Spotlight on 2010 LEADer Akshyeta

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Written by Sushmita Shakya, Women LEAD Intern

Akshyeta is a girl with a very unique laugh: when she laughs, people can’t help it but laugh along with her. She is part of the 2010 batch of leaders at Women LEAD, which makes her one of the seniors in the Women LEAD family. Since she completed her two weeklong training on leadership, entrepreneurship, advocacy and development she has been working hard to pursue her dream to become a dentist. Currently she is studying in People’s Dental Campus in Nepal.

“When I first heard of Women LEAD Nepal, it was in my college and I found the name itself to be very intriguing”, says Akshyeta when asked about why she decided to join the training. “I wanted to participate in the training from the very beginning and when all my friends agreed, we all decided to apply together. After the selection rounds, me and three of my friends were chosen for the training sessions.”

She adds that Women LEAD is a great place to learn new things and meet new people. “One of the things which I love about the organization is that our ideas and views are appreciated here. People here will make time and listen to your ideas even though they might not work out at the end. When you do have such an idea, you can act upon it yourself, you don’t have to wait for someone else to start it for you. If you have the confidence, then WomenL EAD gives you the freedom to act on what you think is right.

One of the biggest lessons which Women LEAD has taught me is that you don’t need to be old or an adult to do something correctly. We might fail at first but we will eventually succeed”.

And when asked, what the biggest change she saw in herself after WomenLEAD, she boldly answered: “After Women LEAD, I have become a whole lot more confident in public speaking. Before I used to worry about how I was speaking or if I would say something wrong on stage but now I have the confidence to face the mass without those fears and I can interact with the audience very comfortably.” She adds: ” I have also discovered many of my capabilities after coming here, like my decision making skills. For example, if in school we are working in groups, I can take the initiative now and decide how we can complete our assigned project. “

“In the future I would love to work with Women LEAD and provide dental facilities to the people living in the rural areas of Nepal. I would like to take help from the organization and travel through various villages and give people free dental check-ups and inform them about oral health and how important it is.” Akshyeta believes that the people in Nepal are ignorant about their oral health and only come to the doctors when they are in severe pain, so she wants to create a change to this habit and make people more cautious about their teeth and gums.

Akshyeta, is also working on her Hollaback Kathmandu campaign and is visiting many colleges to conduct an interaction program with the students on street harassment and why it is a very serious problem in Nepal. The students are made aware of what street harassment is and how one should deal with it. The students also share stories of what they have faced on the streets and how they reacted,  with their friends suggesting ideas of what should be done to stop the harassment. ” Conducting the Hollaback Kathmandu campaign wouldn’t have been possible without Women LEAD and all the resources that it has provided. I would like to be a part of more campaigns and programs like this in the future as well, this way I can slowly bring a change in my community and eventually Nepal.”

 

 

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Alia Whitney-Johnson

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

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Alia Whitney-Johnson is the founder of Emerge Global, a social enterprise that equips Sri Lankan girls who have survived sexual abuse with the business acumen, life skills and capital needed to lead healthy, self-sufficient lives. Using jewelry creation as a tool for education, art therapy, and financial empowerment, Emerge has enabled hundreds of young women to launch businesses, finance education, and even build homes. Emerge was selected as Boston’s Small Charity of the Year (2010, Classy Awards) and has been featured on the front page of the Boston Globe’s fashion section, in Glamour Magazine, and on Good Morning Sri Lanka. Through her work, Alia has been recognized as one of Glamour Magazine’s Top Ten College Women (2007), a Truman Scholar for Public Service (2007), and one of the world’s leading young social entrepreneurs by the International Youth Foundation (2009) and the Sauvé Scholars program (2011-2012). In 2013, she authored a chapter in “Do Good Well,” a #1 Amazon bestseller with reviews from Muhammad Yunus and Nicholas Kristof.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Alia Whitney-Johnson: I grew up on a horse farm in Western North Carolina. I have always had a passion for design, entrepreneurship, and organizational development, which led me to create my first “business” when I was seven years old, creating and selling jewelry. I never imagined my childhood hobby would turn into a tool that I would use later to support other young women.

After finding my calling with teenage survivors of rape in Sri Lanka while studying civil and environmental engineering in college at MIT, I went on to pursue a masters in development studies at University of Oxford, where I focused my time on children’s agency and women’s empowerment.  I am currently an Associate at McKinsey & Company in San Francisco, and continue to be an active board member and volunteer of Emerge Global and Emerge Lanka Foundation, supporting the work I launched in Sri Lanka.

Women LEAD: You are the Founder of Emerge Global, a social enterprise that equips Sri Lankan girls who have survived sexual abuse with the business acumen, life skills and capital needed to lead healthy, self-sufficient lives. Can you tell us more about Emerge Global?

Alia Whitney-Johnson:Emerge supports Sri Lankan girls, ages 10-18, who have been removed from their homes due to past abuse or the threat of abuse and are courageously testifying in court. These girls are placed into shelters that typically lack resources and educational opportunities; Emerge partners with these shelters to transform them into entrepreneurship hubs, where girls develop the business and life skills needed for self-sufficiency. Emerge equips these girls with skills and resources for their futures, using a comprehensive curriculum that emphasizes leadership, life skills, and business knowledge, while simultaneously generating a financial foundation for each program participant through the creation of unique jewelry.

Our theory of change at Emerge is simple — We invest in girls who are fiercely courageous and have challenged societal norms to protect themselves and others. Our aim is to not only enable these young women to heal from past trauma and become self-sufficient, but to become architects of change in their own communities. They already have demonstrated that they can fight for change. With a few additional tools and a network of support, we believe we can equip a generation of leaders who will redefine Sri Lanka as we know it.

