What’s in a Cause?

I had the chance today to join a Huffington Post Live discussion on the impact (or lack thereof) of causes promoted by for-profit companies. Having spent the past several years developing strategic partnerships with a range of major corporations from Dow Chemical to Ferragamo, I have a point of view on what it means for companies to take on the work of making the world a better place. The discussion had a great mix, from Jeffrey Robinson of the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship & Economic Development at Rutgers University to social entrepreneur Kesang Yudron,  Founder of Padhma Creation, and outspoken blogger Ruzan Sarwar, among others. A great group, an animated discussion, and some great insights for me on what makes people skeptical of these partnerships as well as what makes people hopeful about the impact they can have. 

During the live chat, I summed up my view on what makes for a good marriage between a corporation marketing a product and a good cause as follows. The partnership should be:

1. Strategic – Meaning, aligned with the brand and strategy of the company so that it grows with the company and doesn’t fade away as trends shift. Great examples are P&G’s Children’s Safe Drinking Water program and the Tory Burch Foundation, both driven by the strengths and values of the companies behind them, and as a result, built to last.

2. Impactful – today we debated what the standard should be for impact, but I admire partnerships that support and highlight the work of existing organizations doing great work. I’m a big fan of FEED, which has focused on issues where small individual gifts really do add up to change. FEED generates those gifts through purchases of bags that essentially sell at cost+charity. With a lean operation and powerful brand ambassador in the form of Lauren Bush Lauren, they have delivered millions of meals through 13 respected non-profit partners including the World Food Program and UNICEF.

3. Generous – again, though there is no perfect standard for what is generous, charitable giving should be considered an investment in the legacy of a company and in the creation of a more sustainable future for all. This is a far cry from viewing it as one small slice of a marketing budget. Companies may start small, but great partnerships increase their generosity as they grow, rather than cashing in on short-term marketing benefits. 

With each of these, the choice rests with the consumer. Which cause-related product will you buy and wear, what statement will you make? And more importantly, how will these choices lead to bigger changes, larger acts of generosity, and a deeper understanding of the ways in which the world is interconnected. It may seem like a tall order, but I am a believer that the tools of business and the informed decisions of consumers, combined in the right ways are ONE important tool in our fight to end poverty, injustice and environmental degradation. Please do check out the discussion


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Michele Jolin – A policy shaper and lifelong mentor

Today I continue my series on Celebrating a Whole Life, which shares what inspires me about women I’ve met who live their lives creatively at a time when we often end up stuck in a conversation about trade-offs vs. having it all. Anne Marie Slaughter’s article on the topic from a few months ago again stirred the pot, yielding what I thought was a welcome flurry of conversations about the choices women make and the context in which they make those choices. I won’t dive into what I thought about the article, but I will say that I believe we are just at the beginning of a period when we are able to recognize versions of success that defy the traditional expectations of both professional and personal achievement. When we measure achievement based on things like meaning, fulfillment, purpose, and yes, happiness, and not only on title, position, or the ability to sacrifice all for family. Each post in this series is a celebration of women who are making bold choices and doing so in a way that is imbued with a true spark of joy.

Michele Jolin was perhaps the first woman I thought of when I decided to write this series. She joined Ashoka about a year after I did over a decade ago, and arrived just after having served as the Chief of Staff for President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors. It was the most impressive title I had ever heard, and I knew before I even met Michele that she was a star. Once I did meet her, she exploded any notions I had of what it means to be a very smart, very accomplished, very-important-person. She was ridiculously warm, accessible, and committed to sharing her own stories (of success and failure) to help women that were coming after her to navigate both professional and personal pathways.

I was working as the associate for Ashoka’s Environmental Innovations Initiative at the time, and her job was to lead a parallel effort in education, an issue about which she was passionate.  I immediately sought out an opportunity to work with her on a gathering of Ashoka Fellows from around the world all focused on education which would take place in South Africa. I saw it as both an opportunity to get out into the world and close to the Ashoka social entrepreneurs, but also as a chance to learn from Michele.

