Inspiring Young Woman Leader of the Week: Alanna Hughes

ImageAlthough a Bostonian at heart, Alanna has recently returned to her “patria adoptada” as Dominican Republic Country Director of Community Enterprise Solutions and Social Entrepreneur Corps. Prior to undertaking the responsibility of designing MicroConsignment and other systems-changing models to the Dominican context, Alanna worked with the Full Economic Citizenship team at Ashoka: Innovators for the Public and as a Community Economic Development Advisor for the Peace Corps. Alanna is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, where she also directed a student-run business and co-founded the Women Advancing Gender Equity (W.A.G.E) Fellowship.

How did you get started with social entrepreneurship?

That is a good question – I have to admit that I just kind of fell into it! I was vaguely familiar with the concept when I was an undergraduate at Georgetown, but only through a vague familiarity with the existence of Ashoka across the bridge from campus. It was only after coming back from the Peace Corps and searching for jobs that I began to digest the underlying pillars, and realized that they reflected the most successful and inspirational aspects of my work in the field. Throughout my two years, my “aha!” moments mostly came from the times that my Dominican community members came up with their own solutions to social problems, ideas that made complete sense within the local context but were never tried before. It really shed light onto the power of people’s creativity and practicality, as well as how people can leverage those abilities to make change when they feel empowered to do so (through tangible vehicles like capital, or just the emotional support of a mentor saying “I believe in you”). When I rediscovered Ashoka and read the stories of its Fellows, I realized that it was the space I needed to commit myself to professionally.

That’s great, we really believe in local empowerment and local solutions as well. Can you talk a bit more about your experience in the Peace Corps?

I’d love to, because I had very positive experience in Peace Corps both professionally and personally. I was a Community Economic Development Volunteer, which meant that I focused primarily on microenterprise development and income generation. When my supervisor interviewed me for placements, I had what I thought would be a weird request: a project that allowed me to work within structure AND within a complete lack of structure. I ended up getting a great balance of both. I was assigned to work with a regional branch of a national confederation of Dominican cocoa growers (that exports nearly half of all of the organic cocoa leaving the DR) on the development of a community-based tourism project literally called “The Chocolate Tour”. On the more structured side, I collaborated with their specialists to apply for USAID grants, develop promotional materials, design and run trainings for the local farmers managing the tour, among lots of other things…and, on the less structured side, I lived in the rural community where the tour operated and co-created projects with community groups ranging from a small business administration class for young adults (who ended up winning first place in a national business plan competition!) to construction of a community park to writing workshops in the local school.

I especially enjoyed my work with two women’s groups, and with the young adults in my community. One of the women’s groups made wine, chocolate, and marmalade from cocoa – so I often joke that my experience in Peace Corps was once in a lifetime because when else do you get to reduce poverty through wine and chocolate?  But in all seriousness, my time working with such diverse community groups and with a major economic actor while bathing in a bucket ever day and subjecting myself to things like dengue fever really forced me to think and act in ways I wouldn’t have ever learned to if I had gone into an office after college.

That sounds like an awesome experience. What do you think was your toughest leadership tests in leading all these projects and people?

Honestly, I think that it was learning to appreciate and discern how people process situations differently, and how they move forward to address them. Sure, one could argue that these differences are a product of opportunity, or lack thereof, in various spheres – educational, professional, regional, gender – but personalities and intuitions also come into play. I really think that the moments where I was most successful as a leader were when I could read between the lines, realize what people were trying to convey or why they thought their idea would work, and help individuals build upon them to find a solution or reach a goal. A part of this was also recognizing people’s strengths even when the weren’t conscious of them themselves, and figuring out how to bring them to the person’s attention and encouraging him or her to act on them.

Did you feel any discrimination as a woman/female leader in the DR?

In the majority of circumstances, I did not feel discriminated with respect to my competency and legitimacy as a foreign professional. Contacts ranging from the members of my community’s associations to directors of national organizations did not seem to value my input any less because I was a young woman. Really where I found myself conscious of my gender was when I was in contexts outside of my professional sphere. In those instances, I was viewed as a blue-eyed, single 20 something who moved abroad alone. That was when I was catcalled, felt objectified, and had to take a deep breath and remind myself that those who mattered treated me respectfully.

That’s interesting, and certainly challenging. Do you think you could talk a bit more about women’s status in the DR? I know that it’s a bit of a broad question, but I’m curious to find out more.