You can learn more about our work and the courageous young women we work with on our website at www.emergeglobal.org

Women LEAD: What does women’s empowerment and leadership mean to you?

Alia Whitney-Johnson:To me, “empowerment” is having the tools, resources, connections and capital (whether financial, intellectual, or social) to reach your full potential. For the girls we work with in Sri Lanka, this means achieving self-sufficiency, leading safe lives, and having the leadership skills and capital needed to enact their vision of change for Sri Lanka.

I see leadership as the ability to inspire others to act and to bring their best to bear.

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

Alia Whitney-Johnson:Every single girl I have had the privileged of getting to know through Emerge has deeply impacted and inspired me. Watching them grow more confident and hearing them talk about their aspirations gives me so much optimism about the future. One of the first girls I worked with and I had a very special bond. After years of abuse, she entered the shelter feeling too broken to speak. Over time, she began to speak while beading. She became a supporter in the program, helping teach other girls and meeting me at the gate to help bring our beading supplies into the classroom. And, when she would shut down emotionally, her counselor would call me to come see her. After only 30 minutes with the beads, she would open up into an entirely new person: light-hearted, smiling, and confident.

One Valentines Day, I entered the shelter and did not see her. The other girls were making cards for loved ones but she was missing. I asked where she was and the matron told me she had received a message from her family that day that she was never welcome at home again because of her abuse. My heart sunk. On this day when other girls were making cards, she had no one.

I went to her room and found her smoothing her sheets, her eyes locked on her bed. She would not look at me. Tears trickled down her face. I sat down and rubbed her back. No words were necessary. I was there with her, in silence. After some time, I heard the phone ring. My taxi had arrived. The girls and matrons began calling my name. And the girl I was sitting with grabbed my hand and squeezed it tightly. She reached under her pillow and revealed that she had indeed made a card that day — it was for me.

She carefully pulled her only belonging off the shelf, a piece of purple tissue paper, and wrapped my card inside. We both began to cry and hugged one another. I opened the card and saw the words: “Dear Alia Miss, I love you”.

I realized in that moment that there was no turning back. I had loved the work and the girls I had gotten to know. But, until then, I had seen it as a project. In this moment my work with Emerge hit me at an entirely new level. I had become this girl’s only family member. She had placed her trust in me. Emerge was no longer just a project or an organization; we were (and continue to be) a family. This means that our work doesn’t “end” when a girl finishes her time in our programs. It means that we are building a life long community where we will be there for every single girl’s ups and downs as she continues through life. And, what an honor it is.

Women LEAD: What advice would you give to prospective social entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders?

Alia Whitney-Johnson:+ Do what you love - Being an entrepreneur is a 24/7 job. Being a social entrepreneur often means that you are also resource constrained. Make sure you are doing what you love.

+ Assess if a new organization is truly needed - Are there ways to attain your goals through existing infrastructure? This could increase your impact and decrease your time to get there.

+ Plan for sustainability from day 1 - Document processes, invest in great people from the beginning, and tie success to the organization being bigger than you. If you want to solve a problem, it’s success cannot depend on one person.

+ Stay critical and self-aware - Fight the good fight but reflect on whether the impact you are having is worth the energy and resources you are spending, or whether there are ways to do it better. Also, from the beginning, consider the impact on the issue if you cannot deliver. Are you creating unexpected new dependencies?

+ Find ways to nourish yourself outside of the organization - While being a social entrepreneur can be deeply fulfilling, find ways to nourish yourself outside of the organization. Vacations are healthy and having outlets to relax will keep you creative, positive, and energized.

Last year, I contributed to a book called Do Good Well, a guide for young leaders and social entrepreneurs. There are many more tips there — check it out!

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

Alia Whitney-Johnson:There is a terrific documentary called Missrepresentation. They also have a FB page that I follow. I love their posts — always great articles to read.

Girl Rising, from DC to Nepal

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Written by Natasha Uppal,@natashauppal

 

“Knowledge is power. And ignorance, ignorance is the enemy of change. But change is coming. And we are the change.” – Girl Rising

Earlier this month, 58 individuals from 12 countries decided to celebrate International Women’s Day by sharing stories of empowerment and change. Led by Virginia Campo, young women leaders from across the world broadcasted the Girl Rising documentary one after another, resulting in a marathon of screenings and meaningful conversations. Fittingly, the event was called the ‘Girl Rise-athon’. In DC, Women LEAD and Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies co-hosted the screening at Georgetown University. Having hosted this amazing film last year, I instantly jumped at the opportunity to be a part of it again. Later, as I sat in the audience engaging in discussions, answering questions, and listening to Claire from Women LEAD share their admirable work with girls in Nepal, I found myself feeling energized, inspired, and connected, much like everyone else who was a part of the 24 hour event.

 

Girl Rising, a film directed by Academy Award-nominated director Richard E. Robbins, tells the story of nine ordinary girls who confront tremendous challenges and overcome them to pursue their dreams. Beautifully written, narrated, and shot, the film conveys tales of immense determination and courage, successfully educating and sensitizing the audience without inducing guilt or pity. This is something that several past campaigns and documentaries have failed to do. Instead, Girl Rising echoes messages of hope and tenacity, reiterating the truth that these girls, and millions like them around the world, possess the ability to transform their lives and communities.

 

For me, each girl in the film, Wadley, Amina, Suma, Yasmin, Ruksana, and the others, reminded me of their counterparts that I have been lucky to meet and work with across rural India. For them too, illiteracy, bonded labor, early marriage, and sexual and physical violence are harsh realities that surround them everyday. Witnessing their strength, struggles, and triumphs firsthand and noticing the disparity between their achievements and the contrasting preconceived perceptions held by many in India and the world has solidified my belief in storytelling as an effective and indispensable component of social change. Girl Rising’s innovative storytelling managed to bring diverse and complex realities from around the world in front of a largely far removed audience in the United States in a respectful, educational, and objective manner. The understanding and curiosity it prompted was evident by the questions that followed post screening.