Throughout this project, and particularly during out time together in South Africa, I saw in Michele someone who was at ease with her own leadership – able to respectfully facilitate a group of strong-willed social innovators with diverse opinions about how to improve education and protect children,  and then take insights from those discussions and push them to the highest levels of policy change. She blended hard and soft, showing the patience required by this diverse community of Ashoka Fellows and the discipline to move things forward when needed.

I have tried to emulate these qualities since, but the greatest lessons I learned from Michele came not from a few months together planning a gathering of social entrepreneurs. They have come from having stayed in touch for over thirteen years, and being privileged to have watched her make choices about her life, career and family that have been a model and an inspiration to me. She is someone who truly deserves to be celebrated for building a whole life when at every moment she has been faced with tremendous opportunities and has chosen carefully and wisely in order to create a mosaic of priorities that fit together beautifully.

When I first met her, she seemed to be at a critical juncture, shifting from a period of prioritizing her career (which had obviously paid off) to prioritizing her personal life and her desire to start a family. At her wedding, and then later meeting her first child, I saw in her a wisdom to go after those things she valued with focus and passion, whether it was an opportunity to shape economic and social policy, or start a family. I observed with keen interest when she developed a flexible schedule at Ashoka, allowing her to continue to have an impact on an issue that mattered to her, while being present for her family the way she wanted to be.

When I had my first child, she came to see me with her three children in tow, and I was again inspired by her willingness to embrace the chaos of a large family while still relentlessly pursuing opportunities to shape policy and champion social innovation.

I was perhaps never more inspired by her, though, than when she told me she had decided to take one year away from work at a moment when the demands of her life made her feel like she needed to make a shift. Her clarity and confidence to do what was right for her and her family, trusting that she would pull all the pieces together again when the time was right, has stayed in my mind as a hallmark of what it takes to follow a unique path in life.

Michele is someone who has worked on both the domestic and international fronts at the highest levels to create lasting positive change. She has also stood as someone who fearlessly makes her family a priority, and she has been a friend and a role model that has continuously opened up new worlds of possibilities for me. For that and so much more, I celebrate her.

Below are Michele’s responses to my five standard questions:

1.       How do you define success?

One word: Balance.

2.       What is your greatest struggle?

Guilt:  Feeling guilty about never having enough time for friends, kids, family or work.

3.       What are you proudest of?

My 3 children.

4.       Who inspires you, in terms of how they live their life?

My 3 children. My oldest because she is determined, big-hearted and brave; my middle because he is imaginative, free-spirited and fearless; my youngest because she is strong, resilient, fun-loving, uninhibited and hilarious.  Also, Ashoka Fellow Sister Cyril Mooney (and many other social entrepreneurs around the world) because she is optimistic, effective and passionately focused on making life better for the most vulnerable children.

5.       If you had a free 8th day of the week, what would you do with it?


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When do you know enough?

During a recent workshop with the Op-Ed Project, a program launched by Echoing Green Fellow Katie Orenstein that is bringing more women’s voices into public discourse, I struggled with an exercise designed to help the participants talk about our areas of expertise. In the workshop with me was a stunning array of women with tremendous accomplishments under their belts.

The exercise was simple, I thought at first, just a fill-in-the-blank exercise. My name is Yasmina and I am an expert in _______ because _________. The only instructions were to make it narrow, specific and short. Little did I know that I would struggle so mightily with this simple task, even after watching over a dozen women go through the exercise before it was my turn.

Make it narrow. Sounds simple enough, but I couldn’t do it. I was so worried about not communicating the breadth of my knowledge, that I picked an area of expertise that was both hard to communicate, and far from unique. It was something about helping entrepreneurs solve major global challenges. Huh? One by one, each woman struggled to state one area of expertise that was narrow, and in which they had more expertise than others in the room.

An expert in International Affairs? No, try “I’m an expert in backpacking across Kyrgyzstan as a journalist.”

An expert in children’s literature? No, try “I’m an expert in Free to be You and Me.”

As I listened I found these new answers painfully narrow. Yet the revised answers made me far more curious to learn from these diverse accomplished women. And of course, one can be expert in lots of different things. But why bother figuring out how to describe a narrow expertise? Because someday, you may need to share what you know with someone else, and it they will probably want to know something specific. But as I try to think about what I know that makes me some kind of expert, it seems impossible to think of anything for which there aren’t 5 people I know that have deeper expertise. So maybe there’s another way to get at this. In the past few weeks several people have asked me to speak to them to share my expertise (who knew?). All of these people are working on projects with real social impact with organizations I deeply respect, and I haven’t hesitated to share with them what I know.

