Meet Our U.S. Board Member, Jamie Greenawalt

Jamie Greenwalt, our new U.S. Board member, talks about working as an international development expert and why she believes empowering young women is critical to creating a more just, equal world.

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Our new U.S. Board Member Jaime Greenwalt stands with LEADers and staff during her visit to Nepal.

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Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Jo Farrell

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Joyce Farrell

Jo Farrell is an award-winning documentary photographer and cultural anthropologist based in Hong Kong. The creator and leader of Living History, which documents the lives of the last remaining women in China with bound feet, Jo is deeply passionate about representing tradition and culture through the vehicle of art, particularly women’s traditions that are about to fade away from history. She has presented at the TEDxWarwick 2015 and TEDxWanchaiWomen 2015 conferences on perceptions of beauty, tradition, and culture, and her work has been featured in a variety of print and online platforms, including BBC, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and The Smithsonian Magazine.

 

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Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Joyce Ou

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Joyce Ou

Joyce Ou is a freshman at Yale University. An avid journalist and passionate advocate for education, she has been involved with initiatives including leading her school’s paper and serving as the Editor-in-Chief of the online magazine of Givology, an online nonprofit that aims to address educational opportunities in the developing world. Joyce hopes to pursue a career at the intersection of molecular biology and global affairs, and aspires to improve healthcare systems and global health within and beyond the US.

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Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Humaira Bachal

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Humaira Bachal (Photo: Wajih & Shirani)

Humaira Bachal is an advocate for women’s education who strives to change the attitude of people who are against women’s education. She is the Founder of the Dream Foundation Trust, an organization that aims to facilitate personal development and the enhancement of health, social living and working conditions in Pakistan. For her pioneering efforts in girls’ education advocacy, Humaira has been recognized as one of five “Bravest Women on Earth” by the Women in the World Foundation, and was awarded the 2013 Women of Impact Award at the 4th annual Women in the World Summit. She was recently featured in TIME and on CNN for her work founding the Dream Foundation Trust.

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Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Yasmin Belo-Osagie

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

Yasmin Belo-Osagie is a Co-Founder of She Leads Africa, a Nigeria-based social enterprise that equips female entrepreneurs in Africa with the knowledge, network, and financing needed to build and scale strong businesses. She is a management consultant focusing primarily on developing growth strategies for a number of local and international corporates. In 2011, she spent a year attending culinary school and working as a sous-chef in the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong. Yasmin is a graduate of Princeton University with degrees in history and finance.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Yasmin Belo-Osagie: My name is Yasmin Belo-Osagie. I’m half Nigerian half Ghanaian. I grew up in Nigeria until I was ten and then went to boarding school in England for 8 years. After this I went to Princeton University where I majored in history and minored in finance. Following this I took a year off and spent 6 months at culinary school (Cordon Bleu in London and Paris). During this time I spent 2 months in Hong Kong working in the pastry kitchen at the Mandarin Oriental. After this I moved back to Nigeria where I started working with McKinsey and Co, a management consulting firm.

Women LEAD: You are a Co-Founder of She Leads Africa, a Nigeria-based social enterprise that equips female entrepreneurs in Africa with the knowledge, network, and financing needed to build and scale strong businesses. Can you tell us more about She Leads Africa and its impact?

Yasmin Belo-Osagie: Entrepreneurship is going to be the broad based driver of economic growth in Africa. And whilst development organisations and institutions have been focused on empowering low income African female entrepreneurs, very little attention has been paid to the dearth of female business leaders across the continent. She Leads Africa aims to empower the women who have the ambition to be the business leaders of tomorrow, creating organisations that will hire millions of young Africans and promote development across the continent.

To date, we have hosted the first even all female pan-Africa pitch contest, sponsored eight entrepreneurs attending an Investor Demo Day in Washington, D.C., established a partnership with Intel to conduct workshops for tech entrepreneurs, begun negotiations with Nigeria’s largest bank to create a low-interest lending program for female entrepreneurs, and started work on an online education platform that will feature African case studies taught by business experts.