 

Of all the conversations that evening, two stood out for me. The first was regarding the role of men and boys in ensuring gender equality. Drawing from my experience in India, I shared a few examples of the challenges faced when working to empower women in predominantly patriarchal societies. These were real, often frustrating hurdles but they could be overcome by identifying and working alongside a few ‘champions’ within communities. Due to the codependent and interconnected nature of rural Indian societies, even men who support women’s empowerment hesitate to speak out from fear of being ridiculed or shunned. Encouraging them and giving them a platform to speak often helped many other mute supporters join in solidarity. Additionally, creating champions within panchayats (local governance bodies at village levels that are regarded highly by villagers and considered superior to state and national governments by them) have positive long-term effects for women’s empowerment. From her experience in Nepal, Claire added that while there is a definite shift in attitudes, it would be inaccurate to say that there isn’t any opposition at all.  Fathers who initially feel reluctant to send their daughters to Women LEAD’s program are encouraged to attend their open house to learn more about the program. Though they might come in fearing the organization is anti-men, they quickly see that Women LEAD is inclusive, with boys participating in one of their programs as part of Women LEAD’s vision of women leading alongside men. Fathers, brothers and friends are critical allies for girls, and Women LEAD has seen the huge difference it makes when these male allies believe in girls’ right to education and empowerment.

 

The second conversation revolved around what people in the United States could do to help girls in developing countries. While there are many different ways, two stand out to ensure effective contributions that lead to the quickest results. They both begin with sensitization and awareness around the issue; familiarizing oneself with what is really going on. The best way to do this is by spending time to understand the work of organizations like Women LEAD, that are dedicated to empowering women and girls to help them escape poverty and discrimination. Next, individuals can choose to strengthen the programs run by these organizations by contributing monetarily. Along with, or instead of donating money, individuals can also help by assuming the role of storytellers. By reaching out to their networks and educating them about the issue, individuals can help drive attention, interest, and ultimately funds to the important work of grassroots organizations.

 

Everyday, all around the world, women and girls are fighting for their right to be heard. They are challenging longstanding traditions that stifle them and slowly, often painstakingly, replacing them with practices that ensure equality and dignity. They are breaking the shackles that tie them to a predetermined destiny and are setting examples for generations to follow. Their stories deserve to be told and their achievements merit recognition, encouragement, and support. Films, rather movements like Girl Rising and organizations like Women LEAD create a fantastic platform to do both.

 

Profile of LEADer Shrinkhala

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A sweet girl who doesn’t speak much is the first impression people get of Shrinkhala Shakya. Shrinkhala is currently studying in Delhi, under the Indian Board to become a Chartered Accountant. Life is busy for her in this new country where she has to rush from one class to another according to the cramped time period provided by her teachers.

Shrinkhala wanted to study management from the very beginning. “In the past, people thought that being a doctor was the best occupational status and were always impressed when you told them that you were a doctor and just like that I think, CA is the most reputed profession in today’s Nepal and that is why I want to become one. “

Shrinkhala came to know about Women LEAD through her college. ” I first saw the Women LEAD brochure when one of my seniors Aishwarya Singh Thakuri came in to the college and told us girls about the organization. She was very confident when she was speaking to us and I was very much influenced by that. So, afterwards when I got home I looked through the Women LEAD website and decided to join. And I am very happy that I was selected!”.

She finds Women LEAD to be a very friendly place and says, ” Unlike other places, here the trainers and trainees are not indifferent to each other. They all care about each other a lot and the seniors don’t boss people around, they act as if we are all friends. Women LEAD is like a big family and that is what I like the most about this place.”

When asked about what is the most important thing that Women LEAD has taught her, she proudly said that, ” The most important thing which the organization has taught me is that whenever there is a chance to do good, I should not wait for others to start but just do it myself. I should not back down or shy away when I have the opportunity to be helpful.” And she also adds that she is now more outspoken and confident because of Women LEAD. And the fact that she travelled to India and now is studying there without the guidance of an elder proves the rise in the level of her confidence.

“I want to concentrate on my studies and become a CA first before starting on anything else.” she says. Shrinkhala’s biggest dream right now is to become a CA and come back to Nepal so that she can work in a government office and improve the tax payment system in Nepal. “I feel Nepal is like a ill country right now which has been infected by corruption and I want to treat this illness and turn it in to a healthy country. That is why I plan to come back to my own country once my studies are over.”

“If I hadn’t joined the LEAD course then this thought of doing better for my country wouldn’t have occurred to me. Women LEAD has made me want to do something for Nepal and bring a change in it for the better and I really want to thank the organization for this and everything else which it has been able to do.”

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Estelle Ah-Kiow

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

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Of Chinese ancestry, Estelle Ah-Kiow is a fourth generation Mauritian. Currently based in Mississauga, Canada, she is pursuing her undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto.

For the past four years, Estelle has worked with Strength Within Girls Group (Swiggtalk.com), a non-profit that has a mission of building self-esteem and leadership skills with teenage girls. As an integral member of the SWIGG team, she has helped build and develop key areas of the organization. Through her exceptional networking, Estelle has interviewed girls and women of influence from around the globe, and has been instrumental in planning a series of leadership conferences in the Greater Toronto Area. Her main motivation working with SWIGG is to continue reaching out to girls at what is often a difficult time in their lives, and help them achieve their full potential.