I have a momentary pause – do I know enough to be of assistance? And then I decide I’ll let them decide. I’ll share what I know, no more, no less, and they’ll decide if it’s helpful. They may not reveal to me whether it is truly useful, but worst case scenario, they’ll know I tried to be helpful. And I’ll learn a little more about what I know. Because whether or not I ever figure out what I’m an expert in, I do want to learn how my knowledge can help others.

So, after my recent conversations with people who seemed interested in what I know, here’s take two:

My name is Yasmina and I’m an expert in how to tell the story of a social enterprise because I’ve been working with social entrepreneurs on 5 continents for 15 years, helping them share their stories at events, through media and in academia.

It’s a start.  What’s your expertise? Remember, narrow. specific, short.

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Beyond survival — Could Access to Maternal Care Transform a Woman’s Life?

This first appeared on Huffington Post

Childbirth was the moment in my life when I felt the most vulnerable. Physically, emotionally and mentally pushed to my absolute limits. Feeling like everything was at stake, and that despite the support of loved ones and medical professionals, I was alone. It was up to me to stay focused, stay strong, and do what was needed. And what was needed meant pain, blood, and hours of hard work.

It was also the moment of my life that I felt the most powerful. I was joining the ranks of the mothers of the world, about to meet my child for the first time, and I was doing it exactly how I wanted to. I chose the doctor, the hospital, the approach, and who would be by my side. I wasn’t able to decide how long it would take, or what position my baby would be in as he emerged. But I knew that I was the driver of this process, and it gave me strength and a sense of calm. And afterwards, as I recovered and reflected on what had happened, I felt tremendous satisfaction. That was a feeling I know is a great privilege. I was lucky, I know, that everything came together for a safe and simple birth.

Here in the developed world, lack of information or a patient-centric medical system can limit women’s choices around childbirth. Our litigious society often dictates what doctors advise, as they face the risk of lawsuits and tremendous malpractice insurance costs. It’s not uncommon for women to go through birth without feeling a sense of agency. Among my women friends, I’ve seen frustration arise not from what happened during birth — vaginal or c-section, fast or slow, painkillers or no painkillers — but rather from those experiences where they feel that they were treated dismissively or excluded from key decisions. My friends who have positive birth experiences are those that had their wishes respected, whether that wish was for minimal medical intervention or for an epidural, stat!

Of course, all of this is typically overshadowed by the joy of having a new child, and knowing that at the end of the day, everyone involved was working towards a common goal of having a healthy baby delivered.

In the developing world, the option for poor women to have medical assistance of any kind is often absent and this leads to the death of 800 women each day from pregnancy and childbirth. In India, two thirds of women give birth at home, not because it’s their choice, but because hospital births are not available, or because the public hospitals that are available have such abhorrent conditions that they don’t really feel like an option.

So instead of feeling powerful, women feel powerless. About 78,000 women die in childbirth every year in India alone, which is an unacceptable tragedy. Millions more women survive birth, but I think of what it means for so many of these women to go through this experience with no choices around how they gave birth, and often, no support. Many face long term health issues as a result of inadequate maternal care. And beyond the physical aftermath, how might their experience of birth be impacting their lives in more subtle ways?

I believe, as do my colleagues at Acumen Fund, that choice and dignity are inextricably linked. But this became real to me when I gave birth. How can you feel dignified when you are physically reduced to a sweating, trembling aching mess? How can you feel empowered when you are vulnerable to infection, blood loss, and I hate to say it, incontinence? Becoming a mother can be a rite of passage, a moment where you discover something about yourself and about your new capacity to love and care for another human being that you didn’t know. The sense of responsibility that comes with motherhood can be frightening, but can also bestow a deep sense of purpose. Choice in birth often boils down to women being able to do the right thing for their child, even in the hours and moments before the child is born. During my two births, I learned that you can feel dignity even in this moment of uncertainty and vulnerability when you know that you have some control.

