Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Christine Ma-Lau

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Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter

Christine Ma-Lau is the Founder and Principal of JEMS Learning House, a school in Hong Kong with the mission of raising the next generation of leaders through character education for children aged 3 to 12. She founded the school out of her passion for educating young people in character and values. She holds a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania with a concentration on child development and has taught students aged 6-16 years in different educational institutions in Hong Kong. In addition, Christine holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Philosophy from the London School of Economics and prior to that attended Wycombe Abbey School in England. She was raised in Hong Kong and educated internationally.

She desires to see children enjoy learning and becoming the best that they can be. Her passion for educating children goes beyond her work at JEMS. Christine also serves as a Director at Plan International Hong Kong, which promotes education to underprivileged children globally and is also their ambassador for their Because I Am A Girl campaign, which aims to promote education and opportunities for underprivileged girls worldwide. Christine is also one of the Founding Directors of GeneroCity, a Hong Kong-based philanthropy fund that channels needed funds to local education and welfare projects.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Christine Ma-Lau: I was born in Canada, raised in Hong Kong and studied in the UK and the US. I first started my education not knowing what I wanted to do and it wasn’t until the final year of college when I was doing summer internship at a school when I realized that I wanted to pursue a career in education. With that, I started taking on teaching jobs at schools and education centres as well as work as the youth pastor of a church. 6 years ago, I took some time to think about my life plans and decided to establish JEMS.

Women LEAD: You are the Founder and Principal of JEMS Learning House in Hong Kong, an organization with the mission of nurturing the next generation of leaders through educating children. Can you tell us more about JEMS Learning House, its impact, and what inspired you to found it?

Christine Ma-Lau: Having had experience in teaching in schools, education centers, and doing youth counseling, I’ve realized that a couple things about Hong Kong that were there when I was growing up but stood out to me as an educator. The first thing is that there is a real focus on academics and I think that’s pretty prevalent not only in Hong Kong, but throughout the world. The second thing is that a lot of the issues teenagers were facing were really there because there were issues that were not dealt with at an earlier age, e.g. struggling with self-worth, knowing how to make certain choices and decisions, knowing how to deal with their emotions. When I worked with older kids and youth, I realized that a lot of things could be prevented if they had been handled earlier. What then inspired me to found JEMS was that my belief is that education isn’t just about academics and having head knowledge and skills. Educating a person is about providing a person with what they need to succeed in the future, preparing them to face life. What enables you to face life in the future is so often comprised of character: knowing your identity, who you are, what your values are and what you stand for. The second part is your relationships: knowing how to interact with others, how to deal with conflict, etc. The third part of a successful person is knowing how to contribute to the community – to engage with different groups of people and to help others with compassion. I wanted to create a platform for children to learn core values, to know how to deal with right from wrong, deal with bullies, showing compassion and much more.

That’s why I founded JEMS. I wasn’t trying to take away anything that is offered from education, but to add to it. Say you’re learning piano, it’s great and do it to the best of your ability. But think about how learning piano can help other people. Would you think of hosting a charity concert to help other people? So much of learning nowadays is focused on helping ourselves, about getting the most awards, trophies, and highest scores. I wanted to take what to take what you do and use it for the good of ourselves and for others. One example I like to use is how if you are a medical student, you are very bright, will soon be a doctor, and if your character is good, you will use that skill to help and heal people. Yet, there have been cases of doctors who have killed their patients so they have more patients to come into hospitals – that really boils down to character choices. I want to mold young people to change their values early on because their values are something that will make their mark on their life. I want to set them up to be the next generation of leaders with solid character.

Women LEAD: You are also a Director of Plan International Hong Kong, and an Ambassador for Plan’s Because I Am A Girl Campaign, which aims to improve access to educational opportunities for underprivileged girls worldwide. Can you tell us more about your roles in Plan?

Christine Ma-Lau: My role as the Director is to brainstorm the rest of the ideas with the rest of the Board, helping people learn what Plan International does, and encouraging people to take part in our events. That role is a strategic role, it’s for strategies for the next year, so we will talk about how Plan will evolve in Hong Kong, how we can engage the public, and to show others why it’s relevant. As an Ambassador for the Because I Am a Girl Campaign, I often speak out about gender equality and ending child marriage, children’s rights and girls’ rights. We talked about why it’s important. As an educator, I want to educate our children in Hong Kong number one what a privilege it is to have equality, and because we have been privileged to have that, how can we help others to have that too? I want them to be aware of what goes on in the world and for them to know they can make a difference. We organized a “Donate a Pencil” campaign to engage youth in this campaign by donating a pencil but to tell them that they have the privilege to go to school, but a lot of girls in the world don’t. If we equip girls with a pencil and an education, it can change the girl’s life, a family’s livelihood, and the community. Plan has conducted a lot of studies about what they do; Because I Am a Girl arose after research positing that women and girls invest more of their income back into their family and community, more than men and boys.

Women LEAD: Why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Christine Ma-Lau: I want everyone to know how unique everyone is, and how everyone can reach their full potential. We can tell girls that they are fully capable of what they want to do. I think our Hong Kong education system has put us on par with men, but the hard part is for a woman to ‘choose’ between work and family in older years. I think it’s important that girls and women are given opportunities to pursue what they want to and believing that their capacity and potential is on par with a man.  In developing countries, it’s not the same and if that message isn’t brought across in those countries, it should be.

Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life?

Christine Ma-Lau: I would have to say my mother. I’ve realized the older I get, there are things I would say to other people and I realize “I sound like my mother!” My mom is an amazing woman, full of grace, full of love and full of passion. Over the years, she has shared so many of her insights and passions with me. It has slowly trickled into my being and I’ve noticed that even when I write lesson plans, there are things that I will innately talk about or have a belief system in, and a lot of that is, besides from God, from my mom. I have a lot of admiration for her and still have a lot to learn from her.

Women LEAD: What advice do you have for future women leaders and social entrepreneurs?

Christine Ma-Lau: Hold on to your vision and just don’t give up because you are capable of more than you think you are. I think as women sometimes we’re hard on ourselves; men seem to have a more “I can do it” mentality and I think women sometimes think that they are less than what they are capable of. I hope women realize that they are capable of all they can do and be, and to not give up, especially as an entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur myself, I know it’s a difficult journey and challenging journey. If you believe in what you do, then don’t give up, especially if what you do helps others!

Women LEAD: Are there websites, books, or films that are inspiring you right now about gender equality, girls’ education and women’s empowerment?

Christine Ma-Lau: One book I really enjoyed is Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. I especially loved the part about where she talked about sharing responsibility with men. If women are to have a family and career, we need our husbands and counterparts to make these things possible. We cannot be a full-time mother and have a full-time career, and we need help to juggle the things they have to juggle. We, as women, need men around us to support us, believe in us and partner with us and I think Sheryl describes it well.

Model UN Conference 2014

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Women LEAD would like to congratulate our LEADers Deepika, Jemie and Niharika for participating in the The Everest International Model United Nations Conference that was held from the 15th-17th October 2014. Model United Nations is an extra-curricular activity in which students typically role-play delegates to the United Nations and simulate UN committees.

2014 LEADer Dipeeka says, “MUN was a great learning experience for me. We were given an agenda to work on the Gaza Conflict and had to draft a resolution that would lead to conflict resolution between Israel and Palestine. It was definitely challenging but skills such as Public Speaking which I learned at Women LEAD really helped me get through it. Knowing that we had a role in ending the conflict and that our resolutions would be presented in front of the actual UN felt incredible.”

“Model United Nations (MUN) impels students into the world of diplomacy and negotiation. In MUN, students step into the shoes of ambassadors or delegates of UN member states to debate current issues on the organization’s vast agenda. MUN is a conference similar to the United Nations in which students participate as delegates to various UN Committees. Participants research and formulate political positions based on the actual policies of the countries they represent. This interactive platform complements what is taught inside classrooms by enabling students to apply their knowledge in practice.” (Source: http://goo.gl/H5A09E)

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Sreya Atluri

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Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter

Sreya Atluri is a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, located in Alexandria, VA. Pasionate about making a difference in the community, she currently serves as the CEO and Founder of Creating Awareness in Research and Education and an Executive Director for Growth and Inspiration through Volunteering and Education, both non-profits. Outside of school, Sreya is dedicated to STEM, serving as a Fairfax County Coordinator for the USA Science and Engineering Festival and an X-STEM Coordinator. She is also heavily involved as a leader in clubs such as Model United Nations, Bioengineering Projects for the Future, and Tomorrow’s Women in Science and Technology, and a BigSibs (mentoring program) Coordinator. In addition, she actively seeks to make an impact in the community through her role as an elected representative of her school on the Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council, her work on the FCPS Student Human Rights Commission, and her presentations at STEM and leadership conferences. She also enjoys dancing Kathak (a traditional Indian dance) as well as singing, both of which she has been involved in for 12 years.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Sreya Atluri: I am a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, located in Alexandria, VA. I currently serve as the CEO and Founder of Creating Awareness in Research and Education and an Executive Director for Growth and Inspiration through Volunteering and Education, both non-profits, because I really enjoy making a difference in the community.

Outside of school, I’m dedicated to STEM, serving as a Fairfax County Coordinator for the USA Science and Engineering Festival, an X-STEM Coordinator, and actively pursuing research opportunities outside of school. I plan to pursue a career in the field of biomedical sciences and bioengineering, where I would be able to combine my passion for science and mathematics with my fascination and knowledge of technology to a fast-growing field, thereby making a positive difference for the future generations. Within my career, I want to integrate giving back to the communityand making an impact on society, through my dedication and commitment to leadership and volunteering for the benefit of others.

I am the Secretary-General, or President, of my school’s Model United Nations team, and due to my performance at both national and international conferences, I have been invited to the All-American Model United Team represent the United States of America in Beijing, China for the WEMUN Expo in both 2013 and 2014. Through my experience with Model United Nations over four years, I have become very interested in International Relations across the globe, and want to continue making an impact globally throughout my career.

I am the Co-President of Bioengineering Projects for the Future, on the Advisory Board for Tomorrow’s Women in Science and Technology, and a school-wide Coordinator for a mentoring program called BigSibs. I am also involved with STEMbassadors, the Spanish Honor Society, and the National Honor Society. I have pursued my research interests through my internship at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, one of the world’s foremost medical research centers, for the last two years.

