Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women Work and the Will to Lead rightly encourages women to engage more intensely in claiming their place at the table on the road to leadership positions in corporate America. Granted, more female leadership at the highest echelons of the private sector would go a long way to transform the institutions that drive our economy. But readers would be amiss to assume from Sandberg’s chosen spotlight that to achieve widespread gender equality the primary driver is for more women to aspire to the C-Suite. In fact, women can and do lead in whatever endeavor they have chosen. Sandberg’s call for women to rise to their potential is applicable far beyond our stereotypical vision of corner office success. There is no better example than that of a disadvantaged woman rebuilding her country after war.
I founded and run a global non-profit, called Global Grassroots, which is focused on identifying change leaders at the grassroots level, shall we say “G-Level”, among the world’s most marginalized women and girls. We operate a social venture incubator in Rwanda and Northern Uganda that provides mindfulness-based leadership practices and social entrepreneurship skills to help these women develop sustainable micro-non-profits to advance their own ideas for social change. Some of the most extraordinary leaders I have ever met, I have found among the ranks of undereducated subsistence farmers, war widows, the rural poor and survivors of horrific violence. There are three reasons why grassroots women’s leadership is crucial for gender equality: First, women have inherent wisdom and insight into what is most needed to evolve society especially with respect to issues that directly impact women and their families. Second, once women have a successful experience leading change, they are likely to continue solving problems especially benefiting the most vulnerable. Finally, true gender-equality will be built on women achieving parity at all levels of society, especially among the most marginalized, because that is where women are most deeply affected by inequality.
Take Global Grassroots venture “Hard Workers” for instance. In 2007, in a rural and mountainous Rwandan community called Gahanga, a team of 19 women including their leader Seraphine Hacimana, were troubled by the three mile journey women embarked upon each day down a hillside to collect water at a contaminated valley creek just to meet their family’s basic needs. Collecting water at remote access frequently points puts women at risk of sexual assault. Further, many of those who were left physically disabled by the war and those who were elderly, blind, pregnant or HIV positive were too weak to make this journey. Some would send their daughters to collect water instead of school. Others would hire men to deliver water on a bicycle. But for those too poor to pay for help, many ended up being pressured to exchange sex for water delivery daily, just to provide for their children.
With our training and an initial $2600 seed grant, the team designed their own non-profit water solution. They installed a water tank next to a church within close walking distance to collect and purify rainwater from the roof. Hard Workers launched their operations in August 2007 to serve 100 households (totaling between 800 – 1000 people) with fresh clean water daily. The organization is focused not only on ending sexual exploitation for water, but also ensuring the elimination of water-borne disease and protecting girls’ ability to attend school. The revenue generated from those who can afford to pay ensures the most vulnerable always have water for free. Further, the team uses any profits to pay orphan school fees and provide annual health insurance for women and their families. Given women were now freed up from water collection for other economic pursuits, the organization later established a small revolving loan fund for the poorest women to start their own businesses. Today, the venture is operating sustainably, has expanded to three additional sites and now serves close to 9000 people. To save the cost of hiring guards, team members, some even widows in their late 70s, sleep on the ground alongside their tanks in shifts each night to prevent people from stealing their water.
Gender relations have already begun to change. Village men have asked to join the project, and occasionally when a woman is sick, her husband will take her shift guarding the tanks at night. Women from as far as three hours away have since traveled to visit the team to learn from them. Project leader Seraphine Hacimana has spoken on the radio about water issues, was been invited to Kenya to share their work, and was recently recognized by government officials as an example of women serving other women. But what is most remarkable about this team is that of its 19 members, only seven are literate. Founder, Seraphine is a mother of eight children in her 40s with only a first grade education. Once living on the edge of survival, Seraphine is now a community change leader. This is the potential of G-Level leadership to transform individual lives and whole communities.
Hard Workers succeeded because they not only leaned in, but they led from within. They identified what they felt most passionate about, then leveraged their own skills, capabilities and courage to initiate a solution of their own design. Most of all, they were united by a common vision that came not from aspirations defined by dominant culture, but from an inner sense of purpose. Anyone who wants to lean in and lead from within can start by identifying what issue or realm of work you are most passionate about, what you are uniquely capable of doing, and what your exclusive insights are from your unique life experience, and then cultivate and contribute these assets in partnership with others who share a common purpose.
Sustainable, systemic change has to be driven by women from all levels of society, especially given women’s inherent wisdom as marginalized care-takers of community. In order to achieve gender equality, it is thus critical that we facilitate leaning in at both a grassroots level and at the top of the economic pyramid for women’s future leadership worldwide.