Committed to raising her voice on issues that she feels passionate about, Estelle is a member of Plan Canada’s Because I am a Girl Speakers Bureau and a regular contributor to The NextWomen Business Magazine.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

I was born and raised in Mauritius, a small island in the Indian Ocean, and I’ve called Canada home since I was twelve-years-old. Currently a student at the University of Toronto, I am pursuing post-secondary studies in International Affairs and French Literature.

Women LEAD: You are a Regular Contributor at The NextWomen, the first award-winning online Women’s Business Magazine and networking forum. Can you tell us more about your work with The NextWomen?

TheNextWomen.com is an online business magazine launched in 2009, delivering fresh, exclusive content daily and providing a global hub for entrepreneurs, executives and investors to share, inspire and connect. A strong and rapidly growing social media presence and a weekly global newsletter complete The NextWomen Media.

As a regular contributor to The NextWomen, I interview high profile entrepreneurs from around the globe. It is real a privilege to be able to have conversations with those incredible women who are leaders in their respective fields, and learn about their successes, but also about the challenges and roadblocks they’ve had to overcome, as well as the lessons learnt from the failures they’ve faced before “making it” in the business world.

Given my background in the non-profit sector, I’m also committed to putting the spotlight on social entrepreneurs whose ventures are helping fix some of the world’s most pressing issues.

Women LEAD: You are also a Delegate for the Girls 20 Summit, which mobilizes women and girls for economic impact on local, national and international scales. Can you tell us more about the Girls 20 Summit?

Designed according to G20 Architecture, on an annual basis, a global Summit is held.  This annual event brings together one delegate from each G20 country, plus a representative from the European Union and African Union, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the MENA region to discuss, debate and design solutions that will economically advance girls and women around the world. At the Global Annual G(irls)20 Summit delegates engage with international experts, consider recommendations made by the Summit’s partners and thru a moderated session, design and then deliver a set of recommendations in the form of a communiqué to G20 Leaders for their consideration.

Women LEAD: In addition, you are a Blogger at the Girls Action Foundation, a national charitable organization that builds girls’ skills and confidence and inspires action to change the world. Can you tell us about your role with the Girls Action Foundation?

A few years ago, I participated in the Girls Action Foundation’s leadership training in Jouvence, Quebec. After learning about the remarkable work that the organization is doing and getting acquainted with members of the GAF’s incredible team, I decided to become involved by writing for Kickaction.ca, the non-profit’s online platform. We just wrapped up Kickaction’s annual Blogging Carnival, which helped start some great discussions on important issues facing young girls from across Canada.

Women LEAD: What does empowering women mean to you?

To my mind, empowering women means giving them the tools they need in order to achieve their full potential.

Women LEAD: Can you talk about women who have impacted you in your life?

My mother, who ran her own business while raising my brother and I has always been one of my greatest inspirations.

I’m also very lucky to have had some amazing mentors, who have guided me every step of the way, from wonderful teachers such as Ms. Anita Urbano and Ms. Irene Kent to Lindsey Higgs at Plan Canada, Emma Cosgrove at War Child Canada and Sheena Moya-Chen at Safe City Mississauga. Liz Coulson, the director of Swiggtalk has probably been the mentor who has had the greatest impact on my life, and I credit her for helping shape the person I am today.

Women LEAD: Are there websites or books that are inspiring you right now about gender equality?

  • Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn

This book should be a reference for aspiring social activists, and reading it was one of the catalysts in sparking my passion for gender issues. The Half the Sky documentary was also released on PBS in 2012.

http://www.halftheskymovement.org/

  • Miss Representation (documentary)

A must-see!

http://film.missrepresentation.org/

  • The G(irls)20 Summit’s Youtube Channel

Panels on fascinating issues, featuring international experts.

https://www.youtube.com/user/Girls20Summit

My experience at the UN NGO Parallel Events for the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 58)

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Written by Rajina Shrestha, 2010 Women LEADer and Intern. 

The UN Women’s 58th Commission on Status of Women started on 10th of March. Thanks to the Global Fund for Women, I flew in to New York (for the first time!!) on Wednesday and met our wonderful co-founder Claire Charamnac and the sweetest Dipeeka (another Women LEAD participant and also my co-intern in 2011), to attend the NGO parallel events being held alongside the main CSW58.

Held during a stretch of two weeks, these events are mostly panel discussions from amazing women and their organizations around the world talking about a specific issue. Some are documentary screenings and some are the NGO Regional Caucuses about what is happening inside in the main CSW events.

The priority theme of this year’s CSW was Challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls[1] and the review theme was Access and participation of women and girls to education, training, science and technology, including for the promotion of women’s equal access to full employment and decent work.[1] The side events that we attended are opportunities for Member States, UN entities and NGOs to discuss themes of the Commission and other critical gender equality issues.[2]

 Until now in the conference, among the various panels we attended, a few have really left me astonished and many times, inspired. After all, it is not everyday you hear sensitive autobiographical stories from stories of women who have faced various kinds of abuse/discrimination and their story of overcoming it.

It was also interesting, to compare the statistics between various participating countries and Nepal. Nepal has 8% girls who graduate high school (12th grade). Pakistan, has less than 25% literate women (here, the speaker noted, literate meant someone who could read and write their name on paper) and less than 15% attending high school. 4% of girls in Nigeria finish secondary school. In terms of VAW, international statistics show one in three women face violence in their life. In East Congo, it was specifically mentioned that 2 out of three women face sexual abuse.

 What I loved the most about the conference is the display of all the things that need to be made right in the world and the way the process worked. Researchers gave an alarming fact about the status of the problem with their statistics and other observations. Then people working to address the issues said what measures have been taken; what has worked and what has not. Policy makers and activists work together with government to change what is wrong. Then there is of course, the introduction of things I had never thought about, like how women’s rights and even human rights can be religion and culture specific. Also, how LGBTI as a minority group never get the same support as women’s rights do and how curriculum development plays a vital role in how we are shaping the future generation. How climate change is also a women’s issue in a way. How there are so many things in the world that are still legal and ethically wrong and still illegal in the world but right in it’s own ways.

