Planting Hope, Transforming Lives

Planting Hope, Transforming Lives

Empowering underprivileged and underserved women around the world.

Planting Hope, Transforming Lives
Photo: Chiara Goia/Getty Images

By Donna Coco

Read the statistics on the status of women worldwide, and words start to pop into your head. Women account for more than two-thirds of the world’s illiterate people. Disturbing. By some estimates, women represent 70 percent of the world’s poor. Jarring. As many as 70 percent of women and girls will be beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in their lifetime—regardless of societal status or geographic location. Staggering. These statistics come from UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. They provide a small glimpse into what some women experience on a daily basis. Hundreds more sobering statistics exist. Put faces to those statistics, and words begin to fail you.

Through different avenues, Babson and its alumni have been working to empower underprivileged and underserved women. Some reach out through education, others through entrepreneurship, still more through awareness and giving. This article tells the story of four such efforts.

The Power of Hope

Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg

Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg, associate professor of English and Mandell Family Term Chair
Photo: Tom Kates

“Now that I’ve spent time with those girls and women, and walked through that red-light district, that’s all my head is filled with,” says Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg, associate professor of English and Mandell Family Term Chair. She speaks of the women she met who were enslaved in sex brothels in Mumbai, India, and are now in a shelter. She speaks of the faces of the women she saw who are still in the sex brothels, many by force, some with no other way to survive. She speaks of the 60-plus children she met in the red-light district who spend their nights at a drop-in center no larger than her office so that they don’t have to hide under the bed every time their mothers have a customer.

Goldberg had worked with Made by Survivors, a nonprofit that helps survivors of sex trafficking become self-sufficient, for about five years before traveling to meet some of the women she is assisting. “I identify with people who are not in positions of power, and I want to help empower them. This is where my head is drawn,” she says, not to mention her heart.

Serendipity brought Goldberg to Made by Survivors, she says. Her interest in human rights goes back to her youth, when a love of African-American poetry and an affinity for Amnesty International eventually led her to choose representations of torture in 20th century film and literature as a PhD thesis. Knowing Goldberg’s passion, a friend introduced her to Sarah Symons, who along with her husband, John Berger, started Made by Survivors in 2005. Symons and Goldberg clicked, and Goldberg now serves as the nonprofit’s board chair.

Symons started Made by Survivors after watching a documentary on human trafficking. Feeling compelled to act, she contacted one of the anti-trafficking organizations highlighted in the film and asked what was needed. “Jobs,” was the answer. “A lot of people working on this issue were focused on getting people out of the sex trade, and then it was like, ‘Now what?’” says Goldberg. “There’s a huge retrafficking rate.”

After visiting one of the shelters in India and seeing the beautiful crafts the women were creating as part of their therapy, Symons came up with the idea of selling the goods to help the women become economically empowered. She started with home parties, and now the crafts are sold on a website. The nonprofit also trains survivors to be artisans through partnerships with 15 shelters and two production centers it operates.

Goldberg sees the program as giving survivors choice, which along with economic independence is another form of empowerment. “Instead of just being told, ‘We’re going to train you to do this,’ they can now decide, ‘Do I want to be a master artisan metalsmith?’ which is a traditionally male job. That’s one of the big reasons we chose that profession, because it is high status. But we ask, ‘Where do you see yourself?’ Everyone gets to imagine different choices and imagine themselves with autonomy and creativity,” says Goldberg. “At the shelter I visited, women were eager to get into the program because it’s a good wage, and it’s a life-altering thing in terms of stability and hope. But we usually can’t take on everyone, because we have limits to how much we can sell. That’s one nut we’re trying to crack right now.”

Becoming artisans gives these women a chance at a new life.

Becoming artisans gives these women a chance at a new life.
Photo: Chiara Goia/Getty Images

Increasing sales in the U.S. will increase the number of survivors the nonprofit can employ in Asia, says Goldberg. “It’s as simple as that.” The nonprofit also is struggling with a location problem. Many of the women in shelters are far from their homes and want to return, but without financial stability they risk being retrafficked. So Berger came up with the idea of creating a micro-supply chain, many small production centers that can fill big orders and still let the women live where they choose. To bring Berger’s idea to fruition, Goldberg helped Made by Survivors partner with Babson, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) to create a Microsupply Chain Laboratory, which will be housed in the Babson Social Innovation Lab.

