female heroes in everyday pop culture – women I could look up to, who kicked ass, who were brave beyond measure.  Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Disney princesses were more often damsels in distress than awesome heroines, and female “leads” were glorified sidekicks, not Saturday morning cartoon headliners.

I found my inspiration instead in the stories immortalized by my family – about a fast-talking feminist, a fearless revolutionary, a rifle-wielding sharpshooter.

I found inspiration in my grandmother.

Shayera Ahmed wasn’t born with superpowers or with extraordinary abilities, but she was brave and smart – one of the first commanders of the Women’s National Guard of Pakistan in 1949, who would go on to protect my family and shepherd them to safety when Bangladesh (what was then East-Pakistan) fought for their independence against Pakistan (then West-Pakistan) in 1971. My Bangladeshi nationalist family would often tell tales of the 1971 Liberation War, and Naan (what her grandchildren all called her), was always my favorite character.

My grandmother passed away a few years ago, but her stories of fortitude and strength in the face of struggle have stayed behind. For me, it was precisely because Naan wasn’t a superhero that I found her stories to be so much more inspirational and incredible. She never sat back and let someone set the rules for her, not even after my grandfather died in 1958, leaving her a widow at just 36 years old with eight children.  The universe never constrained my grandmother, it conformed to her. She showed us all that if you had conviction and were brave – often times when no one was looking – you too could write your own story.

Shayera Ahmed taught me that heroes come in all shapes and sizes. They are captured in daily glimpses of human greatness– from the homeless man on your street corner struggling to make a comeback, or the single mother of four trying to make ends meet. Heroes are ordinary people like my grandmother who are brave beyond measure, who make sacrifices for things bigger than themselves, and whose examples of daily strength and courage push us to be better.

My friend Hosan Lee (Founder of TableTribes) and I decided to start The Hero Project as a platform to tell these stories of daily greatness and strength. As two friends passionate about human goodness, connection, and empathy, we felt there needed to be more efforts to lift up the heroes hidden among us.

The Hero Project launches on August 1st and aims to be a collection of portraits of unsung heroes shared by the people they have inspired. While both Hosan and I are passionate storytellers, THP is more than an exercise in storytelling – it is a call to action for us all to be the best version of ourselves, to find inspiration in and honor the ordinary people among us, whether it’s your mentor, neighbor, friend, or – in my case – your warrior of a grandmother.

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Kalsoom Lakhani is the CEO/Founder of Invest2Innovate, which supports startups in Pakistan and aims to grow the entrepreneurial ecosystem in new and untapped markets. She is also the co-founder of The Hero Project, an online platform that celebrates our everyday hidden heroes, and is deeply passionate about startups, coffee ice cubes and her dog Rosie. 

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