Then of course, there was my favorite panel – what I always preach to my friends and cousins: pink is the new blue and blue is the new pink! We need no one to tell us what color to choose!

 

Citiations:

1: http://www.unwomen.org/en/csw/csw58-2014

2: http://www.unwomen.org/en/csw/csw58-2014/side-events

 

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Emma Saloranta

Interview by Megan Foo

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Emma Saloranta has worked in the areas of gender equality, child rights and human rights in several countries, including Finland, USA, Kenya, Brazil and most recently India. She is passionate about women’s and girls’ empowerment, and is particularly interested in examining how women and girls define empowerment and gender equality differently around the world, and learning how to expand their opportunities and choices, and promote inclusion and participation, in ways that respect women’s and girls’ own voice and agency. Emma was previously based in Bangalore, South India, working for a local NGO focusing on the effective use of information and communication technologies in promoting equity, social change and gender equality. Emma is currently in New York City, where she works as a gender consultant at UNICEF’s Gender Unit. She holds a Master’s Degree in International Affairs from The New School in New York and a BA in Social Services from her native country, Finland.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Emma Saloranta: I am a native of Finland, born and raised in a small southern town called Orimattila about 1 hour from the capital of Helsinki. At the age of 17 I spent a year in Brazil as an exchange student, which I believe to be the original reason for my longing to travel and my passion towards working in issues related to people’s wellbeing and equality.

In Finland, I completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Services, and as a part of the degree carried out a three-month long internship in Kenya, where I worked mainly with street children and HIV/AIDS counseling. After graduating, I worked as a social worker in family and child protective services, before moving to New York in 2009 for a Master’s Degree in International Affairs at The New School University. I graduated with my MA in 2011, after which I have worked as a gender consultant at UNICEF in New York, and as a researcher focusing on the intersection of technology and gender for an NGO called IT for Change in Bangalore, India. I currently reside in Brooklyn, and work as the Communications Director for Girls’ Globe and as a consultant at UNICEF’s Gender Team.

Women LEAD: You are the Director of Communications at Girls’ Globe, a network of passionate bloggers and organizations working to improve the lives of women and girls, and through it, change the world. Can you tell us more about Girls’ Globe?

Emma Saloranta: Girls’ Globe is an international non-profit organization and a network of passionate, dedicated bloggers and organizations spanning five continents who want to raise awareness about issues related to gender equality and women’s and girls’ empowerment, and promote positive change. We currently have 41 bloggers: 25 women from around the world, and 16 organizations. We raise awareness about girls’ and women’s issues, gender equality and empowerment through our blog, social media, events and partnerships, with the aim to encourage positive change, increase people’s awareness about these topics, and inspire individuals to take action in their own lives.

Women LEAD: You are also a Gender Consultant at UNICEF. Can you tell us more about your work with UNICEF?

Emma Saloranta: I started at UNICEF first as an intern when I was still in Graduate school, and then continued as a consultant in their Gender Team at the Headquarters in New York. UNICEF’s HQ-based gender team is very small, and therefore there is plenty of work for everyone. At HQ, the work includes providing support, guidance and tools to Country and Regional Offices to ensure that they can carry out gender-sensitive programmes and gender mainstreaming; organizing events for example around International Day of the Girl Child and the Commission on the Status of Women; carrying out research on a variety of topics related to girls’ rights and situation, such as child marriage, girls’ education, girls’ and women’s rights and relevant International Human Rights Treaties such as CEDAW and CRC; and so forth.

Women LEAD: Why is women’s empowerment important to you?

Emma Saloranta: Because I have a deep passion and commitment towards social justice and equality – and I believe women and girls represent the single largest group that continues to face daily discrimination, mistreatment, violence and unnecessary risks. They represent half of the world’s population, and yet in so many countries continue to be seen and treated as second-class citizens. No country can afford to continue to ignore the immense potential and power that lies within every single woman and girl, and I truly believe that a gender-equal world is not only better for women and girls, but better for everyone. If there is a silver bullet to development and to increased well-being, I believe it to be women’s and girls’ empowerment – empowering a girl is like throwing a small pebble into a lake. The act on it’s own may seem small, but the ripples it causes can have an immense reach and make an impact on such a broader level.

In addition to all of that, there is simply no justification for gender-based discrimination. Promoting women’s and girls’ rights and gender equality is the right thing to do, the smart thing to do, and the only thing to do. There’s no more time to waste, and there are no more excuses.

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

Emma Saloranta: It may sound cheesy, but the women who have inspired me the most are the women closest to me – my mother, my grandmothers and my two younger sisters. I am responding to these questions on March 8th, which is International Women’s Day – and I just spent the day with my mom, my maternal grandmother, my two sisters, and my 4 week-old baby niece – and watching these women around me, representing four generations, I could not help but feel overwhelming joy and gratitude for the role models I have always had around me. I grew up believing that I could do everything and anything, and that no dream was out of my reach – and that is how I have lived my life. My younger sisters continue to amaze me every single day with their wit, strength, inner and outer beauty and their sincerity, my grandmothers have always been a source of inspiration to me, and my brand new baby niece has turned my world around. I hope all girls in the world could have the chance to grow up surrounded by strong, inspirational women who make them understand and believe that nothing is impossible for them, and nothing is out of their reach.

Women LEAD: What needs to change to eliminate gender-based discrimination, specifically violence against women?