I am also a trained Kathak dancer and Carnatic music singer (both Indian types of art), performing at different charity showcases and prestigious competitions. In addition, I believe in a strong sense of commitment to the community, and actively seek to make an impact through my role as an elected representative of my school on the Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council, my work on the FCPS Student Human Rights Commission, and my presentations at STEM and leadership conferences.

Women LEAD: You are the Executive Director of GIVE, a youth-led community organization that promotes civic engagement, service learning and youth leadership. Can you tell us more about your involvement with GIVE?

Sreya Atluri: Absolutely! GIVE benefits thousands of elementary and middle school students in Northern Virginia by providing them with free tutoring and mentoring for individual development. In addition, underprivileged high school students are able to seek AP/SAT preparation materials through the annual book drive hosted by GIVE, so that they are offered equitable chances of preparing for college. GIVE hosts a “RecQuest” summer program supporting STEM, and encouraging students to explore their fascination with STEM through interesting presentations by notable speakers, demonstrations of real-life applications, and hands-on experiments. Moreover, GIVE has published a children’s book advocating the campaign against bullying, and emphasizing the importance of diversity.

I have been heavily involved in all components of GIVE, and have specifically worked to expand the tutoring program to multiple new centers this year and incorporate STEM components into GIVE’s curriculum. I have also overseen the logistics for the AP/SAT book drive and promoted the awareness of the RecQuest program. I currently am the leader of the Development Committee, comprised of the Public Relations and Fundraising committees. As such, I work on coordinating partnerships to further enhance and publicize GIVE’s mission and impact, expanding GIVE’s presence on social media and online communities, and organizing fundraisers to support the ongoing projects.

In addition, my involvement in GIVE has sparked an interest to make a difference in the international community, and as such, I am the CEO and Founder of ‘Creating Awareness in Research and Education’ (CARE), a non-profit aiming to spread awareness of the importance of STEM and education, and seeking to spread appropriate resources in both the local and international communities, especially in areas where such opportunities are not readily available. Based on my rich and diverse experience and fascination with STEM, I feel that it is important to share my knowledge and provide the rising generation with equal resources, which drove the creation of CARE and its mission.

On the local scale, CARE has organized and sponsored a Winter Jackets program at elementary schools, where students were given new winter coats to prepare for the season’s weather, especially important given the record statistics for this year’s season. It is now expanding across multiple states in USA. In addition, I have explored the expansion of CARE’s mission on an international scale, funding merit scholarships in rural areas of India. CARE is involved in providing free dictionaries, curriculum books, and other educational resources to middle and high schools in a variety of rural districts (counties) in India. The mission is to promote and inspire learning, and provide opportunities for students to escape the cycle of poverty by joining the international educational community, and then inspire them to give back to their local communities, setting up a cycle of sustainability and community empowerment. The scholarships are intended to motivate student learning and achievement, and recognize those who put in an effort to better themselves.

Women LEAD: Can you tell us more about your involvement with initiatives in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)?

Sreya Atluri: STEM is something that I’m very passionate about, and awareness of STEM is something I believe should be strongly advocated for on a community basis. As I mentioned earlier, I am involved as a Fairfax County Volunteer Coordinator for the USA Science and Engineering Festival whose mission is “to stimulate and sustain the interest of our nation’s youth in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by producing and presenting the most compelling, exciting, and educational Festival in the world.”

In this capacity, I work to ensure that the greater community is kept aware of the opportunities provided by the USA Science & Engineering Festival, through coordinating publicity events, speaking to the school board to make sure schools in the county are aware of the opportunities, planning and organizing meetings for the Volunteer Outreach Team to determine an effective plan of action, being involved in the creation and distribution of promotional materials, actively participating in conference calls for planning purposes as well as expanding our network of partners and sponsors, and organizing the ultimate event- the USA Science and Engineering Festival Grande Finale Expo.

In addition, with my involvement, I serve as a program director for the Extreme STEM (X-STEM) program, sponsored by the USA Science and Engineering Festival to promote the X-STEM Symposium, and to encourage students to be engaged in and promote STEM. As a coordinator, I recruit delegates from my school and certify that they have completed tasks to earn free program tickets.

As a member of Tomorrow’s Women in Science and Technology, my team and I annually host Techstravaganza, a free event open to the public designed to encourage students to become involved through real-life demonstrations of applications, hands-on science experiments, exciting exhibits, and interesting speeches.

I am currently on the Children’s Science Center Volunteer Committee. As such, I promote awareness of Children’s Science Center events in the greater community, and work towards ensuring that children having access to the opportunities offered. I also coordinate efforts to recruit volunteers through publicizing and promoting awareness at my school and through the other organizations I am involved in. I also volunteer as a presenter at monthly mini-labs conducted at elementary schools design to inspire interest in STEM and promoting its mission, and have contributed to the “Museum Without Walls” project, a virtual museum which travels around Virginia to give students the opportunity to see creative and unique innovations being applied in a real-life setting. With my involvement in the Bioengineering Projects for the Future club at my school (currently serving as Co-President), I led an effort to create a functioning emotional stress detector, based on the inverse relationship between skin resistance and stress. After showcasing the stress detector at Techstravaganza, the event mentioned above, we donated the stress detector to the Children’s Science Center to allow more children to enjoy and learn from the project.

I am passionate about presenting at STEM and leadership conferences to further spread the message about STEM and the potential of its impact.