It’s why I can’t stop talking about LifeSpring hospitals, a company Acumen Fund invested in in 2007. Because LifeSpring believes that no matter what your income level or what neighborhood you are from, that as a woman, you must have the option to give birth in a safe environment. Not only one where medical attention is provided, but where each hospital is designed to create a sense of comfort and security, with pink walls and smiling personnel. With loved ones who can visit and stay with the mother during her recovery.

LifeSpring is a chain of maternity hospitals in Andhra Pradesh that provides affordable high quality maternal care to low-income women, and they have seen over 200,000 women patients and delivered over 11,000 babies since Acumen Fund invested in them.

I think of the women they’ve served, and wonder if they had a similar sense of being powerful from experiencing childbirth with a sense of control, and a sense of choice.

Who knows how that experience could alter the course of a women’s life? But I can imagine that for a woman, perhaps in her early 20s or late teens, giving birth in a place that lets her know that she matters, that her body and her life and her feelings matter, could make all the difference. It certainly changed my life. Could an empowering or at least secure experience of childbirth transform the lives of women experiencing it for the first time? A woman has a right to survive childbirth, but so should she have the opportunity to go through this experience, with all its vulnerability, and emerge confident, aware of all the power she has to make choices that will lead to a healthy and prosperous future, both for herself and for her new child.

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Antonia Bowring – Inspiring on many dimensions

In this, my second profile in the series “Celebrating a Whole Life,” I am privileged to write about Antonia Bowring, a woman who has inspired me for many years and who truly deserves to be celebrated. Antonia is someone who I have admired for her thoughtful choices and honesty, but what first amazed me about her was something I discovered in a freezer.

I was impressed by Antonia from the moment I met her. She was facilitating the first staff retreat I attended with Acumen Fund nine years ago, and her approach to guiding us through complex and sometimes delicate conversations was both intimate and commanding. She had the complete trust of our CEO, and I was so curious about her story – who was this woman who could pop into our three day meeting to help us as we shaped some of the key elements of our strategy as a freelance consultant.

So I was already curious about her when on our second day at the offsite retreat I opened the freezer to find ice cubes and found small frozen pouches of milk and naively asked what they were. She was nearby and told me she was pumping milk for a baby she had at home. The whole concept was foreign to me at the time (though it is all too familiar now) and I suddenly had to replay the past 24 hours. In the past day of marathon working sessions, interspersed with the kind of intense social time that was possible for a team of about 11, she had been finding time to fulfill this commitment to an infant somewhere hours away.

Antonia became somewhat of a beacon for me as I thought about having a family years later. Wondering how it would all work, I would think of her and know that it was possible to achieve tremendous professional respect even in the midst of nursing a baby.  This may seem obvious to the many many women who do this every day, but to me, at that moment that I peered into the freezer, it was a revelation.

It had a big impact on me years later when I was nursing my first child and returned to work. Rather than aim for subtlety in managing the oh-so-fun process of pumping 3 times a day at work for months, I decided to be relaxed and open about it, wondering if perhaps some younger woman might make a mental note, as I had, that this was something that people do, and it can work.

Antonia has stayed in Acumen Fund’s orbit, and I have continued to watch her career and life with fascination, moving from success to success, now the mother of two beautiful boys and the COO of the Open Space Institute. The Open Space Institute (OSI) protects scenic, natural, and historic landscapes for the public as well as for the sake of environmental conservation. She manages the systems and finances of an organization that has protected more than 116,000 acres and made more than 70 loans and grants for nearly $80 million to protect 1.6 million acres valued at over $530 million. From her work in women’s microfinance internationally to serving as a portfolio manager at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation – one of New York’s most innovative education philanthropies – and now serving on the board of ioby, a grassroots environmental organization, she has found so many ways to make a difference on so many important issues.

When I decided to write this series of posts I knew I would reach out to her. In part because I already owed her a tremendous debt for cracking open the idea of combining mothering and contributing professionally in such a powerful way, but also because I wanted to better understand her story.

