Legendary social innovator and self-proclaimed serial entrepreneur Priya Haji, who launched four different enterprises during her career, died suddenly Monday night at her home in San Francisco. Early indications are that Haji suffered a pulmonary embolism, according to a statement from her family, though autopsy results are still pending.
Haji, who turned 44 on July 4, was chief executive officer and co-founder of San Francisco, Calif.-based SaveUp, a free, nationwide rewards program aimed at helping Americans save money and pay down their debts, which she launched in 2011 with Sammy Shreibati, co-founder and chief technology officer.
Nicknamed “Firecracker” by her mother because she was born on the 4th of July, Haji was a pioneer of female entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley. “At SaveUp, we fed off her energy and passion to building something that helped the world. Priya was always striving to help people in everything she did. She was a courageous leader and colleague, but first and foremost a friend,” Shreibati said.
“We have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support from everyone whose lives were touched by Priya,” her family said in a statement released Wednesday night.
Kevin Lynch, president and CEO of Social Enterprise Alliance, recalled Haji as a legend in social enterprise circles. She was a keynote speaker at the organization’s 2013 conference. “She was probably our most popular speaker at our conference by a wide margin,” he said, describing her as brilliant and captivating.
A 1993 graduate of Stanford University with a bachelor of arts degree, Haji earned a MBA from University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. In her senior year at Stanford, she co-founded Free at Last, for which she received an Echoing Green Global Fellow. The national model for substance abuse treatment and HIV/AIDS intervention program served Black and Latino communities in the East Palo Alto, Calif. area. She served as its executive director from 1993 to 2000.
That wasn’t her first social enterprise. She was just 16 when she helped her father launch a free health clinic called Health for All in her native Bryan, Texas. Haji incorporated the company, comparing the paperwork to homework. “I realized that’s what got me started and got me to understand how to build an organization,” she said in later interviews.
Haji was recognized in 1998 with Do Something’s Brick Award as one of America’s most outstanding young leaders. In 2007, she received the Social Innovation Award from Social Venture Network and in 2009 was named Young Global Leader by World Economic Forum.
After spending six months in Asia and Latin America to focus on source cultivation and understanding artisan communities, Haji co-founded World of Good in 2004. The online retail marketplace and wholesaler of sustainable goods creates market access for women artisans in 55 countries by partnering with brands like Hallmark, Disney and Whole Foods. The site was acquired by eBay in 2010.
Haji’s family will be setting up a virtual memorial where people can contribute photos, videos, and any other material to share. A selection of submissions will be compiled for a celebration of her life planned for Saturday, details of which will be available shortly. Material can be sent to [email protected]
Dozens of comments and tributes have been appearing on social media since Tuesday, including a Facebook memorial, and several memorial funds have been established.
Cheryl Dahle, founder and executive director of Chicago-based Future of Fish, established a Fund for Priya Haji’s Children on Fundly.com. On it she wrote: “Like all of you, I am devastated by the loss of this young bright light from our circle. I did not know her deeply as a friend, but she my (sic) idol, one of the people who first inspired me to become a social entrepreneur. I wanted a way for the community of social entrepreneurs to thank her for what an incredible leader and inspiration she was to thousands.”
The American India Foundation (AIF) also has established The Priya Haji-AIF Memorial Fund to “honor the ideals for which Priya lived.” Donations will go to AIF programs focused on girls and women. The memorial fund page reads: “She was a selfless humanitarian and serial social entrepreneur devoted to helping those in need. Priya built several impactful for-profit and non-profit ventures focused on creating a better world. She was especially devoted to the cause of women’s empowerment, and through this fund we hope that her ideals can live forever.”
In lieu of flowers or gifts, her family asked that contributions be made to a fund for her children’s education or donations to Free at Last and the American India Foundation.
Haji is survived by her parents, Karim and Asha Haji; a sister, Amina; son, Zen, 2, and daughter, Omi, 11 months.