In August 2008, a Boston University School of Medicine alumna pledged $10.5 million to her school — the largest gift in its history. But she chose to remain anonymous.
Now, more than a year and a half later, University Overseer Shamim Dahod (CGS’76, CAS’78, MED’87) and her husband, Ashraf, are putting a face — or more accurately, two faces — on their contribution, which will establish the Shamim and Ashraf Dahod Breast Cancer Research Center at the School of Medicine. The gift will also endow assistant professor and international scholar positions at the center and support MED’s new residence hall.
When they made the pledge, announcing their names “didn’t seem appropriate,” Shamim says. The global economy was in a tailspin, and Ashraf’s mobile wireless infrastructure company, Starent Networks, had been publicly held only for about a year. It was later acquired by Cisco Systems for $2.9 billion, in December 2009. But this spring, with encouragement from the School of Medicine, the Dahods decided the time was right.
“The Dahods are modest and generous individuals who haven’t sought the spotlight,” says Karen Antman, dean of MED and provost of the Medical Campus. “But having their names tied to this important work lends both prestige and momentum to our breast cancer initiative. We at the School of Medicine are grateful that they have agreed to step forward and be associated with the Dahod Breast Cancer Research Center.”
High school sweethearts and practicing Muslims from Mumbai, India, the Dahods moved to the United States in the early 1970s to pursue married life and their educations. They are closely connected with Boston University: Shamim, now a primary care physician in Chelmsford, Mass., earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the College of Arts & Sciences in 1978, worked as researcher in a MED lab for five years, and graduated with a BU medical degree in 1987. Ashraf, a computer engineer turned entrepreneur, whose initial start-up, Applitek, developed the first cable modem, holds degrees from the University of Mumbai, the University of Michigan, Stanford University, Northeastern, and Harvard Business School, and he has several relatives who attended BU.
So, although Shamim, a two-time cancer survivor, had been treated for breast and thyroid cancers at another local institution, when they decided to support breast cancer research, she says, BU was “the logical place.”
“Our connection with BU was factor number one,” Ashraf confirms. “And number two is the patients that are served at Boston Medical Center. If you look at Boston, you find that care and treatment can be very different depending on your social status. We could have made this gift elsewhere, but no other place in this city serves the same population that BMC does.”
“I got the best of treatment. But everybody’s not that fortunate,” Shamim says. As a medical trainee at Boston City Hospital, now Boston Medical Center, New England’s largest safety-net hospital, she saw the plight of underserved patients firsthand — lack of knowledge, lack of facilities, lack of insurance. “There was no prevention for them, just emergency or catastrophic care. They were really sick, and they came, and they got sicker, and that was it. So when I went through breast cancer, I said, ‘I would like to do something to take care of that population.’”
The $10.5 million pledge is not the first contribution the Dahods have made to help overcome health disparities. As members of the Dawoodi Bohra, an international Muslim community based in Mumbai, they are charged to “uplift” the needy — in their case, by improving health and education in Yemen, parts of India, and Myanmar.
They were involved, for example, in the construction of Saifee Hospital, a 280-bed general hospital in Mumbai that offers paid care — in rooms like posh hotel suites, for luxury-minded patients — as well as discounted and free care subsidized by a philanthropic trust. They also helped open a medical clinic in Yemen, where U.S. physicians provide pro bono specialty services on a two-week rotating basis. The whole Dahod family is involved in their philanthropy: their older daughter, Tasneem, went to Myanmar in 2006 to explore potential new projects there, and their younger daughter, Nisreen, made a volunteer trip to Yemen alone at age 14.
“As you can imagine, I was biting my nails off,” Shamim says. “But I wanted her to be exposed to what other people don’t have, so she could better appreciate what she has. It put a lot of things in perspective for her.”
Although serving the underserved was the original inspiration behind the Dahod Breast Cancer Research Center, Shamim says her fight against the disease is more personal today. “My brother was recently diagnosed with breast cancer,” she explains. “He’s in the midst of getting his treatment. I also have a niece who was treated for breast cancer. Now I feel compelled to do something about breast cancer, because it’s going to affect my children.”
She hopes that the assistant professorship included in their pledge will help up-and-coming breast cancer researchers keep that from happening. “Professors with tenure already have ample opportunities,” she says. “This is an opportunity for the young ones — those who are on the bottom rung and trying to climb. This gives them a chance to show their capacity, and bring out an idea that nobody has thought of about how to take care of this disease.”
The Dahods have also helped fund the construction of two mosques — one in Billerica, Mass., and another in New Jersey. They have encountered no hostility as active Muslim philanthropists in post-9/11 America. In fact, Ashraf says, the opposite is true: “When we built our mosque here in Billerica, our first hearing in the town was September 12, 2001, the day after the terrorist attacks. From that first hearing forward, the Town of Billerica has been fabulous. The truth is, it was easier for us to build a mosque in the United States than it would have been in many Muslim countries.”
Asked what an entrepreneur and a primary care physician discuss over the dinner table, they respond after a moment’s thought. “My work,” says Shamim. “I have no business experience, so we discuss the business aspects of my work. He’s very analytical, and I go by my intuition. So the two of us meet in the middle.”
“I don’t make a single key business decision without getting her opinion,” Ashraf says. “I seldom hire an executive reporting to me whom she has not met, and given me her opinion about the person. And obviously, we talk about our grandkids.”
With grandchildren already on the scene, do they think about retirement? “No,” says Ashraf. “Actually, the spiritual leader of the Dawoodi Bohras doesn’t let anybody retire. He’s 99, and he’s still working.”
“We’re still a way from 99,” adds Shamim, “so we have some years ahead of us!”