After attending our pitch competition, Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man, was impressed by the quality of entrepreneurs trained in our 6-week mentorship and has earmarked $1m in low-cost loans for us to give out. We have been featured in a number of reputable publications including ForbesBlack EnterpriseFox Small Business , Fast Company, and Ventures Africa.

My co-founder and I were recently selected as 2 of Forbes’ 20 youngest power women in Africa. That said we both acknowledge that we have much further to go.

Women LEAD: What have you learned about the state of women’s entrepreneurship through your work founding and leading She Leads Africa?

Yasmin Belo-Osagie: There’s a generational mindset shift occurring amongst African female entrepreneurs that African women have always been entrepreneurial. Indeed of all the regions in the world, Africa has the highest rate of female entrepreneurship in the world. My family is a good example of this, both my grandmothers as well as my mother were entrepreneurs. That said I’ve found that in the older generation most African women had aspirations to be small and medium business owners. Whereas today women believe that they can become titans of industry and create large multi-million dollar.

Women LEAD: Why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Yasmin Belo-Osagie: Investing in women reaps significant dividends for families and societies. Women tend to be investment multipliers: investing the majority of their income back into their families and communities. This results in better educated, healthier children who go on to be more productive, more prosperous citizens

More generally female consumers are a whoefully underserved market in Africa with very few businesses catering to their needs. I find that entrepreneurs tend to create products for people they understand. More female entrepreneurs will mean more services for female consumers which means more consumption and ultimately higher rates of economic growth

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

Yasmin Belo-Osagie: My mother, who moved to Nigeria after marrying my father and started her own law firm, has always been a big impact in my life. She instilled in me the critical values of hardword and dedication.

Women LEAD: What advice do you have for current and future women entrepreneurs?

Yasmin Belo-Osagie: Turn every moment into an opportunity and get out there and hustle. No one will fight for your success if you don’t.

8 months ago I was working at McKinsey, I’d just broken up with my boyfriend of 4 years and frankly I was really depressed. I was looking for something to do and She Leads Africa was borne after a chance encounter with my cofounder. We’d known each other for a year whilst at McKinsey but I randomly ran into her at a conference and we came up with SLA whilst having a drink at the bar. The next few months were a whirlwind as we raced towards the pitch competition (our launch event). I was a Mckinsey consultant by day, an entrepreneur by night with 2/3 hours of sleep in between. It was a constant hustle with problems coming at every opportunity but that’s what being an entrepreneur is about. You’re creating something that doesn’t exist; that often times the world often doesn’t think is needed. You need to fight for relevance every day.

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

Yasmin Belo-Osagie: Not really – real life is. I look around me and see the dearth of African female business leaders, the need for development and the lack of jobs for young people like myself. That inspires me to get out and fight every day.

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Liz Fortier

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

Liz Fortier earned a Master’s of Public Health degree from New York University in 2012, during which she researched harm reduction measures for intravenous drug users, and worked for a diabetes prevention research study in East Harlem. Passionate about the intersections between health, poverty, and gender equality, Liz has consistently undertaken initiatives relating to the health of marginalized populations and improving access to healthcare for those living in poverty. Recently, she has also undertaken a volunteer role as a mentor at the Women’s Prison Association. She is eager to share what she has learned about health and poverty and how those issues relate to gender equity.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Liz Fortier: I have a Master’s degree in Public Health. I have been fortunate enough to study community health in South Africa, Mexico, and New York City.  Studying public health led me to realize how serious gender inequity is globally, and how poverty and a lack of access to health care sustain some of this inequity.

Women LEAD: You are a volunteer at the Women’s Prison Association, an advocacy group in the US that helps women with criminal justice histories see new possibilities for themselves and their families. Can you tell us more about your role with the Women’s Prison Association?