Women LEAD: Why does advocating for women in STEM matter to you?

Sreya Atluri: Advocating for women in STEM has been a huge part of my life, as the disciplines involved in STEM hold the potential to truly change the world, and make a valuable impact in the community. Women should be encouraged to pursue their dreams, and not let their fears of being the minority hold them back. As a winner of the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) Award for Aspirations in Computing VA/DC Affiliate in 2014, as well as a National Runner-Up for the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) Award for Aspirations in Computing, I have been fortunate to be involved with a community in spreading the importance of STEM and empowering women, and this is something I hope to do throughout my future endeavors.

It matters simply because there is a discrepancy in the statistics of women choosing to pursue STEM careers, and given that, it is absolutely essential that women are encouraged to develop a love for STEM, and not hold back because they are afraid of being among very few women in that respective discipline. I have been fortunate to be able to pursue my dreams, and I hope to work towards a future where all women will have the opportunity to pursue theirs.

Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life?

Sreya Atluri: My mother! My mom has been my rock and my support for the last 17 years, and I could not imagine my life without her. Anything I need, at any time of day, I know that she will be there for me. I sincerely appreciate how my mother supports me in all of my endeavors, allowing me the freedom to explore my own passions while lending invaluable strength and support. She has taught me the importance of expressing my opinions and upholding my beliefs, along with a strong commitment to giving back to the community and making a difference in the world. With her encouragement, I have been fortunate to always pursue my dreams, and know that no matter what happens, my mother will be there for me. I know that I can truly count on my mother for anything in my life, and without her, I certainly would not be the women I am today. My mother is my role model and one of my best friends, and undoubtedly the woman who has had the greatest impact on my life.

Women LEAD: What advice do you have for future women leaders?

Sreya Atluri: Pursue your dreams and do not let anything hold you back! Stand up for what you believe in and choose the impact you seek to make. If you are truly passionate and driven about something, you will have the opportunity to succeed and you will gain from the experience. Follow your dreams and work towards making them a reality.

Spotlight on 2011 LEADer Urusha

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We’d like to congratulate Urusha,one of our 2011 LEADers, for securing an internship at the design firm Crush Mango in Bangalore! Crush Mango focuses on architecture, interior design and space planning. As an intern, Urusha will perform research on architecture, assisting conceptual planning and3D visualization. She will also be conceptualizing designs, detailing, site visits and learning about master planning and landscape design.

Good job Urusha, we’re so proud of you!

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Jasmine Bala

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Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter

Jasmine Bala is originally from Calcutta, India. She started  school at Brown University in 2012, studying English and Business Economics. In India, she worked towards educating young girls against prostitution in the Sonagachi area of Bengal. Part of her campaign included spreading awareness through the written word. Her articles were translated into Hindi and Bangla and distributed among those who could read. Jasmine spent two years counseling young married girls who were victims of domestic violence. She worked under Rashmi Anand, an author of nine books, all of which deal with the issue of domestic violence. Jasmine is in the process of writing a book entitled “Destiny beyond Karma” that addresses the ordeals faced by a young girl fighting to seek legal help concerning domestic violence. At Brown University, she is the founder of the Wynn Project, an initiative that brings diversity to the runway, empowering women of all body types to develop positive body imagery. As a budding economist, she is interested in studying global emerging markets with a focus on South Asia.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Jasmine Bala: I grew up in Calcutta, India and attended a private, all-girls school. While in school, I started working at the New Delhi women’s cell. I was exposed to women who had faced severe hardship within their households and were struggling to make ends meet. One counseling session after another, I discovered my passion for helping people. I knew I wanted to reach out to women and girls who needed assistance. I am now a junior at Brown University and am continuing my efforts to empower women in whichever way that I can.

Women LEAD: You previously worked towards educating young girls against prostitution in Bengal. Can you tell us more about this experience?

Jasmine Bala: I lived within a one mile radius of a very popular red light district in Calcutta. On a day-to-day basis, I would see teenage girls standing on the road, waiting to be picked up for the night. I once approached a girl who was crying on the pavement of the road, who told me that she had initially taken to prostitution because it was easy source for making money. I had some experience with counseling during my time spent in the women’s cell, and used what I had learnt to find her legal help. She was able to quit the brothel and start working a full-time job. She recommended her friends from the brothel to meet with me. Initially, they were hesitant, but later complied. The more I spoke to these 13-16 year old girls, I found that they knew very little about their life prospects outside the four walls of the brothel. I was able to give each of them the individual time to explore other work options. In due course, they all found alternate jobs and the brothel struggled to keep its business alive.

Women LEAD: What to you think needs to change to end gender-based violence?

Jasmine Bala: First of all, I don’t believe that gender-based violence is the correct term to use. Violence against all female-identifying people is violence against humanity. Women are a big part of our population. They are mothers, daughters, wives and grandmothers. They are all-in-all an integral part of the human race. An act of violence doesn’t merely affect women, it effects the nurturing of their children, whether their children may be boys or girls. A violated woman causes imbalance in nature, which in turn will impact the male race. People need to understand that we’re interconnected as a race and there is no single-impact act of violence. That being said, violence is not solely directed to female-identifying people. Many male-identifying and trans-identifying people face violence in their lives and society needs to be more sensitive to violence inflicted on people of all genders. The violence can only end when we each recognize the prevalence of violence, both implicit and explicit. We need more people to stand up for this violence and take corrective action against the perpetrators.