We had dinner together recently and I was able to form a more nuanced picture of her work at the Open Space Institute, balancing the needs of two children a few years older than my own with her leadership responsibilities. She was refreshingly honest about tradeoffs she had made, but I saw that the same art that I had observed when I first met her to put the pieces together was still in full effect. She agreed to answer my five questions, and I had one more for her before we parted ways after our dinner. “What is the bottom line, when it comes to work – what can’t be given up?” Her response – “Making a difference.” I was so glad we’d stayed in touch and that I would have a chance to celebrate Antonia, and thank her, in writing, for helping show me a path I could learn from.

Here’s how Antonia answered the 5 questions I pose to all of the women I highlight in my Celebrating a Whole Life series.

1.     How do you define success?

When I “started out”, I defined it as “making a difference”.  By that I meant a difference in resolving the inequalities faced by many people – my focus was economic inequalities faced by women in developing countries.  I still want to make a difference….but my tableau right now is more local.  I can’t work if it doesn’t have a positive benefit for society one way or another.  But my definition of success now also includes raising two strong, capable, thoughtful, adventure seeking young men.  Oh yes, I’d love to define success by winning a tennis tournament. I know it will happen ONE DAY.

2.     What is your greatest struggle?

It’s such a cliché.  Its feeling like I don’t do much of anything well because I’m so scattered.  I do “ok” work; I’m an “ok” mom; I’m an OK athlete, I’m an ok board member; I’m not sure if I even rise to the ranks of “ok” life partner.

3.     What are you proudest of?

Hands down, my two boys.

4.     Who inspires you, in terms of how they live their life? 

I don’t recall her name.  She is the publisher of Julia Child’s cookbook series. (I can look it up.)  She was a pioneer in believing in the book and its impact.  And now in her 80s in VT, she is still a pioneer raising organic cattle.  I love that she still has a sense of adventure, creativity and she hasn’t just stopped “thinking” and watches TV all the time.

5.     If you had a free 8th day of the week, what would you do with it?

 I’d cook, I’d have friends over, I’d eat and drink with them, and we’d all have scintillating conversations because I’d have time to keep up on news and read books about philosophy!  (And I’d listen more to my boys in a non distracted way.)

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A Gift on Many Levels

I went to Harlem this weekend with some friends who live there. We went for the food, and we stayed after to play in Jackie Robinson Park with my two kids. It was an idyllic day, and though I could see that it was different in some ways from being in my own West Village neighborhood I was mostly noticing how it was the same. Same clusters of kids making playgrounds boisterous, same slightly weary moms or dads keeping an eye out, same couples trolling for a place to dine. But all neighborhoods have their histories, their own journeys, migrations towards the future – and particularly, threads that weave through a neighborhood of local leaders and institutions that can shape what the future looks like for the children of a neighborhood.

These local leaders and institutions are evident in little things – are the playgrounds safe, is the equipment freshly painted? In the playgrounds I visited, they were. How are the schools, the crime, the availability of nutritious food? How’s unemployment, college graduation rates? Now we start to talk about the big things. But these things are less dictated by history than they are by the local leaders and institutions that claim the neighborhood as their own. HEAF, the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, and its VP of Programs Merle McGee, are exactly the kind of institution and leader that are shaping this neighborhood’s future, and in truly incredible ways.

It’s not something I do very often, but today I am compelled to ask my friends and family to give to a good cause. The cause is a service learning trip by a group of young people from Harlem that are part of HEAF, a program designed to give them an opportunity to fulfill their potential through enrichment programs and support in attending and graduating from 4 year colleges. I met the VP of Programs, Merle McGee, several months ago and she is a dynamo of passion and dedication to the young people she works with.

Every year, a group of students goes on a service learning trip, and this year they’re going to do a cultural preservation project with the Garifuna. According to Merle “The Garifuna are descendents of Africans bound for slavery and indigenous Carib Indians of St. Vincent. Never heard of them? Well, despite being named a Masterpiece of Intangible Human Heritage by UNESCO, the Garifuna way of life and language are dying. HEAF scholars will partner with Garifuna youth to develop an interactive cultural preservation website for children throughout the Garifuna Diaspora.”

