Defying Expectations

Last month my organization, Global Press Institute (GPI), had the honor of being showcased at a Catalytic Women event on women’s economic empowerment. Something that Melanie said to the audience that night really struck me: everyone in the room could do something to make a difference. Everyone – no matter what your level of income or wealth – could be a philanthropist. sample-image-blogWhat really resonated with me about this message was its fundamental similarity to a lesson I learned in Nepal ten years ago.

After a few weeks in the country as a foreign correspondent, I realized I was the wrong person to be covering the Nepali civil war. I had just two things that “qualified” me to report on this country I knew so little about: a Master’s degree in journalism and a credible news platform. Yet the local women around me had everything else that I lacked in order to tell important, powerful stories: access, language, context, and trust.

When I met Pratima, the community matriarch of a small village in Eastern Nepal, I handed her my pen and asked her to write the story of her community. That moment was not only the birth of GPI, an organization dedicated to training and employing women in the developing world to report on their local communities. It was also an inspiring life lesson about how the roles we have come to expect for ourselves are often dramatically and silently dictated by the force of history – in other words, by the way things have been.

Isn’t it obvious that a local woman with knowledge of her community would be better poised to report on it than a foreigner parachuted in for a few weeks? And yet the entire model of international journalism has been built around the use of foreign correspondents.

Likewise, it is obvious that we do not need high-paying jobs or sizable fortunes in order to be thoughtful, generous, and impactful givers. Just because we have always thought of philanthropy as the purview of the wealthy doesn’t preclude us from making a difference with our resources.

If you wonder whether this is really possible, consider that each GPI news story (25% of which lead to demonstrable social impact, such as changing laws) costs on average between $100 and $200 to produce. We and other organizations are able to use modest donations to create significant impact on the world.

The lesson here is that we can access certain roles and opportunities in life, even if that means bucking the way things have traditionally been done. After all, if a former sex worker, or a member of the Dalit (“untouchable”) caste, or a woman with a fourth grade education, can become an award-winning professional journalist, then each of us can, in our own ways, become philanthropists.

cmhheadshotCristi Hegranes landed her dream job as an international journalist in Nepal, but it only took her two weeks to realize she was all wrong for the job. “Local women had everything I didn’t,” she said, “except access to a major publishing outlet.” She created the Global Press Institute to train and employ women to write quality investigative, professional features. Currently, Cristi manages 26 news bureaus and employs 135 women, and she’s building revenue by distributing their stories through such outlets as National Public Radio and Reuters. Cristi talks about Rwandan reporters Ritha Bumwe, whose article on sexual predators has influenced new legislation there. Here with Cristi is her first Sri Lankan employee (soon after their 2006 launch) and the embodiment of her ambition—Manori of Sri Lanka, who just got promoted from reporter to regional editor for Asia. “We’ve asked, and 98% of the women who’ve been through our training program report feeling empowered as a result.” And the percentage employed by GPI?—100. 

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Want to Build Your Startup Skills? Pitch and Pitch In

If you’re looking to develop your startup leadership skills, try volunteering for a non-profit or attending a pitch conference. 

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Having spent most of my career in the corporate and nonprofit worlds, I can tell you that there isn’t much reward for risk-taking. Two of the smartest things I ever did to build my leadership were: go to a pitch conference and volunteer.

Six months ago, I attended Launch. It changed my perspective on everything about my work. Specifically, it made me more focused on profitability and more fearless about playing with the boys. (Sorry to admit it, but seeing them get up there and struggle with pitches made it seem a lot more accessible to someone like me, a working woman new to startup culture.)

Last weekend, I got to walk the talk. I pitched an idea at SF Startup Weekend Women’s Edition. Out of 41 pitches and 14 finalists, our team came in third (with a product to offer impact investing to young professionals). The experience was crazy and awesome – totally out of my comfort zone. I went into it not really knowing anything about the process; at Launch I’d only seen the final result of what happens when you join a team of strangers for 36 hours to make a dream tangible.

What was so special about this Startup Weekend? For one, it focused on women entrepreneurs. And, it created a space where we could be in the majority, doing something that we do so well naturally – collaborate and problem-solve. It also made me think about another ecosystem that has been central to my career success: nonprofits.

Nonprofits offer a safe place for women to build leadership skills. The U.S. Dept. of Labor says that in 2012, “women continued to volunteer at a higher rate than did men across all age groups, educational levels, and other major demographic characteristics.”

Let’s face it, we like to roll up our sleeves, get involved, and give back. Yet there’s another, more personal, reason for women to volunteer – it builds leadership skills that can launch our careers, especially in male-dominated professions.

No one tries to solve big problems on limited resources like a nonprofit. Volunteering – especially on a committee or board – is a great training ground for public speaking, budgeting, project management, and sales and relationship building (skills key to fundraising). Points of Light Foundation (which also has a Civic Incubator – how cool is that?) and VolunteerMatch list thousands of opportunities to get involved.

Women bring unique skills to the table. We knew that even before Lean In. If you’re not getting the leadership opportunities you want at work, get them by volunteering. And then bring them back to your company.

Your success may depend on it.

By Melanie Hamburger (CEO & Founder, Catalytic Women)

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This article was originally posted on Women 2.0 on September 20, 2013.