Liz Fortier: I just started volunteering as a mentor for the Women’s Prison Association (WPA). The mentors for WPA support women who are transitioning out of prison. Mentoring has proven to reduce the recidivism rate among incarcerated individuals. My role involves letter writing, phone calls, one-on-one meetings, and group events with my mentee. Some of the women who are in the mentor program have been incarcerated for lengthy periods of time, and they may not have experience using computers, Internet, or other things that most of us rely on on a daily basis. The mentors act as a support for these women who need resources while transitioning their lives out of prison. The Women’s Prison Association works to empower women. The mentors are not meant to provide for or do things for the mentees, but to guide them to the resources they need to empower themselves.

I got involved with the Women’s Prison Association because this population of women is usually forgotten and extremely vulnerable, vulnerable to poor health outcomes, re-incarceration, substance abuse, and sexual violence to name a few. Many of these women have experienced trauma and faced serious obstacles in their lives. They need extra support, and usually receive none. I felt that my time would be best used serving this population.

Women LEAD: Why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Liz Fortier: Women’s empowerment matters to me for numerous reasons. The scale of gender inequity may differ by location in the world or culture in which one lives, however, to some degree all over the world, women are affected more seriously by poverty, experience sexual assault, violence and harassment at a higher rate, are more often negatively confined by gender roles, earn less money, fail to have educational opportunities or economic opportunities, and often do not receive appropriate health care and reproductive health rights in comparison to men. To me it is obvious that we need to work toward women’s empowerment because the current situation tells us so.

Women LEAD: Why is learning about the intersection between global health, poverty, and gender equality important to you?

Liz Fortier: Much of my public health background involved studying vulnerable populations. Learning about and spreading awareness of the intersection between global health, poverty, and gender equality is important to me because I think understanding these issues could help break down racial, class, and gender barriers globally that lead to inequality and sustain the status quo. We know that gender inequity is a problem, but if we understand its roots we can eradicate it more effectively.

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

Liz Fortier: My mom has been a big impact on why I chose to pursue a career working to help people and advocating for gender equity. She always taught me that service was an important part of life, as well as always standing up for what is right.  My mother is an extremely confident and strong woman. She attained her law degree after while raising 3 children. She and my father also raised three of their nieces whose parents couldn’t care for them. My mom recently fulfilled a lifelong dream of becoming a political leader in my hometown by winning a position on the city council. I definitely wouldn’t be the person I am without her influence.

Women LEAD: What advice do you have for future advocates for women and girls?

Liz Fortier: My advice to future advocates for women and girls is to keep it up! Since becoming a blogger for Girls’ Globe almost 2 years ago, the organization has grown exponentially, and I have become linked to some highly inspiring girls and women. I think we are on the right track. Women are showing everyday that we will stand up for what we want, need, and will work to make the world a better place to live if given the opportunity.

Women LEAD: Are there books inspiring you right now about gender equality and women’s empowerment?

Liz Fortier: Since Maya Angelou passed last year, I decided to re-read a collection of her poetry. It could go without saying, but her life story is just so inspiring. How she overcame so much in her childhood including sexual violence, and used her experiences for good is a reminder to me of how powerful and beautiful we all are. I couldn’t do justice trying to explain some of my favorite poems, so I suggest picking up a copy!

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Ruchira Gupta

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                          Photo Credit: David Goldman (davidgoldmanphoto.com)

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

Ruchira Gupta is the Founder of Indian anti-sex trafficking organization, Apne Aap, which has helped more than 20,000 at-risk and prostituted girls, women and their family members in red-light areas and slums across India to save themselves. In 2009 she won the Clinton Global Citizen Award for her work to end sex trafficking, 15 years after she won an Emmy for outstanding investigative journalism for exposing sex trafficking in the documentary, The Selling of Innocents. Ruchira helped create the first UN Protocol to End Sex Trafficking as well as the Trafficking Fund for Survivors at the United Nations by addressing the UN General Assembly on behalf of survivors and taking a panel of survivors to speak at the UN General Assembly in New York alongside Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. She has opened groundbreaking avenues within India for survivors to communicate their ideas by rallying their voices for the successful passage of Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code – India’s first law on trafficking after the infamous bus rape in Dec, 2012.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Ruchira Gupta: I was a journalist when I stumbled upon rows of villages with missing girls in Nepal nearly twenty years ago. As I investigated the reason for this I found that like 19th century slavery, a sex trafficking chain existed from the villages of Nepal to the brothels of Mumbai – from the local village procurer, to the corrupt border guard, to the lodge keeper, transporter, pimp, brothel manager, landlord, money lender, and organized criminal networks. I ended up making a documentary called The Selling of Innocents on this. I spent a lot of time talking to the women, sharing their anguish and their dreams. At one point during filming, they saved me when a client/pimp pulled a knife to stop me.