Women LEAD: Why does women’s empowerment matter to you? 

Jasmine Bala: When I first started helping women, I did not know what the term empowerment meant. I was helping battered women because I realized the abundance that life had given me. I was blessed to have a family that loved me, friends who supported me, and an education in one of the elitest schools in the country. My background had made me a confident individual and I could share some of my strength with those in need of it. Since I was educated, I could use my education and connections to find these women legal help. My goal has never been to help these women and then move away once I see them settled in their lives. If we are to make an actual change in society, women need to learn to think and act for themselves. It is only when women act for themselves that they will be empowered. Seeing them in that position will only strengthen my confidence in myself, and my capabilities as a woman.

Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life?

Jasmine Bala: My mother is the most important woman in my life. Not only has she birthed and nurtured me, she has also shaped me into the individual I am today.  She set the bar high at a young age. She always said, “you’ve done really well, but remember that you could always do better.”  While I was growing up, my mother would  never tell me that I looked “gorgeous” or “beautiful.” She would always say “You look powerful” or “you’re acting like a strong woman should.” As a result, I learnt to value strength of character more  than anything else. My upbringing was majorly focused on building strong moral virtues and a drive for success, thanks to my mother.She genuinely believed that there was nothing a boy could do that I couldn’t. I remember once wanting to compete in a race against the boys, before the coach explained to me that we had different levels of physical strength. Till date, I believe there is nothing a woman cannot achieve.

Women LEAD: Are there websites, books, or films that are inspiring you right now about gender equality and women’s empowerment?

Jasmine Bala: #readwomen2014 is a great tag to follow! It tells you the different books written by female authors in 2014, many of which are great books to read! Maya Angelou has always been my favorite. “The Color Purple” is my favorite book and film. “Bossypants” by Tina Fey is the most recent book I read and it’s really good too. With the upcoming blog world, I would recommend following as many blogs as you can to reach works written by female authors. HuffPost Women, Girls’ Globe and blackgirldangerous top my list of favorites.

Spotlight on WLIT LEADer Binisha

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Uttering the word mathematics brings shudders to most people who struggled with high school algebra and geometry at school.  But for Binisha, it is just the opposite.  Binisha Shrestha is one of the members of the Women LEADers in Technology (WLIT). She just graduated from Advanced College of Engineering and Management with a major in computer engineering. It was a childhood dream come true for Binisha. As a child, she loved playing around with math and science quizzes and anything that involved logical reasoning. Binisha recalls, “I was a very curious kid. I loved fixing clocks and basically anything electronic.”

Binisha got introduced to Women LEAD through the WLIT workshop that was jointly organized by Karkhana.  When asked what she learned from Women LEAD, she explains, “Joining Women LEAD definitely polished my inter-personal skills and enhanced my communications skills. She goes on to stress that, “I learned the importance of me and the power that I have as a woman leader.” Binisha has enthusiastically participated in projects like the NASA Hackathon and is also currently working on similar projects.

She further explains, “Women LEAD has opened many doors for me. It is a nexus of all the other networks that I have today. It helps young girls to find their paths, to follow their passion and it is a great platform to brighten your future.”

Apart from the techy business, Binisha also deeply cares about women’s issues. She remarks, “I was the only girl out of a total of 39 students in my class. Being the only girl in my class, I constantly had to make an effort to speak up and get my voice heard. Some boys would tell that it was no use studying for me as I would eventually end up being a housewife. I wanted to change their mentality and prove them wrong.”

“Women LEAD has played a great role in developing my personality. Today, I feel like a leader”, she says. In the near future, Binisha envisions herself as a successful software developer. She believes that “technical education is not just for the boys. If you have the interest, then women are also equally capable of excelling in this field.”

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Bernadette Lim

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Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter

Bernadette Lim is a passionate women’s health advocate. She is a pre-medical student at Harvard University majoring in Human Biology & Women’s Studies with a secondary in Global Health and Health Policy. Bernadette is the founder of Women SPEAK, a 2014 Clinton Global Initiative Commitment to Action and lead author and editor of the “2015 Report on the Status of Women and Girls in Boston”. She serves on the National Youth Council for the March of Dimes and directs the Women’s Policy Group at the Harvard Institute of Politics. Additionally, she is currently working on projects regarding girls’ hygiene and primary school education in western Kenya with Mass General Hospital, volunteers as a Health Leads advocate, and writes editorials for the Harvard Crimson. Bernadette’s work/writing has appeared on various outlets including USA Today, Business Insider, the Huffington Post, Seventeen Magazine, the Harvard Crimson, and Girls’ Globe. As the daughter of a Filipina immigrant mother and Chinese-American father, Bernadette aspires to work for the diversity, equity, and well-being of women, children, families, and minority communities.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Bernadette Lim: I am a junior at Harvard University, studying Human Evolutionary Biology and Women’s Studies with a minor in Global Health and Health Policy. I’m originally from Los Angeles. I’m very much into the intersection of women’s health and social justice. In my spare time, I’m a yoga teacher and I love going to Zumba.

Women LEAD: You are the Founder and Executive Director of Women SPEAK, which is a girls’ health and empowerment program. Can you tell us more about Women SPEAK and its impact?

