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