This was a life-changing experience for me. I went on to win an Emmy for outstanding investigative journalism but decided to quit mainstream journalism. I still love writing and story-telling, but now I try to do it from the point of view of the last girl – who is poor, female, low-caste and a teenager.

Women LEAD: You are the Founder of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an organization dedicated to ending sex trafficking by increasing choices for at-risk women and girls. What inspired you to found Apne Aap, and what has its impact been so far?

Ruchira Gupta: When I want back to the brothels to show the selling of innocents, after the Emmy, the 22 women in prostitution who had told their stories in the documentary said they wanted my help to change their lives. They had four dreams: 1. A school for their daughters to save them from the same fate as themselves 2. A job in a office, where they could work fixed hours, nobody would beat them, where there was old age pension and 3. A room of their own: where nobody could walk in when they wanted, where they could sleep as long as they liked and where their children could play safely and 4. Justice -severe punishment of those who had brokered away their dreams by selling and buying them and those who failed to protect them from being trafficked or when they tried to escape.

I said they could save themselves if they organized to speak up and resist the violence just as they had saved me from the knife when I was filming. They said they did not have money, education or networks. We together decided to form Apne Aap, which means “self-empowerment and self-achievement” in Hindi. Our aim was to create a world in which no woman is bought or sold. We decided to hire a teacher and in a small room in the red-light area, we started preparing the children for school. When they were ready, the women went as a group of mothers to the local school principle and cried and begged till he became his prejudice and admitted them. That was the first victory for the women and the Apne Aap teacher. Emboldened, the women then wanted to do something for themselves.We realized that to access anything they needed citizenship documents, like birth certificates or passports or other government-issued IDs. We helped them fill forms and then campaign with local authorities to get the documents.  The women wrote slogans, made posters, signed petitions to put pressure on authorities to give them the IDs. If that failed, they spoke to the media. That helped them get both the IDs and the linked government subsidies like low cost food rations, low-cost health care, low interest loans, slowly reducing their expenses and desperation. Of course their was pushback from the pimps and brothelkeepers as their dependency on the brothels came down. They were beaten. We helped with legal support to go file a case in a police station or testify in court. At the same time we started linking with livelihood promotion organizations and helping women open bank accounts to save some money safely. The whole process created everlasting friendships between the women; we called this the self empowerment group. Over the years, the program grew and we took this approach to other red-light areas in Bhiwandi, Delhi, Bihar and Kolkata. We called it the “ten asset approach” and defined each step as an asset – a safe space, to school, to self-confidence, to political campaign skills, to government IDs, to government subsidies, to bank accounts and loans, to legal support, to livelihood skills and finally nine friends or membership of a group and a network.

More than 21,000 girls, women and their family members became members of this network and reduced their risk or dependency on prostitution. The first generation of daughters of these women are in college now. Over another 1200 are in schools for the first time in their families. They have put 66 traffickers in jail.

In 2013, this network was vocal and strong enough to get trafficking made a penal offense as part of the anti-rape law passed after the Delhi Bus rape on December 16, 2012. And this year they won a comprehensive judgment at the Patna High Court forcing the Bihar government to launch a holistic anti-trafficking program.

Women LEAD: You are also on the board of Coalition against Trafficking in Women. Can you tell us more about your experiences?