Babson is developing the business plan and model with the help of several professors, including Marty Anderson, Gaurab Bhardwaj, and Sinan Erzurumlu. “We’ve all been incorporating it into our classes,” says Goldberg. “Sinan and Gaurab have been looking at strategy, and Marty has been exploring possibilities with technology and the Internet.” The Lab’s support also has been crucial, she says, providing funds and connections.

MIT is creating the technology. The infrastructure will be based on cell phones, explains Goldberg, which will support everything from training videos translated into the local language to coordinating raw materials to exporting. RISD is consulting on jewelry designs, with a focus on Western sensibilities. “We don’t want to impose a design,” says Goldberg, “but we need to market the goods, so we’re working with the women to create pieces.”

Goldberg has been touting the benefits of the micro-supply chain to interested parties for about a year and a half now. Then she traveled to Mumbai and met the girls and women in the shelter, including one named Sweetie who had been trafficked from Bangladesh. Sweetie, who Goldberg estimates is about 23, was safe in the shelter, but before being trafficked she had a daughter with her husband, whom officials suspect played a part in Sweetie’s trafficking. From her sister, Sweetie learned that her daughter, now 7 and still in Bangladesh with her father, is not in school.

“Sweetie is a wonderful artisan and a team leader, so she makes good money. She sends it to her sister to try to get her child in school,” says Goldberg. “Her option is to stay here, work, and send money to have her daughter be in school, or go back but have absolutely no livelihood, be able to do nothing for her child, and be at risk of being retrafficked. So she’s choosing to stay and not be with her daughter, and she’s just broken in half because of it. So here I’ve been talking about this micro-supply chain, and all of a sudden it’s like, get it running! Because that will solve that impossible choice for a host of girls.”

Every time Goldberg meets with another individual or institution interested in becoming involved, and they say yes, she feels “over the moon.” On a more personal level, having seen the pride that empowerment brings these women, she feels even more strongly about the mission. “These people are so stigmatized and rejected in their communities,” she says. “Many of them have HIV, which quadruples the stigma. But now, they come back and have money and a skill. It’s so personally satisfying to make a dent in something like slavery. I’m fighting back.”

The Power of Voice

Mir Ibrahim Rahman ’00

Mir Ibrahim Rahman ’00, co-founder and CEO of the GEO TV Network
Photo: Fursid/Getty Images

Pakistan is a country of extremes. Although many women enjoy the same privileges as men, others, especially women in rural and poor areas, still can be subject to violence and discrimination stemming from accepted cultural and tribal norms. As such, Pakistan ranks among the five most dangerous countries for women, according to TrustLaw, an organization that provides legal aid and information on women’s rights. And, last year, Pakistan ranked third from the bottom—133 out of 135 countries—in The Global Gender Gap Report, published by the World Economic Forum.

Growing up in a progressive Pakistani family, Mir Ibrahim Rahman ’00 did not experience that side of his country. But he is keenly aware of it. As co-founder and CEO of the GEO TV Network, Pakistan’s largest media brand, he comes face to face with what he calls his country’s “contradictions” every day.

Rahman started GEO TV 11 years ago with his family when then-President Pervez Musharraf announced his intentions to allow free-enterprise television channels in Pakistan for the first time. Journalism and the media already were engrained in the Rahman family. Rahman’s grandfather, Mir Khalil ur Rahman, founded the Jang Group of Newspapers, now one of Pakistan’s largest publishers, and he had the vision of getting into television. “He’d say, ‘To help the country, we need to get into TV,’” says Rahman. “He said, ‘If we really want to impact the masses, we will have to speak their language.’ Due to illiteracy rates in Pakistan, that would be TV. When Musharraf announced that he wanted to allow TV channels, my family got really excited.”

The influence that Rahman’s grandfather had on him extended beyond business. When Rahman was little, he would accompany his grandfather to work. “I had a small table next to his. He would quiz me on what I observed when people would leave his room,” says Rahman. “I saw him treating presidents and peons with the same respect. He valued the opinion of the experts and the novice with equal interest. He was the most humble man I knew.”

Following on the lessons he learned from his grandfather, Rahman built GEO TV on the principles of “live and let live,” going so far as to post on its website a vision document, GEO Asool (ideals), that outlines the company’s role in the media and calls for “tolerance,” “impartiality,” and “positive activism,” among other goals. “We try to emphasize how tolerance is key,” says Rahman. “Tolerance—not only the ability to hear ideas, but letting people be alive for having them. We try not to create the change itself, although we sometimes are accused of that, but to enable an environment so society can evolve.”

