Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter
Jenny Bowen is the founder and CEO of Half the Sky, an international NGO founded in 1998 in order to better the lives of orphaned and abandoned children living in China’s state-run welfare institutions. A former screenwriter and independent filmmaker, Bowen is a recipient of the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, and the 2007 American Chamber of Commerce’s Women of Influence Entrepreneur of the Year Award in Hong Kong. Bowen serves on China’s National Committee for Orphans and Disabled Children and on the Consultative Committee of Experts for Beijing Normal University’s Philanthropy Research Institute. She is the author of the memoir, Wish You Happy Forever: What China’s Orphans Taught Me About Moving Mountains, published by Harper Collins in 2014.
Women LEAD: What is your background?
Jenny Bowen: I grew up in San Francisco and was an independent filmmaker and screenwriter before I linked up with a small group of adoptive parents of Chinese children to start the Half the Sky Foundation.
Women LEAD: You are the Founder and CEO of the Half the Sky Foundation, an international NGO with the mission of ensuring that every orphaned child has a caring adult in her life and a chance at a bright future. Can you tell us more about the Half the Sky Foundation and its impact?
Jenny Bowen: When Half the Sky Foundation first started working in China, there was no recognition of the fact that institutionalized children – just like children all over the world — can thrive when they are given, more than food and shelter, when they are given the nurturing care that should be their birthright. The programs we established in government-run orphanages all over the country in the last 16 years have proven over and over that institutionalized children can in fact blossom when an adult gives them the patient, loving care – the hugs, the smiles, the encouragement — that is crucial for healthy development. Now the Chinese government not only recognizes that fact but has also made our child-centered programs the standard for the entire public welfare system. We were also honored to be invited by the government to train every child welfare worker in the country about the importance of nurturing care and how to deliver it through our Rainbow Program. We also now have the opportunity to begin to start the process of turning everything we have built over to the Chinese to operate and fund as has always been our intention. In 2011 we helped launch our Chinese sister organization, Chunhui Children, whose mission is to galvanize Chinese citizens and corporations to support the programs we have established and extend them to more institutions and to at-risk children living in the community. Now, in addition to our Western supporters, generous individuals and corporations who have benefited from China’s new prosperity can support the children who have been left behind.
Women LEAD: What inspires you to keep fighting to improve the lives of children in China?
Jenny Bowen: The countless number of children I have met at the 53 Children’s Centers we have established in government-run orphanages throughout China. I never fail to be moved by their magical transformations—shattered, emotionally vacant children become the curious, smiling children they were meant to be after they receive the simple gift of nurturing that is taken for granted in loving families. Those transformations keep me fighting to improve the lives of the children we haven’t yet reached.
Women LEAD: You also authored a new book, Wish You Happy Forever, which chronicles your lives to transform Chinese orphanages positively. Can you tell us more about your book?
Jenny Bowen: I was thrilled to be given the opportunity of writing the story of Half the Sky, but it wasn’t easy. I wrote a draft based on a story I’d been carrying in my heart. My editor said he loved the story, but it didn’t have enough of me in it. So I had to go back and look at my past. I had never thought about what it is in me that’s pushing me to help these kids find love. The “me” came out in very unexpected ways. I didn’t receive enough love as a child and that started coming out. One of the many great pleasures of my book tour has been meeting some of the families whose children have been impacted by our work and receiving photos, notes and handcrafted gifts. One child made a drawing with lots of hearts and wrote, “Dear Half the Sky, Thank you for taking care of me.”
Women LEAD: On a personal level, why does empowering girls matter to you?
Jenny Bowen: My daughter Maya was the inspiration for starting Half the Sky. When we adopted her from a Chinese orphanage in 1997, she suffered the ill effects of institutionalization – she was shut down emotionally and behind developmentally. I saw how Maya blossomed when she was empowered, when she received the love and support she needed. She and my daughter Anya, also adopted from China, have become interesting, engaged, loving young women and they inspire me every day.
Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life?
Jenny Bowen: Zhang Zhirong (“ZZ”). ZZ is the heart and soul of Half the Sky. Without her, Half the Sky would not exist. ZZ was an official interpreter and tour guide and working for the China Population Welfare Foundation when we met, but she soon started working tirelessly for Half the Sky. She quickly became my big sister, my guide, and my Chinese voice.
Women LEAD: What advice do you have for prospective social entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders?
Jenny Bowen: Stay committed to your mission and don’t let the fact that you may not have any experience in the nonprofit world deter you.