Ruchira Gupta: The Coalition has promoted the Nordic model against trafficking. These are laws in Norway and Sweden which punish the purchase of sex – that is clients and traffickers (pimps, brothel-keepers etc.) and de-criminalize the girls and women, recognizing even their choices as based on gender and other inequalities. This has at last shifted the blame from victims to perpetrators. I have seen the Coalition promote this among NGOs, governments, universities and foundations. I have also been part of the Coalition’s efforts to influence the United Nations to create a victim-friendly anti-trafficking framework. It was successful in influencing the passage of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, and ensuring that the framework shifted the blame to the johns and traffickers and de-criminalized the women. Most importantly, it introduced the concept of vulnerability making choice irrelevant in a trafficked person being defined as a victim. This led to an understanding of the context of trafficking as the intersection of gender, class, race, ethnicity, age and caste inequalities.

The Coalition also gave me a group of allies to campaign for laws in my own country and expert opinions and ideas when I needed them. It gave me a global platform to promote my own ideas and of the survivor leaders of Apne Aap.

Women LEAD: Why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Ruchira Gupta: I have always longed for equality and justice. I have joined any campaign or movement for social and political justice. I slowly began to see that sex was a kind of class or caste; that of any group, females were the largest group that were universally unequal. So I began to campaign for women’s empowerment to  to create a world which respected the full social, political and economic equality of women.

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

Ruchira Gupta: I am deeply and fundamentally impacted by Gloria Steinem. With her I have experienced how movements grow and how immense our movement is. Walking through the red-light areas of Sonagachi or lobbying in Albany with New York state Assemblymen, our lives have interwoven into shared writing sessions, rallies, meetings, dinners, books, conversations, late night phone calls across continents, brainstorming and sometimes movies. A desk in her living room, across from where she writes is my writing desk in New York, just as my desk in New Delhi has her notes written on yellow paper, left behind from her last visit.

She has taught me that there are always more than two choices, and that there is a third way of proceeding that is familiar to human experience; that small acts have a big impact and when you do something you should not worry about how big its outcome will be; that only time will show, you have to do it as if it matters. Her feminism is rooted in the deep truth of our own experiences and if we do not challenge inequality at home, we will normalize and accept inequality everywhere. If we accept that one sex can be unequal, then why not one class or one race? She has influenced me to measure my actions in its value to the least powerful.

In my own work, I have gone on to call her “The Last Girl.” She is weaker than the poor man, because she female, but she is weaker than the poor man’s wife because she is a teenager and on top of that she could be the “last” because she is black, low-cast , first nation or native American. I have learned from her that we have to be open to listening to identify the weakest. I have seen her listen all the time.

And most importantly, I have the courage derived from watching her, from talking to her, to stick to the Truth when I talk to my sisters. It has been painful but rewarding. We have been able to collaborate across boundaries and cultures to stand up to Big Money and Big Power that promote a culture of masculinity harming us all.

Such an adventure of experience happens all too rarely, where the sense of being an Indian or American is lifted off the mind and where the profoundly political is the simplest truth.

Women LEAD: What advice do you have for future champions of anti-trafficking?

Ruchira Gupta: Join other movements for social, political and economic justice; after all, trafficking is an outcome of multiple inequalities and all will have to be rooted out together.

Women LEAD: Are there books inspiring you right now about gender equality and women’s empowerment?

Ruchira Gupta: The Birth of the Maitreya by Bani Basu, about a woman living during the Buddha’s time in Bihar. The Round House by Louise Erdrich, about a Native American Woman rape survivor and Sharmila Rege’s Against the Madness of Manu and Janice Raymond’s Not a Choice, Not A Job.