Rahman and his daughter, Asha

Rahman and his daughter, Asha
Photo: Fursid/Getty Images

Through this vision, GEO supports women’s rights. Some of its actions are small. Rahman believes his station was the first in Pakistan to hire women reporters, for example. “The attitude in our newsroom became more competitive and professional when we hired women,” he says. GEO also sponsors a take-your-daughter-to-work day and runs a campaign for the program on television, encouraging others to do the same.

On a larger scale, one of GEO’s more well-known actions was the national campaign and debate it sponsored on the now- repealed Hudood Ordinance. Instituted by former dictator General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, the law, which had been passed in the name of Islam, equated rape with adultery and put the burden of proof of innocence on the victim. As a result, thousands of women who had been violated wound up in jail. GEO helped facilitate a dialogue on the law. “Our approach was unique,” says Rahman. “In other media, it was liberal versus conservative. Women’s rights versus the religious right. So there was no dialogue. At GEO, we heard from a platform of Islamic scholars who debated within themselves, so they didn’t feel threatened. It wasn’t right versus left. It was just an Islamic law issue. And almost the entire spectrum said it was a man-made law, not holy.”

As such, the law was repealed, and GEO’s campaign was credited with helping achieve that end. “We heard from third-party NGOs that about 1,400 women were released from prison when that law was repealed,” says Rahman, “and 40,000 women have been positively affected by the change.”

Under the GEO name, Rahman also has produced several groundbreaking films, the most recent being Bol, a tale of women and minority rights that in its first week became the highest-earning film in Pakistan’s history. “I thought it was going to be a loss,” says Rahman. “It’s very in your face.”

Bol tells the story of a poor family with seven daughters in Lahore, Pakistan. The main character, one of the daughters, relates the family’s tale right before she is hanged for killing her father. “She raises the question of does it make sense to produce children when you can’t afford them,” says Rahman, “and she faces an argument, typically used by religion, saying God will take care of feeding everyone. Her father kept having children, even though he couldn’t care for them.”

The movie explores a number of issues, including a woman’s right to choose to reproduce; the mother, who did not want more children, had no say in this decision. It also looks at minority rights, as one of the siblings is a transsexual and faces stigmatization and discrimination. Even more twists and turns pull the viewer through the movie. In fact, Rahman was concerned that perhaps the plot covered too many issues. But the writer and director, Shoaib Mansoor, is Rahman’s friend, and Rahman promised Mansoor artistic freedom. “He was right,” says Rahman.

Rahman considered Bol a passion project, not a business venture. He and his wife, Sheena Hadi, who is director of an NGO for women and children’s rights, talked about the movie before deciding to back Mansoor. The project was a risk, because the strong possibility existed that it wouldn’t receive the government’s approval. If that happened, the movie wouldn’t be shown. In a lucky twist of fate, the officials who screened the movie brought their wives to the showing. “At the end of the movie,” says Rahman, “the wives were all crying.” They convinced the main official to sign the censorship forms right then and there.

Together, Rahman and Hadi have made even more difficult decisions that tie back to their homeland. When Hadi was pregnant with their daughter, Asha (now 1½), and about to give birth, both she and Rahman were in the States studying at Harvard. “We had to make the decision whether to stay in the States so Asha could also be an American citizen or come back,” says Rahman. “We came back. It was a scary decision, because people we know will decide to travel to Europe or the U.S. to have their children so they can have dual citizenship. We did not know what would happen if Asha asked us one day why we did this to her. I still don’t know what the answer to that question will be. I have some options, the main answer being that if it’s not us here, trying to do something about our people, then who?”

The Power of Knowledge

Patricia Greene

Patricia Greene, Paul T. Babson Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies
Photo: Tom Kates

Seema Khosla lives in Delhi, India, where she runs a now successful business that designs, manufactures, and installs modular kitchens. Self-described as “ambitious,” she says she started the company to be self-sufficient and a constructive member of society. But with no business training and no mentors, it proved more difficult than she expected. “I belong to an orthodox family and was married into a similar family. In my family and clan, I am the only business woman,” says Khosla. “I did not have any women entrepreneurs in my social circle. My biggest challenge was breaking through my family’s, society’s, and even my own mindset of treating women as secondary citizens and entrepreneurs.”

She struggled to stay afloat, and her difficulties translated into a severe lack of self-confidence, which both her family and employees fed off of. Then she saw an ad for a scholarship-based program from Goldman Sachs called 10,000 Women, which teaches business and management skills to underserved women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging markets so they can better grow their businesses and create jobs in their local communities. She applied and was accepted. “I was hoping to connect with like-minded, intelligent, and energetic women who could somehow motivate me and show me a doorway through the darkness which was encompassing me,” she says.