Emma Saloranta: I think that gender discrimination, and particularly gender-based violence, is often underpinned by deep rooted notions of women and girls as second-class citizens who are less human, less deserving, and less worthy. Violence against women is about power – and about making women and girls powerless. In many countries, laws still need to change to send the message that violence against women is never, under no circumstances, acceptable – and then those laws need to be implemented and monitored. Men and boys need to be brought into the discussion, and raised to understand that women and girls are of equal value and worth than men, and need to be treated with the same respect and dignity. We need to bring gender-based discrimination and violence against women into the light – stop hiding it, and stop sending the message to girls and women that it is somehow their fault or that they have something to be ashamed of. This is something that we all – every single one of us – have to participate in. Silence is compliance, and nobody is immune or unaffected by this. According to statistics, every one of us has either been a victim of violence against women; committed acts of violence against women; or knows a woman or a girl who has been a victim of violence. This is a pandemic of epidemic proportions, and we absolutely have to stop it now.

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

Emma Saloranta: The list is endless! First, I recommend everyone to visit Girls’ Globe (www.girlsglobe.org) for inspirational and informative posts about women’s and girl’s rights and gender equality, written by women from around the world. We also give many ways to participate, so please let us hear from you!

The Girl Effect is also a great website and resource for learning about the power and potential of girls around the world.

Girls Not Brides is an amazing network and resource on the topic of child marriage.

Campaign for Female Education is an organization that promotes girls’ education and provides support for girls to go to school in several sub-Saharan African countries.

Check out the Featured Organizations section on Girls’ Globe for several inspirational and great organizations working to promote gender equality and girls’ and women’s empowerment!

In terms of books, I highly recommend the following titles:

Half the Sky, by Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan

I am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai

The Road of Lost Innocence, by Somaly Mam

I am Nujood, age 10 and Divorced, by Nujood Ali

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, by Anaïs Nin

Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolf

Feminism is for Everybody, by bell hooks

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Tanya Selvaratnam

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

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Tanya Selvaratnam is a writer, an actor, a producer, and an activist. She is the author of The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock. As an activist, she has worked with the NGO Forum on Women, the Ms. Foundation, Third Wave Foundation, and World Health Organization. As a producer, she has collaborated with Chiara Clemente, Catherine Gund, Mickalene Thomas, and Carrie Mae Weems among others; and her current projects include Thomas’s “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman”, which premiered in February 2014 on HBO, and Gund’s “Born to Fly” about daredevil choreographer Elizabeth Streb, premiering in March 2014 at the SXSW Festival and playing at Film Forum in New York this fall. For more info and to order The Big Lie, please visit thebigliebook.com.

Women LEAD: What inspired you to write The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism and the Reality of the Biological Clock?

Tanya Selvaratnam: I got the idea for The Big Lie after my third miscarriage in fall 2011. At the time I was 40 years old and frustrated not so much by the lack of information but by the conflicting messages in the media about the relationship between maternal age and infertility. I wrote the book that I felt I needed then. It’s part memoir, part exposé, and part self-help. I explore how delaying motherhood intersects with reproductive science, feminism, evolution, popular culture, female friendships, and global economics.
It’s a Big Lie that we can delay motherhood until we’re ready and if we’re not able to have a child naturally then science will make it happen for us. It’s also a Big Lie that we don’t need feminism anymore.

Women LEAD: What needs to change in order to foster more widespread education and open discussion about delayed motherhood?

Tanya Selvaratnam: I propose a number of action items to normalize the discourse around delayed motherhood. These include: Share your stories. Know your fertilities. Strategize for your goals. Advocate for a better future.
We need sex education that goes beyond pregnancy and STD prevention, and teaches us fertility awareness. We need governments that support us more in our pursuit of parenthood through measures like subsidized childcare and guaranteed parental leave.
Also, we need to support each other more. We are constantly pitching ourselves against the expectations of others, and this sets us up for disappointment or failure. We live in a judgmental society, and the immediacy of opinion-building through social media and the Internet doesn’t often allow for thoughtful consideration. Embrace the multiplicity of ways in which people build families, and embrace the variety of choices that people make—whether they have kids or not.

Women LEAD: How has feminism played a role in the phenomenon of delayed motherhood?

Tanya Selvaratnam: When I was growing up, the liberating messages of feminism dovetailed with advances in reproductive science to create an atmosphere in which women felt their fertilities were more within their control. It’s not that feminism told us not to become mothers; it’s that it told us all the things we could do aside from being mothers. My generation was the guinea pig one for testing the limits of our reproductivity, and many of us are discovering that perhaps we waited too long. I believe it is very feminist to arm women with accurate information, so we can make sure that the next generations have more basic fertility awareness incorporated into their educations. As a small contribution, I’ve created a toolkit companion for The Big Lie that is available as a free download on thebigliebook.com. It includes statistics, resources, conversation starters and more.

Women LEAD: What other battles with the biological clock must women brace themselves for?

Tanya Selvaratnam: Most people are generally aware that fertility decreases with age. What they don’t often realize is how steeply it decreases and at what point. After 35, a woman has a 15-20 percent chance of conceiving per cycle; by the time she’s 45, she has a 3-5 percent chance per cycle. At ages 35-37, about 35 percent of our eggs are normal; by ages 41-43, about 10.2 percent of our eggs are normal. It’s too vague to say “after 35 you can still have a baby but your chances go down.” So I say educate yourself about the exact statistics and ask your doctors for information.
What surprised me actually was that men have a biological clock, too. Recent studies have shown that advanced paternal age contributes to increased developmental disorders and birth defects. Moreover, among couples dealing with infertility, as much as 50% of those cases are the result of the male factor. We think of the biological clock and infertility as a woman’s issue, but it’s a people’s issue.

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

Tanya Selvaratnam: There are so many amazing women in my life that I can’t single one out, except my grandmother who always tells it like it is and is a lot of fun.
I’ve been lucky to have mentors along my path. I think this is important for every young person: identify your role models and see if maybe you can apprentice with them or at least meet with them. And for women in leadership positions, I encourage you to be a mentor. You can make a big difference in the course of a young person’s future.