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Holly Curtis

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

Holly Curtis is the Outreach Associate at Girls’ Globe, a global network of bloggers and organizations working to raise awareness about the rights, health and empowerment of women and girls around the world. Passionate about girls education, access to healthcare and gender equality, Holly has traveled across four continents learning from and working with empowering female local leaders. Holly holds a Bachelor’s Degree in International Political Economy and International Humanitarian Affairs from Fordham University. With Fordham University, Holly traveled to Spain to teach English at the pre-school level; South Africa to learn about HIV/AIDS treatment and women’s economic empowerment; and to Nicaragua to learn about disaster management procedures in place by the governments and local NGOs.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Holly Curtis: Up until today, my life has been filled with supportive family and friends, opportunities to travel and learn and lots of coffee.  I am from the United States and went to school at Fordham University in New York City where I studied International Political Economy and International Humanitarian Affairs.

Women LEAD: You formerly interned at Pencils of Promise, an organization that builds schools, trains teachers, and funds scholarships. Can you tell us more about your experiences with Pencils of Promise?

Holly Curtis: I first interned in Pencils of Promise’s (PoP) New York City office and then moved to Laos, one of PoP’s operating countries.  The experience was unique because I spent a year advocating for PoP’s work here in NYC and then was able to actually see the schools and programming in Laos.  The Laos office is almost entirely locally staffed and I was there as a support staff member to the Management and Coordinators.

I think PoP’s website does an honest and beautiful job representing their work so to speak to my experience specifically – it was an honor to work with such caring, dedicated and sincere co-workers.  While in Laos, I certainly learned about the inner workings of an NGO and the political and cultural challenges that come with working abroad.  But it was an experience that ultimately solidified my passion for quality education as an agent of change.

Women LEAD: You are also the Outreach Associate at Girls’ Globe, a global network of bloggers and organizations with the goal to raise awareness about the rights, health and empowerment of women and girls worldwide. Can you share with us your experiences with Girls’ Globe?

Holly Curtis: I started blogging for Girls’ Globe while living in Laos.  Listening to the stories of my female friends and co-workers was such a growing experience.  The empowerment I saw in Laos directly aligns with the mission of Girls’ Globe and so the partnership was a natural fit.

I am now the Outreach Associate and lead in the recruitment of our Featured Organizations and Bloggers.  My favorite part of this role is speaking to female leaders around the world and hearing about what they are doing in their communities to empower women.  All of our bloggers and organizations have such unique backgrounds and creative mindsets.  It’s wonderful to hear how they are channeling this energy to promote the rights and health of women and girls.

Women LEAD: Why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Holly Curtis: I’ve met many women who overcame great challenges to be leaders and change makers in their communities.  Women’s empowerment matters to me because I’ve seen how a woman who has agency over her own decisions and is confident to share her opinions commands the attention of her community.  I’m certainly in agreement with the research and opinions surrounding the effects girls’ education, maternal health and reproductive rights, however I think empowerment is a sum of these areas and more.  A woman who is free to make decisions and feels confident in her role in society has a different glow in her eye.  That’s what leads to the real trickle effects.

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

Holly Curtis: I can talk about many women who have impacted my life.  But the strongest, most supportive and loving woman I know is without a doubt my mother. She has had an immeasurable impact on my life.

Women LEAD: What advice do you have for future women leaders?

Holly Curtis: Pay attention to the unplanned events and opportunities that come about in your life.  I’ve spent hours talking with my female friends about our passions and where we feel like we can have an impact that aligns with our values – only to be left more confused at the end of the conversation.

However the answer started to come to fruition after looking back at past jobs, clubs, academic interests, etc. and noticing the trends.  We’re all drawn to different activities for reasons beyond the title, whether it is the teamwork, mentorship, or creative freedom involved (or many other things!). For me, I liked how these three components came together in the education space.

Then, talk to other women in that field. Successful leaders have strong support networks and are great at building relationships.  This means that current leaders will likely be very open about their experiences and you’ll be taking the lead by initiating that conversation.  All you need to do is ask.

Finally, the other piece of advice I have is to engage men.  If you already have a supportive male figure in your life, speak openly with him.  Leaders are successful because all types of people support them.

Women LEAD: Are there books inspiring you right now about gender equality and women’s empowerment?