Khosla found those women and more. She learned how to negotiate and network, run operations, delegate and strategize, keep tabs on competitors, use targeted marketing, develop brands, and hone her presentation skills. “I am an entirely changed person now,” she says. “A sense of self-respect dawned on me, and I started having faith in the business and my thought processes. This led to strong decision making and confidence in me from my family and staff. The modular kitchen industry is still in its infancy in India, and I want to play my cards right and some day be the Ikea of India.”

Patricia Greene, Paul T. Babson Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies, calls 10,000 Women “game changing” for women entrepreneurs around the world. “It’s about empowerment,” says Greene. Goldman Sachs launched 10,000 Women in 2008, and Babson came on board a little more than a year later. Greene was asked to advise the program and also become national academic director for 10,000 Small Businesses, a sister Goldman Sachs program based in the U.S. Greene was a natural fit for the roles. To earn her PhD, she had written a dissertation on women’s entrepreneurship.

Growing up, Greene’s father was an entrepreneur, although at the time she didn’t know the term. Entrepreneurship didn’t become part of her vocabulary until she went to The University of Texas at Austin to earn her PhD. One of her professors, John Sibley Butler, was a leading expert in the country on minority entrepreneurship. “I was in his classroom on my very first day of school, and from that day on I’ve been an entrepreneurship person and working with him. What he said completely resonated with me,” says Greene. “I was like, well, you’re working on the minority groups. I would love to see how this impacts women. What are we doing differently? But not only that—what do we all learn from each other? How do we all learn, men and women, from these models to be better entrepreneurs?”

Greene has been conducting research on women entrepreneurs and fine-tuning her teaching of the subject ever since. She says working on the Goldman Sachs programs has put her learning “on steroids.” “I was already in the camp of experiential education,” she says. “But watching the scholars [participants in the program] take what they learn and immediately apply it, and how they teach each other—no matter how many times I sit through a class, I never get tired of it. What they bring to it is incredible. I learn something new every single time. And I bring it back. It applies to how I teach, how I practice in my own entrepreneurial endeavors—because I’m also a business owner—and how I advise as to policy. It covers everything.”

Greene calls the mission, scope, and scale of 10,000 Women, which has reached women in 43 countries, “unbelievably impressive.” “What’s neat about this program is it crosses so many different political systems, economic systems, cultural systems, religious systems—you name it,” she says. “It crosses those boundaries and hits a common theme of teaching women to create value for themselves and also for their families, their communities, their societies.”

Often, women in many of the countries served by 10,000 Women have fewer options economically and socially. “But for many of them, too, their motivations are similar to women entrepreneurs all over the world—they want to create value, and they want independence,” says Greene. “And economics is a good way to start in independence.”

The program also builds their confidence levels, says Greene. Being in a classroom with other women entrepreneurs, they learn together what they can accomplish and take that away as individuals. It can change lives—just ask Khosla. “They come into the program, and we completely lift them up in many ways, and then we kind of release them back out into the wild,” Greene says. “What they make of it then is up to them, but they’re armed with a new set of skills and a new way of looking at the world.”

The Power of Belief

Johanna Crawford ’80

Johanna Crawford ’80, founder of Web of Benefit
Photo: Tom Kates

“The angel is coming.” That’s what workers at the Elizabeth Stone House, a domestic violence shelter and program in Roxbury, Mass., would say when Johanna Crawford ’80 was coming, says Ann Wilkinson, herself a survivor of domestic violence who at the time was a volunteer in the house. “Jo helped women who had experienced domestic violence get back on their feet.”

Crawford helps women through a nonprofit she started in 2004 called Web of Benefit, which provides survivors of domestic violence with small grants for a range of services, including but not limited to housing, transportation, and education. With Crawford’s assistance, for instance, Wilkinson, who after learning about Web of Benefit applied to the program, bought a computer for school.

To qualify for a grant, the women must be out of crisis for at least six months. “We are totally about the future,” says Crawford. “We do not work with victims. They are not able to even think about the next steps in their lives until they’ve been out. Women tend to go back to their abusers, because it’s really tough out there financially. Also, women do not fall in love with men who they think are abusers. They fall in love with men who they think are wonderful. So they love their abusers.”

