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WE@Yale Women's Innovator Breakfast: Yale World Fellows

On November 6th, three of Yale’s World Fellows gathered at the Yale School of Management to share their experiences working in human rights and development initiatives in India, Mexico and South Africa.

Joy Olivier founded South-African education non-profit IkamvaYouth in 2003, which enables young people to pull themselves out of poverty through education. IkamvaYouth has grown to become one of the largest non-profits in the country, with 17 branches of after school programs across 5 provinces. Olivier began working in education at the age of 23 in hopes of improving the education crisis in South Africa: half of the children enrolled in high school never finish, and only 10% get into college.

IkamvaYouth’s thrice-weekly after school programs are run by volunteers (many of whom are previous beneficiaries of the program), who provide academic support, peer mentoring, university application assistance and career guidance. “We worked with the learners to co-create a model of guidance and mentoring which grew in the ways in which theywanted to develop, including visiting college campuses,” she said. Olivier also highlighted the benefit of having volunteers as educators: “Sometimes not having educational expertise helps advance innovation, because people don’t have a preconceived notion and narrow perspective of how to educate,” she said. “In education pedagogy, people can be very tied to their own disciplines.”

Olivier’s organization boasts incredible measurable results in a low cost, high impact model. 60% of learners get into college and almost all return as volunteers, and 80–100% of students graduate from high school and currently earn closer to the median monthly income each year. “This is pretty radical given South Africa’s education system issues, and we tried to work around the problem: working with schools can be tricky, but being an after-school program gives us more flexibility,” she said.

Olivier emphasized the importance of maintaining a lean mindset in entrepreneurship. “We operated with very few resources and zero money at the beginning, which is important for innovation,” she said. “Projects with a lot of seed funding begin to design things that require a lot of money, whereas if you’re really lean, your model is very low cost.”

Since handing over IkamvaYouth to her successor after 15 years growing and establishing the company into a widespread, government-recognized strategy, Olivier is now beginning a new enterprise with rural subsistence farmers working in medicinal cannabis.

ElsaMarie D’Silva began her career as a flight attendant and a safety instructor before an internal fast track management program led her to explore revenue management and network strategy. She planned the route network of a large Indian airline with over 500 daily flights. In December 2012, a woman was gang raped in Delhi and lost her life, and D’Silva decided she wanted to work to promote the safety and security of women. Since then, her career has focused on sexual violence prevention and gender equality.

“1 in 3 women experience sexual violence in their lifetime, but there were no statistics in India to support this despite the fact that every conversation I had implied that people had a story to share,” she said. “The #MeToo movement is based on putting your story out there, which is important to raising awareness of the severity of this issue.” D’Silva founded Safecity, an anonymous online crowd map that allows anyone to report instances of sexual violence in public places. “Plotting these on a map and understanding why things are happening in these locations is key,” she said. “Why is this the comfort zone of the perpetrator and how can we change that through government and police operations?” Safecity is the largest map of its kind, with more than 11,000 stories in many countries around the world.

Big data is secondary, according to D’Silva: the important factor is having a concentrated data set for a specific place. “You just need to understand information in localities to inform communities and give them the power to enact change,” she said. “We’ve gotten local police to modify monitoring locations and hours, worked with transportation authorities in Nepal to issue female-only bus licenses, improved street lighting and public toilets, and the World Bank has even assigned an economic measure to the cost of harassment in public spaces,” she said. “A young woman in Delhi spends an additional $290 each month on more expensive transport and safety options just to protect herself.”

Sylvia Aguilera has spent 20 years working in civil society organizations in Mexico, including human rights cases presented to the UN, and conflict resolution and dialogue processes. She explained that the confrontational nature of human rights discussions makes it difficult for strategic conversations to happen, and focuses on designing dialogue facilitation processes that bring together radically different perspectives. “What surprised me most was that these people had never met before,” she said. “For the first time, they could talk about difficult issues, which doesn’t mean they changed their minds, but they found common ground.” This process led Aguilera to build a collective human rights agenda for Mexico, presented by previously adversarial agencies together before the Mexican legislative branch. “That agenda guided the most significant changes in Mexico’s legal framework in the last six years: just because we sat two different groups of people in the same room,” she said. “We want people to find cooperative ways to fight for change.”

Much of Aguilera’s work in civil society organizations suffers from a lack of resources, and cooperation is essential to make tangible change in the face of such scarcity. When Aguilera began working with rural populations in Mexico, she held a meeting with several human rights agencies to develop their own agenda in response to a previously issued government agenda. “This was powerful because with less money we could do more, and each agency could understand the bigger story beyond the scope of their own work,” she said, adding that — as a whole — they could produce a better agenda with superior outcomes. “It’s not easy to work with people with different views, but having the ability to collaborate with different perspectives is important.”

The three panelists discussed the idea of competition in the non-profit sector, which they concluded is a problematic one. “The better everyone is at delivering results, the greater the impact,” said Olivier. “Even with organizations whose approaches you don’t agree with, especially between the corporate and government sectors, these efforts require everyone on board.” D’Silva built on this sentiment, noting that women should replicate the collaborative “boy’s club” approach of men who give each other career opportunities by creating pipelines and making space for other women. “If you come across an opportunity that helps another woman, share it,” she said. “You have to create these opportunities for women because we are at a disadvantage. Be a mentor for another woman.”

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Veena McCoole is a senior English major at Yale who enjoys horse riding, traveling and eating croissants. Originally from Singapore, she loves hearing from entrepreneurs with game-changing ideas and companies, and is partial to the fashion-tech and wellness sector.