Women LEAD: Why is women’s empowerment important to you?

Tanya Selvaratnam: We are all connected, and while you might feel free, there is a girl or woman in the world who isn’t. As I write in the book, you might not want to call yourself a feminist; you might not identify with famous feminists; but can’t you get behind what feminism advocates? Feminism encourages a broader democratic framework that counters the fundamentalist backlash, which is a never-ending threat to women around the world every day. As long as a girl can be shot for seeking an education (as happened to Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan in October 2012), as long as a female student can be raped and killed by a group of men on a bus (as happened in India in December 2012), as long as women need to stage a driving protest to ask for their right to drive their own cars (as happened in Saudi Arabia in June 2011), as long as a woman can ask for contraception coverage and be called a slut (as happened to Sandra Fluke in the United States in March 2012), we need feminism.

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Adriane Randolph

Interview by Megan Foo

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Dr. Adriane Randolph is an Associate Professor of Information Systems in the Michael J. Coles College of Business at the Kennesaw State University in Georgia, USA. Director of the KSU BrainLab, she is currently spearheading groundbreaking research to match individuals with brain-computer interface systems. This research, which is in the vanguard of technological development, will enable people with disabilities to have control of computers through the sole use of their brain waves, without any physical input. A fervent advocate of empowering women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, Dr. Randolph hopes to inspire women to create change through technology.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Adriane Randolph: I am a Black woman who grew up in the Northern Virginia/Washington, D.C. Area of the United States.  My father was a Marine officer and my mother was the Head Media Specialist (a.k.a. Librarian) for a public high school.  I attended a public magnet school for science and technology, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST), which is consistently one of the top five high schools in the United States.  After high school, I received my B.S. in Systems Engineering from the University of Virginia (UVA), worked for several years as an Information Technology Consultant with Accenture (formerly Andersen Consulting), and then returned to academia for my Ph.D. in Computer Information Systems at Georgia State University.  Because both of my parents, also both Black, had their Masters degrees, I felt I at least had to achieve that level of education.  It was imperative to them that I get a graduate degree – it ended up being my choosing to go all the way to the doctoral degree.

I always had an aptitude for math – I loved it and could really retain formulas and the process for solving complex problems.  I was also quite social; I was class president all four years of high school, on the dance team, and led various student initiatives in college.  Further, I loved art; I saw a strong connection between art and design and the incredible artwork posted in the hallways of TJHSST is what helped me to know I was in the right place.  The best combination I saw of these loves was to focus on the design aspects of technology, in particular the user interface where I interacted with people and helped translate their needs into a working system.

Women LEAD: You are the Director of the KSU BrainLab, which is currently conducting groundbreaking research to developing solutions for brain-computer interfacing. Can you tell us a bit about this research project?

Adriane Randolph: A brain-computer interface (BCI) provides a path to control computers and other devices and for understanding human mental states based on detecting small changes in electro- and psychophysiological characteristics of the brain.  Brain-computer interfaces are an invaluable resource for people who lack the physical ability to control their muscles.  While most people would be considered able-bodied (i.e., they can manipulate objects around them without assistance) there are some in this world who suffer from a condition called locked-in syndrome.  Half a million people worldwide are locked-in, or completely paralyzed and unable to speak.  Often, diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), conditions such as Cerebral Palsy, accidents that cause severe motor disabilities, and strokes result in a person becoming locked-in.  The person remains mentally active and completely aware but has lost all voluntary muscular control.  Some internal input to an external computer or device is the last frontier for the person’s communication and control.  These same recording technologies used for control may also be used to understand a person’s thoughts.  By uncovering mainstream applications for using this technology, the individuals who truly need it will benefit.

The mission of the KSU BrainLab is to discover impactful solutions for brain-computer interfaces by uncovering the underlying characteristics that affect users’ responses and control.  We are working to design and develop real-world systems that enable people to control computers and other devices using neurophysiological input and to explain individual behaviors in various settings.  Projects have included: examining home use of brain-computer interfaces, a neuromarketing study examining brand placement in different media vehicles, working with the Sales Center at KSU to understand the differences between novice and expert salespersons by examining their patterns of thought, and an effort to develop an interface for Google Glasses that uses brainwaves to control it.

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

Adriane Randolph: I am thankful that there are several women who have impacted me.  The first being my strong mother who always supported education. The second was a woman at UVA, Dr. Ingrid Soudek-Townsend, who encouraged me to get a doctoral degree.  The third and most key, is my doctoral advisor, Dr. Melody Moore Jackson who currently directs the Georgia Tech BrainLab but founded and directed the original BrainLab at Georgia State University.  Without her, I would not be conducting research in the area of brain-computer interfaces.  She was a pioneer in computer science in industry, one of the few in a computing doctoral program, and an original researcher for real-world applications of neural-based technology.  She was selfless in allowing me to pursue opportunities in the field that were of personal interest.  She continues to serve as a mentor for me who is just a text message away.

Women LEAD:  What does girls’ education mean to you?

Adriane Randolph: Girls’ education means shaping what my now two-year-old daughter will receive and helping to provide the means for her and others like her to be able to be their complete selves.  Although life may be filled with challenges (and certainly joys), no one can ever take your education from you.  Someone might omit your title, but the learning still exists.  That knowledge fuels an inner-confidence that can never be stolen.

Women LEAD: Why is empowering women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) important to you?

