At a recent Northern Virginia technology camp, kids and adults alike are focused on a pretty cool project: making their very own drone. Among these soldering students, a petite woman in overalls and a pony tail is working the room answering questions, offering encouragement and struggling to contain her excitement.
She’s taking turns talking to the students and a National Geographic reporter who’s there to highlight her work. An onlooker would never guess that she is a real-life princess, or that she is the founder and CEO of the Kashmir World Foundation (KwF), whose Kashmir-Robotics division developed this camp as part of its global challenge to come up with anti-poaching drone technology.
Aliyah Pandolfi was born in Pakistan but grew up in Northern Virginia. Inspired by her father, who had become a realtor after retiring from a diplomatic career, Aliyah developed an interest in real estate at a young age. She was a natural – buying her first house at 18 and starting her own real estate business at 21.
Aliyah achieved great success locally but wanted to pursue international development. In 2008, she moved her parents (who were living with her) to Pakistan. She liquidated her properties and moved to Dubai. It proved to be a life-changing move in more ways than one. “While I was in the process of settling my parents in Pakistan, we had dinner with some relatives,” Aliyah explains. “One of them turned to me and said ‘weren’t you the little girl who told us you were going to come back one day and help us? No one ever comes back to help.’ That comment stuck with me.”
Aliyah kept her commitment to help and established the Al-Kareem Foundation, named after her grandfather. The nonprofit provided food to local needy families, but Aliyah soon realized she wanted to empower people to help themselves. “I realized being a nonprofit organization I would be dependent on donations and grants. I wanted to use my experience and expertise in business to create a new model for nonprofits.”
She later rebranded her nonprofit as the Kashmir World Foundation to encompass several other initiatives she had begun. “To help fund our projects, I started Kashmir-Rose, the art and fashion division of KwF. The goal was to fund our education projects and simultaneously revive the fine arts of the master artisans of Kashmir. Through our online store www.Kashmir-Rose.com, we sell fine, handcrafted luxury scarves, shawls, pashminas and jackets.”
The Princess seems to have a knack of organically discovering each ‘next’ project. While researching the mountain goats whose wool is used by these artisans, Aliyah learned the snow leopards in the region were threatened by poachers. Through her research, she realized an ideal way to monitor wild animals and protect them in real-time poaching situations is through unmanned aerial technology. Thus the drones our local tech campers were building at the KwF Robotics camp, dubbed the DaVinci Challenge.
Last year, Princess Aliyah and her family struck out on a fact-finding mission to Kruger National Park in South Africa. She pitched the anti-poaching drone technology to local wildlife sanctuary rangers and military personnel. They agreed drones could give them a leg up on poaching threats – in this case, to protect the rhinos, which are being killed in large numbers for their horns.
Unfortunately the drone technology is not quite where it needs to be, so KwF’s Kashmir-Robotics issued a challenge: design a low-cost, low-impact drone that can send messages to local rangers in real-time. So far, this Wildlife Conservation Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Challenge has been accepted by 139 teams in 29 countries.
Aliyah hopes President Obama’s July 2013 Executive Order on wildlife trafficking will add awareness and momentum to her cause. Her goal is to spread the word and get others involved – she hosts a monthly radio show on wolfspritradio.com and will be hosting additional drone workshops in the DC Metro area. The next DaVinci Challenge camp begins October 2 at the Tysons Corner, VA, Microsoft store.
In the midst of all her international outreach, Princess Aliyah’s first priority is her three year-old daughter, Kashmir Rose. Seeing her daughter grow and learn inspires Aliyah to involve young people in her work. “Kids have the best questions,” she says, “and they always want to learn new things without the fear of embarrassment we adults often have.”
Princess Aliyah seems pretty fearless as she makes an impact literally across the globe. She’s a mom on multiple missions with the passion and motivation to make a difference.
Q: Can you give us some background on your “Princess” title?
A: My family was one of the royal families of Kashmir, hence the title. When my father was a young boy, his family had to flee to Pakistan or be killed by the new ruler who purchased Kashmir from the British India Company. Kashmir is at the center of the oldest unresolved UN territorial dispute.
Q: How did you end up in Northern VA?
A: My father worked hard to educate himself and eventually became a Diplomat working at the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, DC. He moved the family to the U.S. in the early 1980s and settled in the Northern Virginia area.
Q: How did your father influence the work that you do?
A: My father passed away in October 2012. With me he left his legacy of education and peace. In January 2013, I decided to refocus on my passion and my father's legacy, "Education is Freedom."
My father taught me that education is the one thing you can never take from a person.
He was always striving to improve the educational opportunities of others, especially through his diplomatic work.
Q: Who are your heroes/role models and why?
A: My husband is my hero. I admire him and respect his perspective. He leads me when I need guidance and he follows me when I need strength. Without his support and love my dreams would not come to life.
My daughter is my second role model. During her first year of life I was amazed at her advancement and ability to learn. She gives me the inspiration to learn and grow each and every day.
My third hero is Cheekoh, my cat. I met him in Costa Rica in 2006 and brought him back to VA. He and I have been through a lot together. He traveled to Asia and back to the U.S. with me, and he even helped me meet my husband. I needed a temporary place for him to stay while I was renting a room and my husband lived across the street from me. He agreed to host my dear Cheekoh, and the rest, as they say is history!
Q: How has motherhood affected your focus and priorities?
A: As the mother of a three year-old girl, I have been striving to achieve a balance between teaching her and teaching the world. Motherhood has changed my entire perspective on life and the world. My first priority is my family. I am fortunate to see my daughter grow more independent, confident and compassionate every day. Our happy and harmonious home environment helps me focus and tackle any challenges that come my way.
Q: Do you have any parenting advice?
A: Each child is different. Know your child and what makes him/her feel loved, safe and confident. Support your child while he/she explores and learns from the world.
Q: Where’s your daughter’s favorite place to visit?
A: She loves the zoo! She’s happiest anywhere outdoors with animals.
Q: What are some of your hobbies?
A: I enjoy many activities such as martial arts, crocheting, painting, fencing, traveling and learning new skills with my daughter.
Q: Where are your favorite places to shop?
A: For everyday items it’s Target. For clothes, I love Kashmir-Rose (of course!), and I also like Anthropologie and J. Crew.
Q: What are some apps/technology that you use regularly?
A: For work I use GoToMeeting and DropBox quite a bit. For personal use I love GasBuddy and the Starbucks app.
Q: What food item could you not live without?
A: Tea! I love tea and love hosting tea parties, although these days those usually just consist of me and my daughter!