Bernadette Lim: Women SPEAK is an organization I founded with three other high school friends. It’s based in Los Angeles and we are a girls’ health and leadership program. We concentrate on four main issue areas for girls: positive body image, gender in the media, healthy relationships (especially on sexual assault awareness) and youth leadership. We have a couple of programs that we just launched, but our main feature is our Girls Leadership Summit, which we just initiated this July. Our first Leadership Summit brought over 100 girls from the Greater Los Angeles area and we had workshops and keynote sessions for girls. From there, we were also able to establish a mentorship program with high school girls and college girls of the Greater L.A. area and that mentorship program will sustain a continued conversation on our four mission areas.

Some other programs we have are a monthly webinar series called Community SPEAK. It’s a monthly webinar series where we talk about current events regarding the media’s portrayal of women and girls and current affairs that affect women and girls. That happens via Google+ Hangout. We also have one more program, an Ambassador Program, where we allow high school girls and young women to help us out with our campaigns, social media, and community visits in their hometowns – different organizations and people who are related to women’s and girls’ initiatives. They spread the mission and awareness of Women SPEAK and hold their own awareness events in their communities.

Women LEAD: You are also the Principal Director of Project SHE, which was a study on girls’ menstrual hygiene and outcomes in Kenya. Can you tell us more about your involvement with Project SHE?

Bernadette Lim: Project SHE is an intervention research project that I started in the summer of 2013. I was able to go to Kisumu, Kenya, with the Massachusetts General Hospital Division of Global Health, and I was able to take a class on global health and also interned at a local NGO called Sustainable Aid In Africa (SANA). Project SHE is an intervention project that guarantees (s)anitation latrines, (h)ygiene supplies in the form of sanitary pads, and (e)ducation on menstrual health hygiene for girls throughout western Kenya.

As an intern at SANA, I was able to talk to a lot of girls within primary schools of Kisumu. One of their main projects is to build sanitation latrines for girls. Latrines are essentially bathrooms, usually in the form of an elevated pit. When my colleague and I saw the conditions of the old latrines, many were dirty, unsanitary and unusable. As part of the SANA intern team, I conducted many interviews with girls about their access to education and the effectiveness of the latrine intervention. During my interviews, however, we realized that sanitation latrines weren’t enough; it was also the fact that they didn’t have any sanitary pads during their periods.

According to current statistics, one in four Kenyan girls miss at least six weeks of school because they don’t go to school during their periods. In addition to not having clean latrines, girls were using old rags and banana leaves. When we were talking to girls, we also noticed that there so no open, gender-inclusive education on the biological and social processes attached to monthly menstruation. This problem deepens by the fact that nearly 80% of the teachers were male and didn’t have proper education about menstrual health hygiene so girls were reluctant to approach them.

As part of Project SHE, we also received a grant from Harvard to study the links between primary school education outcomes and the intervention of having all three of the Project SHE components implemented within the schools of Kenya. We’re planning to have Project SHE provided to 6000 girls in Kisumu, Kenya.

Women LEAD: Can you share with us some of your experiences with directing the Women’s Policy Group at the Harvard Institute of Politics?

Bernadette Lim: As the Director of the Women’s Policy Group, I led the creation of the first report on the status of women and girls in Boston. It’s a huge accomplishment for the city because it’s the first of its kind in the Boston area. The idea came to fruition through a sociology class at Harvard and my attendance the launch event of the first report of its kind in California and realizing that it didn’t occur in Boston and Massachusetts.

In my sociology class, we were assigned to an issue area, of which mine was women and girls. We used Boston as a case study to identify our issue area in Boston and then identify non-profits and initiatives that were tackling that issue area. When my team and I were searching for data on women and girls in Boston, we couldn’t find information in a consolidated source online, publicly accessible source. In fact, we had to look through raw data and look through huge reports before we saw one line about girls. We had to go into numbers and make our own bar graphs to compare. The class had a huge endowment to give to initiatives that tackled key issue areas in our are, and we decided to allocate $5000 to the creation of this report.

Last fall, I started the Women’s Policy Group at the Harvard Institute of Politics and together with 20 other undergraduates, we created that report and it gathered all the most recent data we could find on the status of women and girls in the following categories: demographics, education, health, violence against women, political representations and participation, women in business, women in the military, and LGBT women. We partnered with many important organizations, including The Boston Foundation, the Harvard Institute of Politics, the Boston Mayor’s Office of Women’s Advancement and Big Sister Association. We are launching the report in December 2014/January 2015 and are hoping that it will be adopted as either an annual or biannual report that is published about women and girls. In the end, we hope this report enables every single program and initiative that’s created about women and girls to be problem-driven and data-driven. Most importantly, our report aims to fill the information gap between what nonprofits do and the programs they implement.

Women LEAD: Why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Bernadette Lim: Women’s empowerment matters to me personally because I think my story lends itself to empowered women. I am a daughter of a second generation Chinese-American father and a Filipino immigrant mother and these stories of immigration, stories of moving from a familiar place to an uncomfortable one for seeking a better life but also being able to create better opportunities for family – I think that that’s one of the most selfless acts, one of the bravest acts, and one of the most admirable acts that really defined me as a person. Having that family foundation comprising a family of empowered women encourages me to listen to the stories and to the experiences of people who may not have experienced that, and who experience sexism, gender inequality to a huge amount that I didn’t have in my years. I feel like having been born into such a privileged position is such a luck of the draw and the fact that I have that privilege and some people don’t encourages me to create that privilege if it wasn’t created during birth.

