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From Rwanda to Oxford

I awoke to the sound of beating. My young female neighbor was screaming, and the dull thud of weight hitting a body was audible.

I had been living in rural Rwanda for about a year, serving as an Education Volunteer with the US Peace Corps, straight out of my undergraduate studies with an unlikely degree in Geology. The Peace Corps had fit with my desire to engage directly with people and communities, and to learn from a completely different context than what I had grown up in. I was assigned to Rwanda in 2010, and after a three-month training in curriculum design, culture, and Kinyarwanda, a Peace Corps pick-up truck dropped me off in a small, very rural community in the east, where I was to teach secondary school English for two years.

In the first year, I had already learned several important things: 1) I did not enjoy being a secondary school teacher. (Sixty youth cooped up in one room was not my cup o’ tea.) 2) I really enjoyed working with my female students in out-of-class programs, like girls’ sports clubs and a girl’s leadership club. 3) I was increasingly bothered by the daily inequalities I saw my female students, female neighbors, and myself facing.

Shaking with fear and anger, I headed towards my neighbors’ house, not knowing what I was walking into. Not knowing if my interference would make things better or worse. But knowing that I couldn’t stay still and wait any longer.

This moment stands out to me as a tipping point in my journey to social impact. It was far from the first time I had witnessed or experienced injustice against women, but it was a catalyzing moment that sharpened my focus on it. The fact was, momentum had been building up in me over time, first as greater recognition of the inequality, then frustration, and finally anger. When I resolved to get up and do something that night, I cemented in myself a resolve to act in the face of fear and risk for what I know to be right.

I began to spend more of my time thinking about the globally prevalent misbelief that females are somehow less, and all the related consequences of this, from violence to lower educational access to limited employment opportunities. Throughout the remainder of my time in the Peace Corps I explored and questioned why this was the case. After Peace Corps, I continued to explore similar challenges in a different context. I spent a year as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Denver, CO working with pregnant and parenting teen moms at a public high-school, trying to bridge the gaps in their access to healthcare, housing, food security, and wellness services.

Julie working as an AmeriCorps volunteer

Though the contexts were quite different, the basic challenges remained incredibly similar. It became increasingly clear to me that independent and narrow solutions were inadequate to create real change for such complex problems. It wasn’t enough to provide girls with education or women with income; these would not be sustained without a systematic change where they also had access to childcare, healthcare, wellness services, and a community that believed in and supported their growth. The root causes had to be addressed, as well as the surface level symptoms.

In 2014, I had the opportunity to dive headfirst into co-building a social business that was aimed at creating social and economic empowerment for women through training and employment, as well as community benefits through the products themselves. The idea, in theory, is simple: build bakeries, train and employ women, produce and sell nutritious and affordable breads, and source and sell locally so that the local ecosystem benefits from the entire process. In practice, of course, it is far more complicated.

Julie at The Women’s Bakery

Without any business background but a passion for what we wanted to achieve, I threw myself into the challenge of building a business that would work for women, their families, and their communities. And, which we hoped would challenge some of the societal norms and structures that kept women from achieving their potential.

Julie with the first The Women’s Bakery group in Rwanda

My experiences in the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps were great foundations, but the past four years have still constantly challenged my assumptions and ideas about how to create lasting impact. I have been pushed to think far beyond the initial bounds of the problem scope, apply multi-pronged approaches, partner with others in the space, and always come back to the women and stakeholders we are working with to understand how and where we need to shift our approach. We have experienced encouraging successes and frustrating failures, and at times questioned if we are even remotely on the right track.

About a year ago, I decided that I needed to learn more in order to better lead and make strategic business decisions to further grow our company. I wanted the skills and foundational business knowledge afforded by an MBA, but I was reluctant to dive into one or two years of talk about corporations, finance, the bottom line, and whatever else I imagined an MBA to be. Oxford Saïd stood out to me immediately because of the Skoll Centre and the focus on social impact and social entrepreneurship. I want to spend this year learning business fundamentals, yes, but more importantly I want to spend this year being exposed to an incredible community of social impact leaders and implementers. Already, I have met incredible people within the program and through the Skoll Centre who are continuing to challenge and deepen my understanding of social impact and systems change. I am blown away by the passion and commitment around me, and I can’t wait to learn and grow more throughout the year.

By Julie Greene, Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA candidate 2018-19