Holly Curtis: With a little digging, there are tons of inspiring books about gender equality and women’s empowerment.  I guess what is more inspiring to me is reading books across genres and geographies that are written by female authors.  There is a shortage of media and literature created by women and therefore a disparity in the stories being told.  My recommendation is to make the next book you read within your favorite genre one written by a female.

But to give a quick list of inspiring books I’ve read recently (not explicitly about gender equality) I’d say Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay; The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison; The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan; and White Teeth by Zadie Smith.

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Nicole Woolhouse

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

Nicole Woolhouse is the Founder and Director of Box of Hope, an organization with the mission of providing underprivileged children in Hong Kong and Asia with educational gifts. Nicole moved to Hong Kong in 2005 with her husband and 3 children, having spent 5 years in London and before that living in Tokyo and Sydney. Before having children Nicole worked in publishing for Conde Nast in the UK and then ACP in Australia. A career in marketing gave her good grounding for starting Box of Hope with Harriet Cleverly in 2008, in just a few short years Box of Hope grew to collect over 20,000 boxes a year and be an important part of the Hong Kong philanthropic calendar.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Nicole Woolhouse: Before I was married I worked at House & Garden in London as the Interior Design Manager, and then we moved to Australia where I continued in publishing for 3 years. Followed by 3 years in Japan working as an Editor for a Translation Company, I finally returned home to London in 2001 to have three children. We then moved to Hong Kong in 2005 when my youngest was 3 months old.

Women LEAD: You are the Co-Founder of Box of Hope, an organization with the mission of providing underprivileged children in Hong Kong and Asia with educational gifts. Can you tell me more about Box of Hope and its impact?

Nicole Woolhouse: Once all my children were in school I was keen to do something, I knew that I didn’t want to go back to work full-time as I was keen to be here if my children needed me but I wanted to do something that made a difference no matter how small. Hence Box of Hope.  When my son was 4 yrs old in the UK we used to make the same Shoeboxes to donate to children in Eastern Europe, I was amazed nothing similar existed here. So I approach a great friend, also looking for a project, and we decided we would launch Box of Hope. In our first year, 2008, we collected 1,200 boxes from only 6 schools and then this year we collected 21,000 boxes from over 90 schools!  Our aim was to teach young children the importance of community and helping others whilst supporting and inspiring children in need in Asia.  It was very important to us that the Boxes went to children in need in Hong Kong and Asia so that the children donating could understand how close to home the need was.

Women LEAD: What inspires you to further educational opportunity for underprivileged youth in Hong Kong and Asia?

Nicole Woolhouse: One of the most wonderful things about Box of Hope is seeing the pride on a child’s face when they receive their very own set of pens, knowing that when they start school they now have the equipment they need to help them succeed, it is truly magical.  So many children in Asia struggle to get into the educational system due to illiterate parents, lack of funds or lack of equipment, it is an honor to be able to help in just a very tiny way and encourage these children to reach their potential.

Women LEAD: Why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Nicole Woolhouse: Girls throughout the world deserve the same opportunities and support as boys, if they learn this at a young age then they will always be empowered.

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

Nicole Woolhouse: When we first started Box of Hope we met with a wonderful woman called Shalini Mahtani, who at the time was the CEO of Community Business, she gave us incredible support and guidance with our plan for Box of Hope and encouraged us to just try and see what happened.  I always admired her calm and optimistic approach to everything and even after suffering the terrible loss of her son, Zubin, she has gone on tirelessly working to promote inclusion and encourage social responsibility

Women LEAD: What advice do you have for prospective nonprofit leaders and social entrepreneurs?

Nicole Woolhouse: You can do anything if you put your mind to it.  My advice would be to start small and see where it goes. If you reach out to people for help and guidance you will be amazed what comes back.

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

Nicole Woolhouse: I really do believe that there are so many amazing women out there doing new and brave things that one just has to look at the world around you, no longer does being a woman hold you back.