Women LEAD: What inspires you to continue fighting for the improvement of women’s health?

Bernadette Lim: I’m very interested in women’s health because I find the intersection of health so integrated within the components of social justice. As a physician, I believe in not just diagnosing disease, but improving health – a holistic overview of one’s well-being in life beyond the hospital. A lot of components within women’s health have historically been put at the end of people’s priority lists. Using my knowledge as a future physician and as a future public health advocate, I want to make sure that health is seen as a basic human right.

Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life?

Bernadette Lim: My mom came to the United States in the 1980s with little more than a suitcase and little more than what she really knew from the Philippines. Her bravery as a person who has not only traveled to a new land she was unfamiliar with, but to actually aspire more for herself and her family is an act of bravery I can only hope to emulate. As a mother, she was always empowering to me and always supported me with everything I did. She encouraged me to find self-confidence by being a powerful, strong, woman role model from the very start of my life and that is such a privilege to me. I think my mom’s strength it’s very much rooted in her immigrant story, her personality, and her bravery.

Women LEAD: What advice do you have for prospective social entrepreneurs who want to start projects related to women’s and girls’ empowerment?

Bernadette Lim: Just start it. A lot of these things have to do with timing, luck, and the people you know. One of the really funny stories about Women SPEAK is that we started this organization in a coffee shop. We came back for summer and it was all four of us. We were friends in high school updating each other about the various encounters of sexism and gender inequality we faced on college campuses and kept asking ourselves: “What can we do?” Sometimes for people interested in starting initiatives, they always stop at that point of frustration and they let their passion dissipate because it’s hard to take that next step to action. But we didn’t stop: we met every single week, dwelling on that question and finally decided to do something. While our ideal organization would have created a student-led college network, we decided to start our prospects smaller. I also think that’s another important quality — if you want to tackle a big problem, know that it’s not just a big, huge, structural problem. Rather, it’s something made of different seeds and fruit that are subsets of the problem you have the opportunity to tackle. It’s about finding where you can have that impact. To us, we noticed that within the greater Los Angeles area has a lack of high school programming related to girls’ health and women’s empowerment. That’s the void we had the potential to fill realizing our expertise and perspectives.

Spotlight on 2013 LEADer Anoushka

2013 LEADer Anoushka

As Anoushka walks in, she flashes a beautiful smile and exudes confidence. She may have just finished high school but she is no ordinary teenager. Of course she likes to do all the things that a nineteen year old would like to do, but she also holds a very unique dream that is so admirable for someone her age. When asked about what her career goal is, she boldly says, “I want to study agricultural science.” In this generation, when most youngsters are swayed into taking common subjects, this reply is bound to throw you off for a second.

When asked why she chose a career so rare, she says, “My grandfather was a veterinary doctor. He was the first person who introduced the Rabies Vaccination in Nepal. I want to continue that family legacy and follow his footsteps.” She happily adds, “And of course it is a noble cause and feeds the world.”

Anoushka Panday is a 2013 LEADer who is eagerly waiting to be enrolled at HICAST -College of Agriculture Sciences and Technology. One can’t help but admire her for being so courageous to follow a career path that is unique and uncommon. Anoushka also loves to doodle, play the piano and write blogs.

“One of the biggest lessons Women LEAD has taught me is to be real”, she remarks. “Women LEAD is an incredible platform for young girls who aim to be powerful leaders of tomorrow. We have a strong network of women who are doing phenomenal work around. Whenever we go to some place and say we’re from Women LEAD, people take you seriously”, she says.

When asked about her experiences with the School Leadership Training, she recalls it being a hectic but fun experience. “Being a part of the SLT program improved my communication skills and taught me to be patient too. Before the program, I wasn’t professional enough, but in the SLT program, we had to take control of all the finances as well as handle the whole program too. It greatly developed my professional skills at a very early age.”

Anoushka has deep respect towards her mother and aspires to be like her when she grows up. When she was eight, she underwent an open heart surgery which was very challenging. She recalls, “There weren’t a lot of private hospitals those days and it was really hard to get an appointment. Adding to that, my surgery was a very complicated one which required intensive care even after the surgery. It was my mum who took great care of me, balanced her work and took care of our home as well. She had so many responsibilities, but she fulfilled them all.”

After battling the surgery, Anoushka wanted to be a cardiologist to help children who have heart problems like her. Although her dream transformed with time, her core dream of helping children who have heart problems still remained unchanged. Today, she helps her mother, a social worker, to work for social causes like building a birthing center in a rural area of Nepal. Anoushka sets a fine example for the girls who want to walk the road less travelled.

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Olivia Pavco-Giaccia

Interview by Megan Foo

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Olivia Pavco-Giaccia is a junior at Yale University, studying Cognitive Science. An advocate for girls in science, Olivia is the Founder and CEO of LabCandy, a social enterprise venture with the mission of cultivating girls’ interest in science. LabCandy makes available to girls fun and colorful lab gear and age-appropriate storybooks, attacking common stereotypes about men and women in science fields.

Women LEAD: What is your background? 

