Interview by Megan Foo
Wende Valentine is the Director of Development at Starfish One by One, a grassroots education nonprofit organization that is catalyzing game-changing leadership through ruthless commitment, innovation and leadership development for 500 girl pioneers in Guatemala. Realizing the potential of the Mayan girls that Starfish One by One supports, and the unique, unheralded power of empowering young women through education, Wende hopes to create an unprecedented cadre of women leaders in Guatemala. Starfish One by One addresses a host of Guatemala-specific problems, including discrimination due to age, sex, race and economic circumstance, lack of access to basic information and social services, and deeply engrained gender inequality. Its empowerment curriculum, the first of its kind in Guatemala, encompasses the following subjects: vocal empowerment, financial literacy, personal self-esteem, leadership training, and reproductive health.
Women LEAD: What is your background?
Wende Valentine: Raised by two educators on a boarding school campus, I organically took early career strides in youth education through various school programs, camps, leading wilderness trips for teenagers, and eventually teaching physical education, special education, and ESL. My first exposure to the developing world was actually in Guatemala 20 years ago through a Rainforest Field Studies course which led to further interest in and passion for Mayan people and their challenges and opportunities. With an undergraduate degree in both Anthropology and French, extensive work and travel under my belt, and the realization that teaching was ultimately not going to be my long-term career, I pursued a Master’s Degree in International Development with a focus on Global Health. I took a position with Water For People in January of 2003 as one of two international programs managers, and for five years managed water and sanitation programs in Africa and India. When my husband and I chose to have a family, I transitioned into fundraising and was a development professional for the latter five years of my tenure there.
Wende Valentine: Starfish is a unique organization that is committed to transformative change through a paradigm shift that focuses on quality over quantity and the notion of creating infinite impact through a focus on seeing how far 500 girl pioneers can go by the year 2028. What this looks like in action is divided into the following three overlapping program areas with the Starfish girl in the middle:
- Responsive innovation: the Starfish approach consists of an evolving laboratory for needs assessment, partnerships, training, and sharing;
- Relentless commitment: from the moment a Starfish girl is selected, the focus is on ensuring each piece of her entire ecosystem (self, family, community, education and career) are addressed and maximized and;
- Walking the talk: Starfish is grounded and led by an indigenous group of staff who have been empowered through having these same challenges themselves to empower others through a values-driven intentional culture.
All of these pieces woven together lead to girls that are empowered to empower others and the result is an endless ripple effect of positive change.
Women LEAD: Why is empowering girls through education important to you?
Wende Valentine: Since I was a child, I was taught the value of giving back and was empowered by my parents and the schools I attended to give back and contribute towards empowering others. Everyone in the world deserves to feel a sense of empowerment and I feel humbled and honored to be able to work towards creating that opportunity for Mayan girls in Guatemala who are at the bottom rung of both the empowerment and education ladders fostering unprecedented changes for them, their families, their communities and their country.
Women LEAD: What does women’s leadership mean to you?
Wende Valentine: In a place like Guatemala, girls are traditionally raised to be caregivers and homemakers. They rarely have a voice in their family, let alone their community or society; however, their capacity for ideas can be immense if given the opportunity to share and be a part of something. If the mentality shifts and girls are educated and given the chance to become leaders, they have the power to truly change the status quo of a machismo and stagnant society.
Women LEAD: What would you say are the biggest challenges to improving access to girls’ education in Guatemala?
Wende Valentine: In my opinion, improving access to girls’ education is contingent upon the following factors:
- Creating a mental shift for parents and girls around the value of education.
- Exposing girls to the possibilities of a different trajectory other than the only one her sisters, mother, aunt, cousins, grandmothers, and ultimately all of the male figures in her life, have ever known.
- National and local leadership in Guatemala needs to drive emphasis towards valuing the access to and support for girls’ education.
- Educating men around how dramatically and positively everything can shift in a family or village if the girls and women are educated.
Women LEAD: Could you describe one woman who has inspired and encouraged you in your life?
Wende Valentine: My mother has been an incredible role model for me in my life. She was the first person in her family to go past sixth grade and go on to graduate from university and take classes at the Master’s level. Despite the pressure from her parents to move back to her hometown and remain by their sides as she started her own family, she chose to go abroad in college, travel throughout the US, and pursue a career as an interior designer and then as a teacher as she started a family.
At age five I asked her if I could go away to sleepover camp for four weeks to be like my older brother. She supported my desire to explore the world and become incredibly independent at a very young age while simultaneously providing an incredibly safe and loving home environment for me to which I always returned.
On my 10th birthday, instead of making the focus entirely on me, she took me to volunteer at a homeless shelter, and to this day, has led by example by ensuring that community service is integral to her life.
In a nutshell, from the very beginning, she has empowered me to empower others and I am incredibly grateful to have had her as my guide.
Women LEAD: Are there any websites and books that are inspiring you right now about the theme of gender equality?
Wende Valentine: World Pulse!