Giving should be about the receiver, and I am often critical of giving that centers on the giver, but this is really about both to me. The project that the HEAF Scholars will undertake with the Garifuna and the value it will have for them as young leaders is incredibly worthwhile – I have no doubts about that. But when I got the note from Merle asking for $50 to support the trip and project, I had this feeling that I was the lucky one that I would have a way to participate in some small way in this inspiring endeavor. This is not just about a good cause, but about a vision of the world where young people who have themselves been confronted by challenges are reaching outside of themselves, their community, their country, to connect with, learn from and honor another community that has faced even greater challenges. In a time when people everywhere are pulling inwards, driven by fear and anxiety, the picture I have in my mind of the HEAF Scholars on this trip fills me with hope.

I find this project inspiring in a way that is irresistible, and this is a gift that will make me feel connected to that sense of hope. Some gifts are like that, and I guess that’s OK. For whatever might motivate you – the desire to support high potential Harlem youth, the desire to help preserve a precious and unique culture, or the desire to be part of a beautiful story of what’s possible in the world – or maybe just the desire to follow the lead of a very enthusiastic blogger – I hope you’ll consider giving $50 to this project.  If you do, I hope it gives you the same lift that it has given me to tell you about this beautiful initiative.

To give, click here and select Learning for Social Impact as the program you’d like to support. And then just enjoy that feeling. It’s not always this easy. In fact, it rarely is.

HEAF’s Mission:

The Harlem Educational Activities Fund, or HEAF, is a comprehensive, non-profit supplemental education and youth development organization that helps motivated students develop the intellectual curiosity, academic ability, social values, and personal resiliency they need to ensure success in school, career, and life. HEAF identifies students in middle school and supports them until they have successfully graduated from four-year colleges through a variety of after-school, Saturday, and summer educational and youth development programs.

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Ariel Kaminer: An Honest Voice

This is the first in a series of posts called Celebrating a Whole Life. I’m thrilled to be writing tonight about Ariel Kaminer, who’s warmth and encouragement gave me the confidence to start with her.

Ariel and I met through our children, two toddlers who picked each other out to become friends.  I’ll never forget the two of them, 2 years old, holding hands at a Halloween parade. It’s not always wise to assume that the friendship of small children will correlate with the potential for friendship among their parents, but as my husband Marlowe and I got to know Ariel and her husband better, I started to really look forward to our random park meetings or playdate discussions. And when Ariel and I conveniently became pregnant at around the same time, we had even more to talk about.

Ariel is a widely read and extremely talented writer and editor who writes The Ethicist for the New York Times Magazine, and has also been the NYT’s City Critic and Editor of the Arts & Leisure section.   I love The Ethicist, and it’s always the first thing I flip to in the Magazine, but I wasn’t going to go and admit that.  What I always wanted to ask her about was how she juggled writing multiple extremely popular columns for the New York Times while being so clearly dedicated to her family. But I felt like I shouldn’t go there – our common ground was not work, but those two little ones that had essentially introduced us. So I never really brought it up.

But then our second children, both daughters, made a secret pact before they were even born to arrive on the same day. And when we found ourselves on April 22nd at the same hospital, just down the hall from each other, with our older children playing with balloons together in the hallway of NYU’s maternity ward, I sensed that our friendship would grow deeper. And it has.

As I’ve gotten to know Ariel, I’ve come to really admire her unfussy approach to embracing motherhood and a career as a successful editor and writer on ethics, culture and the city.

She may be responsible for wrestling major ethical dilemmas to the ground, but she doesn’t act like it. She has an approach to the ups and downs of life with a career and family that reminds me to take things a little less seriously. I ran into her shortly before a one-night trip away from her family, the only one she’s ever had, after her second daughter was born, and rather than talk about feelings of guilt or worry, she shared her excitement about a rare opportunity to sleep past six am. A new, and better, twist on traveling for work.

It’s impossible to know what all the daily challenges are for any particular person are, but Ariel is among the most candid people I know about the juggling act, and also the most humorous. I find the more time I spend with her, the more I reflect on how these dilemmas are truly the side-effect of a privileged life where having a family and pursuing satisfying work co-exist. So we should smile about it. I celebrate Ariel for bringing humor to this wild ride and reminding me in ways both subtle and direct that we who get to make these choices are the lucky ones, and also how funny this stuff can be.