Adriane Randolph: This is my personal journey from middle school to now.  Middle school is where I had to make sure I was tracking into Pre-Calculus to be eligible for the curriculum at TJHSST, and I had to complete a science fair project else my science teacher was holding hostage his recommendation into the program.  At that time, I didn’t even know if I wanted to attend the “geek school,” but thank goodness my good friend living down the street, also a female, knew better than me.  She was a Puerto Rican girl who was a year ahead of me.  So, we were both challenging assumptions not just for women but also for underrepresented minorities.

Women LEAD: What needs to change to bridge the gender gap in STEM subjects and careers from this generation of women?

Adriane Randolph: Girls need a push early on to just “try it” without feeling like they are railroading their lives into the nether regions of “geekdom.”  Perhaps seeing examples of socially-relevant projects that are STEM-based would help make the tie to areas we may naturally feel ourselves gravitating towards.  Girls may not need to feel pushed by their parents, but their parents need to be educated about the opportunities tied to STEM curriculum, majors, and careers.  Further, socially, girls need to see their friends or others they respect getting into these areas.  I believe it would ignite from there.

Women LEAD: What advice would you give to girls and women who are interested in pursuing a career in STEM-related fields?

Adriane Randolph: Bring a friend along and the path won’t seem so daunting.  Then, everyone wins!  Try out a summer program often offered by universities to get your toes wet.  Get involved in student chapters of larger technology-based groups.  For example, the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) has NSBE-Junior chapters.

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Caroline Sprod

Interview by Megan Foo

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Caroline Sprod is the Executive Director of HandsOn Hong Kong, a Hong Kong registered charity with a two-fold mission of helping nonprofits meet their volunteer needs and helping those who want to give back to the community do so in a meaningful way. An enthusiastic volunteer, Caroline strives to create innovative, high-impact contributions to people’s lives through active volunteerism. She has dedicated much of her spare time to helping fantastic causes in Hong Kong, specifically in the animal welfare sector. Passionate about empowering women, Caroline is also a member of the British Chamber Women in Business Committee, which focuses on empowering women pursuing business-related careers.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Caroline Sprod: I’m from the UK and for the last 7 years I’ve called Hong Kong home. Straight after university I joined the UK Diplomatic Service.  Over a 17 year career I worked in London, Ukraine, Spain and Hong Kong. I’m currently on unpaid leave from the Diplomatic Service.  18 months ago I joined HandsOn Hong Kong.

Women LEAD: You are the Executive Director at HandsOn Hong Kong. What inspires you about HandsOn Hong Kong, and can you tell us about your work here?

Caroline Sprod: HandsOn Hong Kong removes barriers that hold people back from volunteering, and enables small grassroots NGOs to get the helping hands they need.  Hong Kongers want to get involved and make our city a better place for all, but their busy schedules often prevent them from committing to a regular volunteer activity.  In addition, many people are not sure where to find volunteer opportunities.  Small NGOs are busy with their frontline services, and lack the resources and know-how to recruit and manage volunteers.  By having HandsOn Hong Kong in the middle, these two parties are able to come together and both benefit. I know from personal experience how volunteering is not just about giving but about gaining too, so I’m really passionate about facilitating the opportunity to volunteer!

Women LEAD: You are also a member of the British Chamber Women in Business Committee, which focuses on empowering women pursuing business-related careers. Can you tell us more about the British Chamber Women in Business Committee?

Caroline Sprod: I joined the Committee during my first year in Hong Kong.  We organize a program of events aimed the female members of the Chamber.  We have networking lunches and evening events, a series of talks called “Inspiration Women” and other adhoc talks. Even though women make up only around one fifth of the Chamber members, our events are some of the most popular ones on the calendar.  I find that women in general network in a different way to men.  They are supportive, collaborative and ask questions, whereas men have a tendency to be competitive and talk about themselves. I have met many wonderful women through the British Chamber who have become a key part of my network, not just as valued business contacts but also as true friends.

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

Caroline Sprod: I hugely admire Jill Robinson, the founder of Animals Asia.  The organization is campaigning to end bear bile farming in China and Vietnam.  She is amazing, and close to reaching her goal.  As a foreign women in Asia, striving to change practices that many Chinese and Vietnamese consider part of their culture, she has many barriers to overcome. Jill has demonstrated incredible communication skills and powers of diplomacy which has won the campaign the support of both key decision makers and ordinary members of the community.  Combined with her passion to bring about change, she is unstoppable!  I’m delighted that Jill will soon be giving a talk through our British Chamber Women in Business Committee as one of our “Inspirational Women”.

Women LEAD: What does leveraging the creative talents, energy and power of youth for volunteer initiatives mean to you?

Caroline Sprod: Every journey begins with a single step.  When a young person takes their first step to volunteer, it can empower them to journey through life being deeply and actively involved in giving back and making their immediate community and the wider world a better place.  And as I’ve already mentioned, community service is not just about giving, it’s about gaining too.  Volunteering offers our young people wonderful opportunities to learn new skills, increase their self confidence and of course have fun and make friends!

Women LEAD: Why are women’s leadership and empowerment important to you?

Caroline Sprod: I’ve had fantastic opportunities in life. I had a great education, I have travelled widely and I’ve had a variety of intellectually stimulating and challenging roles in my career so far. I would never have had these chances if my mother’s and my grandmother’s generations hadn’t stood up, spoken out, fought for women’s rights and refused to take no for an answer.  My generation, and coming generations, need to continue to take action to ensure that future generations of women will be defined only by their abilities and how they choose to use these, not by their gender, or other circumstances of their birth.

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

Caroline Sprod: I actually love some of the memes that are popping up online at the moment.  They make us stop and think, and smile at the same time. This morning I saw one quoting Sheryl Sandberg: “I want every little girl who is told she is bossy to be told she has leadership skills.”  Another I enjoyed was “Who’s behind every great woman?  That’s right – no-one.  She has to get there by herself.” And of course there’s  “Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels.”