Crawford knows about domestic violence from firsthand experience. When she was 13, her father tried to murder her mother. “You know, it’s very true with most abusive families—you don’t know how bad it is because it’s all you know. My father and mother were both alcoholics, and it would get bad, and she’d kick him out. It’s the same cycle. It’s totally predictable. The abuse gets bad, and then there’s an ‘I’m sorry, I’ll never do it again,’ which is called the honeymoon period. Then it’s the tension, the abuse, the honeymoon. It’s absolutely cyclical,” she says. “Then finally when I was 13 he came home one night and tried to strangle her, and luckily my brother and I were there. We got him off her and out of the house, and he was never allowed back again.”

Often, children who live in such circumstances end up repeating the behavior. But not Crawford. “It’s not who I am,” she says. That’s not to say she came out unscathed. “You learn survival skills when you’re young, and sometimes those skills that helped you survive don’t serve you as you get older in life. I would never let anybody abuse me at all. It just is not in my makeup. But then you kind of close yourself off from things that you might miss in the meantime. So I’ve done a huge amount of work, psychologically, spiritually, emotionally. But I have this belief that I went through that stuff to be doing what I’m doing today.”

Crawford’s desire to reach out stems back to her youth, when her mom taught her about volunteering. Over the years, she has devoted time to hospitals, zoos, museums. Then about 11 years ago, she started helping out at the Transition House, a domestic violence agency in Cambridge, Mass., that assists women and children. Crawford became a crisis hotline counselor. One day, she received a call from a woman who along with her children had taken the first available bus out of Chicago, which brought her to Boston. As was customary, Crawford picked up the family from the bus station and helped them get settled at the shelter. After going back to her office, Crawford looked up to see the woman. “She asked if I could help her,” says Crawford.

The woman had left Chicago so quickly, she didn’t bring any of her documents. “She didn’t have any identification for herself or her kids. So she basically didn’t exist, legally. She couldn’t get any services—food stamps, nothing. She said, ‘It’s going to take $40 to send to City Hall in Chicago, and I don’t have $40.’ Of course, it’s totally forbidden to give a resident money,” says Crawford. “I have never been good with rules.”

Crawford opened her wallet and found three $20 bills. “Honestly, I never have money in my wallet,” she says. “I didn’t give it to her right away but said, ‘Let me think about it.’ When it was time for me to leave, I went downstairs and got her in kind of a dark corner in the kitchen. I gave her the two $20 dollar bills and said here’s the money for your documents. And I gave her the other $20. She had no envelope. She had no stamp. She had to pay for a money order, because she couldn’t send cash. So I gave her the other $20 and said, ‘Pay for whatever else you need and take your kids to McDonald’s for a treat. And, by the way, don’t tell anybody.’ She could not believe it.”

At the time, Crawford was living in a nice house in Wellesley. Driving home that night, she thought about how she had changed a woman’s life for $60. “It was astonishing how little money it would take,” she says, and ideas began formulating in her head. “So I said to myself, ‘I can do this.’ And I’m driving farther, and I said, ‘I have to do this.’”

Less than a year later, Web of Benefit became a legal nonprofit serving survivors of domestic violence in the Boston area and, more recently, in Chicago. The nonprofit takes applications for grants only from women recommended by advocates who make sure the women are ready to take positive steps toward improving their lives. The average grant is for about $470. As of press time, Crawford had awarded 1,000 of them.

The most important part of the application, says Crawford, is the dream proposal. Women must answer three questions: What is your biggest dream, what are the steps and goals to achieve that dream, and what is the cost of the first step? “We can only pay for the cost of the first step, so we say dream big, focus small,” says Crawford.

But the point, she continues, is not about what these women will buy with the grant. It’s about getting them to think about the life they deserve. “When you’re in an abusive situation, it’s been beaten out of you, so nobody that I talk to believes that they deserve the best. But I believe that they deserve the best,” says Crawford. “The thing I want them to take forward is that they deserve the life of their dreams, and they have the power to create it. That’s all. It’s very simple. And the fact that one person actually believes in them is astonishing to these women.”

Applicants also must agree to help three other survivors of domestic violence in some way, whether through volunteering, babysitting, or words of encouragement during a trying time. Crawford does not take this lightly; women must sign a contract for the Good Works program. Helping others is empowering, she says, and it makes the grant something the women earn, not a handout. Thus the benefits from the nonprofit spread, touching more and more people as the web of women grows.

Crawford has one more request of the women she helps. After she awards the grant, she asks for a hug. “It’s a real I-care-about-you hug,” says Crawford. “They might not have been hugged by another adult in a very long time, but it’s a basic human need. We’ve all got the same needs. It feels good to help others. It’s addictive—it really is. And it comes back to me tenfold.”