Here’s how Ariel answered the 5 questions I’ll pose to all of the women I highlight in my Celebrating a Whole Life series.

1.       How do you define success?

Accomplishing the goals you set forth for yourself. Btw I’m terrible at setting forth goals for myself.

2.       What is your greatest struggle?

See above.

3.       What are you proudest of?

My friendships and my family. I’m proud of the work I’ve done, and I’d like to do more work that I’m more proud of. But in truth, lots of people could have done it. Which is to say, if I’m useful to my employer, or to the world of journalism in general, terrific. But I’m irreplaceable to my daughters, and I’m proudest of all that I’ve been there for them.

4.       Who inspires you, in terms of how they live their life?

My mother was my big inspiration. She founded and ran an innovative company that helped thousands and thousands of kids. But she was home every night for dinner, and she always made her own children feel that they were the very center of her world. She was the happiest person I know.

5.       If you had a free 8th day of the week, what would you do with it?

Exercise, read books, do my modest part to help heal the world. Where do I apply for this 8th day, and how long does it take to kick in?


Filed under Careers, Celebrating a Whole Life, Work and Life

Your Coffee, Their Lives, Our Planet


(originally posted on Acumen Fund’s Blog)

I recently attended a conference on “Sustainability as a key factor for mitigating risk in agricultural supply chain finances,” co-hosted by the Rainforest Alliance and Citi Foundation. A pretty specific topic, for sure, and you may be asking yourself, “how many people are there trying to figure that out?”

Well, you’d be surprised. There were at least 80 people there, and potentially many more that would have come if they could. Why, you may ask?

A simple answer, really: a lot of the things that people consume come out of the ground – coffee, tea, chocolate, cotton, and almost everything we eat. What many don’t realize is that in the majority of the world, the people who grow stuff are among the world’s poorest and the way commodities are produced is having a bigger and bigger impact on the environment. Our global supply chains now matter more than ever.

Most of the world’s poor are small scale farmers. And a major reason they remain poor is because they struggle to get their products to market. Even when they do, because of a multitude of reasons – lack of transportation infrastructure, lack of access to capital, lack of accurate market information – they are often abused by exploitative middle men in the process and fail to capture the true value of what they produce.

At the same time, conventional agricultural practices are creating a perfect storm of environmental challenges: decreasing water tables, loss of arable land, deforestation, loss of habitat, and pollution from pesticides and fertilizers.

People need the stuff that comes out of the ground, but we also need to get it in a way that enables producers to have stable and adequate incomes, and that allows the environment to sustain life in the long-term. Without both conditions, the system cannot be considered sustainable. One of the best ways to achieve both is to develop new supply chains and new business models that fairly compensate farmers and reward sustainable agriculture. At the most basic level, engaging smallholder farmers – farmers with tiny plots of land – in global agricultural supply chains may be one of the most powerful ways to reduce global poverty and ameliorate environmental degradation.

So things like Fair-Trade, organic, and certified sustainable are not just hip new ways to show you care – they are actually the beginning of an effort to transition our agricultural systems into a means to meet customers’ needs, but also address critical social and environmental issues.

What’s exciting is that major brands and retailers— Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Starbucks, Unilever –recognize the value of sustainable supply chains (short hand for this effort). But huge challenges stand in the way of improving these practices, especially among the millions of disaggregated smallholder farmers. OK- reality check – it’s anything but simple. Tensie Whelan, who leads the Rainforest Alliance and co-hosted the event, mentions the growing role of companies in her blog on the event:

Hundreds of companies are working with civil society (and occasionally, governments) to help millions of producers to invest in sustainable practices-helping them to become more viable small businesses and, not incidentally, more stable long-term suppliers.

A few weeks ago I joined these 80 people from companies, financiers, foundations, non-profits, and academics, because Acumen Fund has developed a portfolio of companies dedicated to improving famer productivity, and we’ve begun to find innovative business models that we think will contribute tremendously to the advancement of socially and environmentally sustainable agriculture. Companies like Global Easy Water Products, which distributes low-cost irrigation technology tailored to small-holder farmers in India, and Western Seed, which sells high-quality hybrid seeds to farmers in Western Kenya who for generations have used farm-saved varieties.  Or companies like GADCO, one of Acumen Fund’s newest investments from our new operation in West Africa, which engages smallholder farmers in Ghana in the production of rice for local markets, increasing their productivity through improved inputs and linking them to a higher value market by managing the whole supply chain.

