Perhaps not surprisingly, Mashal Husain considers herself a citizen of the world. She was born in Karachi, Pakistan, but moved around a lot as her father followed his job as an employee of an American oil company. After dwelling in the large cities of Tanzania, the Philippines and Thailand, she lived in Dallas, Texas, and went to college in Austin. 

After a stop in New York to earn a master’s degree, she was working at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago when her husband, a urologist, coaxed her to Des Moines, where he had landed a job. Now, Husain has lived in Des Moines for 16 years, longer than anywhere else.

To say she’s settled in would understate things. “This is my present and my future,” she said.

In addition to the World Food Prize Foundation, she has worked for several other giants of the Greater Des Moines business community — Iowa Health-Des Moines (now UnityPoint Health),  Blank Children’s Hospital and Principal Financial Group Inc.

Her education in hospital administration included experience in finance and fundraising, which she thought was beneficial when she began to think about entering the nonprofit world. Des Moines business leader Suku Radia introduced her to former U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, who happened to have lived in the same area as Husain in the Philippines, although at a different time. 

After getting her start in development and finance at the World Food Prize, Husain was promoted to vice president in December 2013. “I’m a firm believer that careers evolve,” Husain said. “You have to look at everything as the next opportunity. You see yourself in a role, but new opportunities arise.” 

She considers her flexibility a strength. It certainly had to come in handy when Husain, with no construction management experience, led the $30 million remodeling of one of Des Moines’ architectural jewels, the main public library on the riverfront, now the World Food Prize Foundation Hall of Laureates. She said she never feared failure, and added that it didn’t hurt that she had three teams of private experts on construction along for the ride. 

“I am always willing to do new things,” Husain said. “I am always confident to step up to  the next challenge.”

Now, the building is restored and bordered by formal gardens, a testament to Husain, to Quinn, to the late John Ruan, to agricultural legend Norman Borlaug, and to many others. People stop by to marvel at the plants, the statues, the building. Perhaps they meditate, or ponder world events. 

It seems fitting that this citizen of the world had such a prominent role.

Three areas of influence

Her benevolence landed her on the board of Habitat for Humanity and led her to many other community activities.

Her experiences in other countries and in the nonprofit world help her encourage her son, Fez Zafar, a pianist and tae kwon do black belt who has established his own nonprofit to help orphans in Pakistan with education.

She has the ability to bring the context of her world view to local issues.