That question really merits a multifaceted answer, since gender relations here are indeed quite complex. and a pertinent question too, given that today in the DR there were countless events to recognize International Women’s Day! I’ll do my best, but I can’t guarantee I’ll do justice. On one hand, I think that Dominican women are among some of the most empowered I’ve ever met. A lot of them feel comfortable speaking up and expressing their opinions. They will find solidarity in groups and work together for common causes. They will march. They will become involved in political campaigns. They will play the role of the mover and the shaker in the family unit, watching out for their children and running the household if their husband spends most of his time out of the home. That said, I would not go so far as to say that Dominican women have achieved a status completely equal to that of men. You see far fewer Dominican women holding the highest positions of political, financial, and social power. Especially in rural areas, women spend most of their time in the domestic sphere because it is the man who is expected to do most of the bread winning. Although infidelity is a two way street here, I would go so far as to say that it is much more “accepted” for a man to cheat on his partner than vice versa. Domestic violence and rape continue to plague far more women than men. Although I have only lived in the DR for just over two years between my first and second time working here, I am still optimistic enough to believe that Dominican women have come a long way. That said, like countless other countries on this planet, the DR has a long way to go before it can claim that the status of women is equitable to than of men.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in the DR during your work or outside of work?

Of course – that is a tough question only because I have worked with several women’s associations, and each holds a cast of characters who have profoundly impacted my professional and personal lives. To choose one, I suppose that I can focus on my host mother for the first four months of my Peace Corps service, who goes by the nickname “Mema.” Mema constantly illustrated for me how one could turn challenges into opportunities. Mema was a woman who grew up in the Dominican countryside, had 10 kids (who are now adults and live in other parts), and never had much opportunity to leave her surroundings. Instead of accepting the status quo, she would constantly come up with new projects that could potentially help her earn money, provide her family with food, or just keep herself entertained. When I lived with her, I felt as if she was always bringing home a new animal – a goat that she could later sell, a turtle that made her laugh because she had never had one before, etc. Just a few months after I moved out, her husband (my host dad) died suddenly of a heart attack. It was the last thing that she could have anticipated, and in addition to adjusting to the loss she was also evicted from her house. Instead of wallowing in misery, she dedicated more of her time to working at the women’s organization nearby with the hope to make more pocket change. She instantly began building a new house, one plank of wood or tin at a time. She even learned how to weave handbags and belts from plastic bags – although she struggled to find a market for them, she was just so proud of her handicrafts that she worked on them incessantly and showcased them whenever possible. To me, she is such an example of the pride, resilience, and entrepreneurial spirit of many Dominican women that I admire and attempt to learn from.

I’m so fascinated by the work you’ve done, I wish I could ask a million questions but I need to wrap it up soon! So to switch gears, what advice do you have for someone who would want to go into your field?

Honestly, I would state that taking calculated risks and trusting your gut is extremely important. Instead of worrying about the complexity of certain problems or the challenges and sacrifices you’d be undertaking in order to solve them, focus on the what you could stand to gain by taking a leap – best case scenario, you find ways to irrevocably impact and improve the lives of others, and worst case scenario you’ve only impacted and improved your own life because you’ve tried something new through which you’ve acquired new skills, experiences, and perspectives. I’m not advocating for haphazardness – one has to be committed, passionate, and willing to adapt – but I’m still idealistic enough at this point to believe that people are inherently talented in so many ways, and a lot can be achieved with open-mindedness, enthusiasm, flexibility, and perseverance.

And how much longer do you plan to stay in this field? What are your plans for the future?

I can’t give a specific number of years to that question because thus far my professional track has been more of a nuanced evolution building from one experience to the next rather than a beginning to endpoint trajectory. Offhand, however, I can say that the field of social entrepreneurship just feels right for me, and I can’t see myself leaving the field anytime soon. One of the major inspirations for me in my time at Ashoka and my current role in Community Enterprise Solutions/Social Entrepreneur Corps has been the innovation and passion of social entrepreneurs of Ashoka Fellow caliber, and I think that my long term objective at this point is to allow the experiences and insights I’ve been acquiring in the early stages of my career to help me eventually develop my own models, my own new ideas for successful and scalable solutions that create positive change. Now, that sounds a bit lofty – I guess more concretely, I’d like to continue to work with economic opportunity for low-income women, as that’s just become an area that drives me to get out of bed every morning and helps me sleep at night.

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