I was there to better understand how we can partner with companies, NGOs, multi-laterals, to make sure that these innovations truly achieve scale, both for individual companies in our portfolio, and for the broader network of global supply chains.

My big Aha at this conference is that a challenge this complicated takes the networks, expertise, and capital of a whole constellation of actors. Acumen’s niche here is, I believe, in finding and supporting innovation in the sector, and whenever it makes sense, to be a great partner to those organizations who need this challenge addressed in bold, new ways:  to corporations who know they must move in the direction of sustainability for a myriad of reasons, and to Foundations (such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which helped us launch our agriculture portfolio), who have made it their business to tackle the world’s biggest challenges.

Making sustainable supply chains the new norm and not just a niche or fad will require tremendous effort on the part of these diverse actors, and whole new systems that can support, expand and monitor sustainable practices. In all of this Acumen Fund aims to be a source of innovation through the business models we invest in. And always, we strive to be a champion for entrepreneurial solutions and for the entrepreneurs themselves, recognizing that transforming markets and raising standards can just as easily create new barriers for farmers and entrepreneurs that are already struggling.

At this event, I was humbled by the complexity of the issue and impressed by the commitment and expertise of all those gathered. I left convinced that Acumen Fund and our agriculture portfolio has a unique role to play through our continued investments in enterprises that unleash new ideas for a system that must evolve – for producers, for the planet, and for all those who consume and know they must do so in ways that are sustainable. That is, for you and me.

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A Legacy of Love

I was lucky enough to be able to attend Jacqueline Novogratz’s second women’s salon last night, featuring Sarah Murray of the Financial Times, and the recent author of Making an Exit: From the Magnificant to Macabre – How we Dignify the Dead. After a fabulous talk by Sarah on her experience and insights writing the book, all those present had a chance to share their thoughts for one minute on the following topic: In light of our mortality, what do you want your legacy to be? This was my response:

I had a dream last night with my big brother Ivan in it. He looked great, smiling, dressed sharply, and I was so happy to see him. Especially because when I have a dream with my brother in it, I am always slightly aware that it’s the only way I can see Ivan these days, and that it will be fleeting, as dreams are. He died just over six years ago, and losing him helped me understand what legacy really means.

When someone goes away, it can be such a shock to those left behind because of all that a person means to the people they know and love. I found myself unable to accept that my brother was no longer here and a part of my life, asking over and over again – where are you?  I decided I would not let go or say goodbye, but would hold on to him in whatever way that I could. I realized that the thing I could hold on to and that I still continue to hold on to is his love.

So for my own legacy, I hope that what I leave behind is a powerfully felt love. I hope that through my life I can fulfill my potential, improve this world and the lives of people in it, and raise children that are healthy and fulfilled. But those are things that I think will be meaningful for meduring my life. When I am gone, I hope that what people are left with is a palpable love. I know am not as generous with love as my brother was, and that I continue to have so much to learn from him. But I hope that I have time enough on this earth

Me, my little brother, and my big brother, Ivan

to learn how to love more freely, and to enjoy this beautiful life that I’ve been given.

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A 30 Second MBA on Social Innovation

I was at a fascinating lunch discussion on social innovation hosted by Abbott Labs when FastCompany ‘s “30 Second MBA” team approached me and asked the question, “What is social innovation?” At Acumen Fund, we stress the fact that though we’ve learned valuable lessons from our successes in impact investing and leadership development, we’ve learned just as much – and sometimes even more – from our failures in these areas. That day I heard from several major corporations who were clear that the only way to evolve in an increasingly complex world was through innovation, but one of our biggest questions as a group was, where does innovation come from? My short (and I mean super-short) answer drew from our recent lesson on failure:


The response to this video has been great, and it’s made me think about my own relationship to risk and failure. And as I think about it, one thing is clear: talking about innovation, taking risks, and being willing to fail is a lot easier than actually doing it. When was the last time you took a big risk?

Originally posted on Acumen Fund’s blog

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