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Mala Kumar

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

Mala Kumar is an international development practitioner with the United Nations. She is the author of the novel, The Paths of Marriage, which follows three generations of Indian and Indian-American women from Chennai to New York City. Mala hopes her writing will serve as a catalyst to a more open and empathetic dialogue on human rights and gender equality.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Mala Kumar: By profession, I am in international development with the United Nations. My work looks at how information communications technology can better international development solutions – also known as ICT4D. I was born in California and raised outside of Richmond, Virginia in the States. New York City has been home for the better part of the last six years, and I am incredibly excited to be moving back after spending three months in central Africa for work.

Women LEAD: What inspired you to write The Paths of Marriage?

Mala Kumar: The Paths of Marriage is an amalgamation of my own life, my family’s life, observations in my work, and a growing need to bridge the gap between different communities – especially the South Asian and LGBT communities. It’s a way for me to talk about difficult issues that I can’t always address in my work.

Women LEAD: Why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Mala Kumar: Women’s empowerment matters for many different reasons. In the most basic, logical sense, it means enabling half (or more than half) of the world’s population to reach their potential. Countries that have figured out how to do this have some of the best standards of living, longest life expectancies, lowest crime rates, and best economic outlook. That’s not a coincidence. On a higher level, women’s empowerment matters because it is giving voice to a population that has been historically and systematically relegated as inferior or unworthy across continents and time.

Women LEAD: What are some steps one can take to end the practice of child marriage worldwide?

Mala Kumar: I wish I had the magic cure-all answer to that question. The fact remains that child marriage happens across several continents, countries, classes, castes, religions, language groups and ethnicities, so there is not one cultural or societal commonality to target in eliminating the practice. From the data that is available, we do know the practice drops significantly – often entirely – when the education level of a population, especially in women, goes up. So with education and strong women’s empowerment movement, I think there is hope the practice will end.

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

Mala Kumar: I’m going to have to be clichéd and talk about my mother. As in my book, my mother had an arranged marriage in real life. Despite all of the cultural and emotional baggage she was made to carry as a young girl and young woman, she did her best (and I think succeeded!) in letting me grow into my own person and make my own decisions. At times, life has dealt me tough situations, though I have had the amazing privilege of having my mother’s unconditional support through it all. To empower women, women must support other women, and my mother always made sure to do so for me. For that, I am forever grateful.

Women LEAD: What advice do you have for future women leaders?

Mala Kumar: Support each other. As women, most of you will work twice as hard to get half as far as many of your male colleagues. The worst part is that with rare exceptions, you will not be able to pinpoint specific instances where you did not get your fair share of credit, or you did not advance as you should have. Perhaps this will be to no fault of any one person, but will instead be because of longstanding biases or discrimination that even we as women have trouble describing. What we can do to help break down these unfair systems is to simply support each other. This does not mean you should hire or promote someone solely because of one’s sex or gender. What it does mean is that you should take the time to recognize different strengths in different people. Take the time to understand someone’s background or life story or reasoning for doing what they do. Having worked around the world, I can say that no one and nothing is as straightforward as it seems.  Don’t neglect to apply that to your fellow women.

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

Mala Kumar: I was recently featured in a great blog called Girls’ Globe, which is dedicated to women’s empowerment and issues affected girls and women around the world.

My top women’s empowerment book would have to be the graphic novel Persepolis. Marjane Satrapi’s account of Iran’s modern history through a young woman’s eyes provided such a rare and beautiful look into a part of the world dominated by misogynistic voices.

I loved Khalid Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. I think it showed how horrifying and incapacitating gender inequality is on an individual.

Whenever I think about women’s empowerment in film, I think about Deepa Mehta’s Elements Trilogy – Water, Fire, Earth. Each movie deals with a difficult topic in India and shows the cultural wear on women. Each movie will break your heart.

Finally, I can’t talk about women’s empowerment and not mention M.I.A. Yes, she is highly controversial at times, and no, I don’t always agree with what she says. But she is undoubtedly one of the most powerful voices for women’s empowerment – especially for South Asian community. Bad Girls is my unofficial life anthem, as I’m sure it is for many women around the world.