Leading Change in a "Man's World": Reflections on Gender from Women Social Entrepreneurs

Leading Change in a "Man's World": Reflections on Gender from Women Social Entrepreneurs

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by Renee Manuel and Jon McPhedran Waitzer, Ashoka Globalizer
 
To produce large-scale social impact, having a great idea is not enough. For it to travel, generate excitement, and change ways of thinking, it needs a critical number of people in the public and private sectors who are willing to support it along the way.
 
But building these networks of influence is no easy task. Social entrepreneurs must rely on personal characteristics they have gained over time – often unbeknownst to themselves. While gender is rarely the trait that first comes to mind, its influence is undeniable. For women in particular, gender plays a huge role as they must navigate male-dominated societies and learn the skills they need to succeed.
 
In honor of International Women’s Day, three of Ashoka’s most vibrant social entrepreneurs have shared how being a woman has shaped their approach to scaling their social innovations and building their networks of influence around the world. Across North America, Africa, and Latin America, Vickie Cammack, Lesley Ann Van Selm, and Marta Arango are revolutionizing their fields. All three are also members of Ashoka’s Globalizer program, which connects “ready to globalize” social innovations with the resources they need to scale their ideas worldwide.
 

These dynamic entrepreneurs are leading a new generation of women whose attitude is to “do” rather than spend time thinking of the myriad of reasons why they shouldn’t. Perhaps no better example of this is Lesley Ann, who as a 23-year old white female in South Africa during the 1980’s, created her first business in the heart of black Soweto. Now working with predominantly young, poor offenders around Africa, she has sensitively and successfully created her own path through Africa’s patriarchal society and built the resilience, confidence and grace she needed to make her ideas "stick". Lesley Ann says that her attitude enabled her to gain “a tremendous amount of respect and support from the communities in which I have worked, both from males and females alike."
 
While none of these women would say that gender plays a conscious role in their decision-making process, all three agree that in hindsight, being a woman has unconsciously shaped almost every step they took along the way. Marta’s role as an elder daughter in a large family of siblings contributed to her developing “a special sensitivity towards others and an attitude of care for their wellbeing,” which was a driving force for her programs improving early childhood development. Vickie’s ability to balance her personal goals while professionally devoting her time and energy towards creating social networks for vulnerable individuals has played a decisive role in her success. She explains, “Balance is never a resting place. It requires flexibility, adaptability, strategy, intuition, moving quickly and keeping still. Perhaps this bala ncing act is the ultimate art of the feminine, reflective of our daily quest to juggle family, career and personhood.”
 
If there was ever a formula for a successful social entrepreneur, it is unlikely ‘being a female’ would top people’s list. But for each of these women, it was essential. The ways they managed their respective environments produced the exact mix of personal and professional skills they needed to succeed - not in spite of being a woman, but because of it.
 
 ★★★
 
     Marta Arango's organization, International Center for Education and Human Development (CINDE), has revolutionized early childhood care, education and development in Colombia and other countries by including families, communities, and childcare professionals. She is looking at using the latest in digital media to prepare a new cadre of professionals to spread her model throughout Latin America and beyond.
     Lesley Ann Van Selm's South African organization Khulisa Social Solutions, enables young inmates to shape their own rehabilitation program while in prison and creating support and employment networks for them. Upon their release, Lesley Ann Van Selm effectively reintegrates juvenile offenders into society. Through Khulisa, she has spread this model throughout South Africa, and has begun working in Manchester, UK and is poised to spread it throughout Africa.
     Vickie Cammack's Tyze Personal Networks in Canada helps create personalized social networks for groups vulnerable to social isolation, including the elderly, family caregivers and people with disabilities worldwide.