Olivia Pavco-Giaccia: I am a Cognitive Science major at Yale University. In addition, in the spring of my freshman year, I was selected as a Fellow of the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute. Thanks to that Fellowship, LabCandy progressed from idea to reality. My other work background includes internships in a neurobiology lab at Stanford University and at Georgetown University Lombardi Cancer Center. Currently, I’m also a member of the Champions Board of the National Girls Collaborative Project.

Women LEAD: You are the Founder of LabCandy, an initiative that helps to get girls interested in science through fun and fashionable lab gear. Can you tell us more about LabCandy and its impact?

Olivia Pavco-Giaccia: LabCandy actually started as a blog that I wrote while doing research in a neurobiology lab at Stanford University. The blog was targeted at getting young girls interested in science, and was a first-hand account of my experiences at the (lab) bench. One day I posted a picture of some beadazzled lab goggles.

I didn’t think anything of it until I logged on and saw the comments from little girls all over the country asking me: “where can I get a pair of those goggles!” That was the moment where I realized I had stumbled across something that resonated with girls. I decided to make another pair…and another and the concept of mobilizing LabCandy and its products to encourage girls’ interest in science was  born. And I’m loving every second of it!

Our mission here at LabCandy is to cultivate young girls’ interest in science by showing them that the field has room for girls like them. Although women constitute about 58% of the U.S. workforce, they hold less than 25% of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs. There are a number of factors contributing to this discrepancy, one of which is the persistent stereotype that scientists are nerdy, old guys. The sad truth is, when most people close their eyes and picture a scientist, they picture Albert Einstein in a white lab coat and thick plastic goggles. There is not much in this image that is relatable or even interesting to a young girl. LabCandy attacks this stereotype directly, allowing girls to change what they think a scientist is supposed to look like. By making available brightly colored lab coats, fun goggles, and engaging science adventure storybooks, LabCandy encourages every young girl to picture herself as the scientist that she can grow up to be.

Women LEAD: Why, to you, is it important that more girls enter STEM fields?

Olivia Pavco-Giaccia: In the short term, encouraging young girls in STEM promotes self-confidence, creativity, and critical thinking skills. In the long term, it opens up new job opportunities. STEM jobs in the US in the past 10 years have grown at three times the pace of non-STEM jobs, and women working in STEM-related fields earn on average 33% more than those that don’t. Getting women involved in STEM is essential to closing the gender wage gap,  and empowering our next generation of problem solvers.  It will make for a brighter future for our young girls and for our nation.

Women LEAD: What needs to change in order to close the gender gap in STEM industries?

Olivia Pavco-Giaccia: There are many different ways to work on addressing the historic gender gap in STEM. For a comprehensive list, check out http://www.ngcproject.org/about-ngcp. LabCandy focuses on transforming the stereotype that scientists are ‘supposed to be’ nerdy and male. We want to make science feel more accessible to our young girls, and to  encourage them to picture themselves as scientists.  Not only is our gear colorful and fun, but our storybook characters are colorful and fun, too.   We created them to be relatable, spunky role models who will help young girls realize that the world of science offers them opportunities for creating, collaborating and solving real-world problems.

Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life? 

Olivia Pavco-Giaccia: There have actually been three women who have had significant impacts on my life. Two of them were my teachers: Mary Cahill in middle school and Denise Reitz in high school. The other is Karen Peterson, the leader of the National Girls Collaborative Project, the largest non-profit in the US devoted to encouraging girls in STEM.

When I was a young girl, I sat quietly in the back of my classroom, not believing that I was a “science kid.” It was Ms. Cahill’s enthusiasm for science and encouragement that sparked my interest in science.

In high school, Ms. Reitz, also a science teacher, was my advisor and encouraged me to pursue science both inside and outside school. She supported me in my submission to the Siemens Science Competition and we celebrated together when I was selected as a Semi-Finalist winner. Ms. Reitz was so influential in my life that I named the teacher in LabCandy’s first storybook after her. She helps our main character, Ava, save the day, as she did for me so many times.

I met Ms. Peterson while in high school and her unrelenting energy and passion for encouraging girls in STEM has provided me with an incredible role model. She has welcomed me into the fabulous NGCP community, introduced me to other girl-centric activists, and has generously shared her time and advice with me over many years.

As Professor Eileen Pollack wrote in the New York Times, “The most powerful determinant of whether a woman goes on in science might be whether anyone encourages her to go on.” I’ve been so lucky to have these three wonderful women provide me such fabulous support, mentorship and encouragement.

Women LEAD: What advice do you have for prospective social entrepreneurs?

Olivia Pavco-Giaccia: Go for it! If you have an idea or cause that you are passionate about, take the risk to get involved and make a difference. Block out the nay-sayers and surround yourself with positive people. Learn about entrepreneurship and begin to take steps to make your idea become a reality.

Women LEAD: Are there websites or books that are inspiring you right now about gender equality and women’s empowerment?

Olivia Pavco-Giaccia: Of course, I love the website of the National Girls Collaborative Project. (www.ngcp.com). It offers lots of up-to-date news on happenings in the STEM world, plus it highlights a lot of the creative programs for young women and girls that are happening on both the local and national fronts. I also enjoy the site for “A Mighty Girl.” (http://www.amightygirl.com/) It offers a great variety of books and products focused on sending positive images out to young girls. They also have the most inspirational Facebook posts.