built by women: an interview with Haushala Zimba + Amanda Brown, social impact entrepreneurs

Image Courtesy of CYF.

Over the past ten years, I’ve come into my feminism. I’ve felt a more urgent need to not only mentor young women coming up in the ranks, but to celebrate women who were always breaking them. Up until ten years ago I never thought to question why all of my mentors were men, why there existed few women in powerful leadership or entrepreneurship roles. And although, to quote an old advertisement–we’ve come a long way, baby–there’s always more we can do. There’s always more women we can sponsor, mentor, support and applaud.

It’s no secret that I’ve embarked on some remarkable and substantive life changes over the past two years: I left a job (and life) I hated, I wrote a book, and I now live thousands of miles away from the place I called home. Yet it felt odd to only turn the lens onto me because in my darker moments I sought comfort in watching other women work. I grew stronger and more hopeful for the world by seeing kindness shared between strangers. And it occurred to me that I could use the small patch of online real estate to promote the women who inspire me: women who challenge, teach, nurture; women who are builders and makers.

Every month, I’ll share a handful of interviews with women who are breaking ranks across continents and industries. Perhaps their work will inspire you, or at the least make you pause.

Today I’m privileged to have you meet Haushala Zimba + Amanda Brown, social impact entrepreneurs and an example of some of the most dedicated and selfless women I’ve ever encountered. I encourage you to want to do something after you read this post–whether it be supporting CYF or another cause dear to you with your money or time. –FS

Amanda Brown + Haushala Zimba
Amanda Brown + Haushala Zimba. Image Courtesy of CYF.

Haushala, I never grow tired of reading how founded Life Vision Academy, a progressive boarding school and refuge for abused orphaned children, and CYF (Children and Youth First), the NGO that funds it, was founded. Can you share the story behind the LVA, the role of the U.S. arm, and your vision moving forward?

Haushala Zimba: LVA was founded by Prema Zimba, who has always been the backbone of CYF. Since the day my friends and I rescued 14 children from an abusive orphanage in 2008, she gave our kids shelter and food at her school. Since that day we have working together. After shutting down this abusive orphanage and enrolling the kids in LVA, my friends and I founded Children and Youth First as an NGO. CYF funds LVA, and LVA provides CYF with the platform to enact our vision of education for underprivileged children.

Our U.S. arm was formed almost 3 years ago by Nepali students based in the US who knew about the work of CYF. Several of our close friends like Sajan Suwal and Smriti Suwal played an important role in registering CYF USA as a 501c3 nonprofit. The role of CYF USA has been to support the parent organisation CYF Nepal’s activities and projects. It has been over a year now with a young energetic woman Amanda Brown on board as the President of CYF USA; she has utilized her own personal skills of networking the organisation’s work and is giving students in America an opportunity to be a part of this mission for education. The CYF USA arm is currently helping CYF Nepal fundraise for the construction of our new 200-student boarding school, and has helped us introduce merchandise from our Haushala Women’s Cooperative to the US market.

“My definition of impact is solidarity. It’s not for a spotlight, a salary, or even to feel good: it’s about being an ally, shifting your priorities away from yourself, and helping others who want your help, simply because you can.” –Amanda, I loved this quote from your HuffPo essay. How did you come to impact work, and how did you come to be involved with CYF?

Amanda Brown: I’ve never heard of impact work, that’s such an interesting title! I think any work can make an impact, regardless of its field. I became involved with CYF when I was in Nepal in February 2014, studying human rights and conducting fieldwork on girls’ education. I was randomly placed into a homestay with Haushala; it didn’t take long for us to realize how perfect this coincidence was. When she brought me to her school, I was instantly captivated by the students’ confidence, self-expression, and creativity. I felt a deep-rooted desire to do anything I could to ally with these incredible young people. One night Haushala and I had stayed up late talking, and she mentioned that CYF had a 501c3 registration in the USA without a full-time team running it. I told her I would. We had only known each other two weeks at that point, but the CYF board brought me on, and it’s been quite the journey ever since!

It wasn’t until I watched a BBC World Asia report while in Singapore that I realized the magnitude of the recent earthquake in Nepal, which killed 9,000, injured over 23,000. The devastation of entire villages, UNESCO sites, and surrounding areas was staggering—all of which went nearly unmentioned in U.S. media. Can you talk about the challenges you face in terms of raising awareness and passion for CYF in the U.S., and how the U.S. media aggravates or helps in this effort?

HZ: The relationship between the media and its audience has always been a love-and-hate relationship for a long time. I had always seen it, but I saw it more with the earthquake that devastated Nepal (not all of the country, but part of it). This was all over the news for a few weeks — until media had something else to cover. The surprising part is even the local media has started differing its news from its own earthquake tragedy. I personally feel US media covered the story immediately after the earthquake happened, and did give the world a wider picture of what happened in Nepal. But, it would have been better if they connected stories of people who flew in from the US to help in Nepal, or covered more stories of Nepali youths who went out to help their villages.

Image Courtesy of CYF.

In raising awareness about CYF and explaining our vision to people, the biggest challenge I’ve found is that there is never “enough” story or emotion you can show people to convince them to donate a little bit more. But with Amanda on team, we have been able to connect our vision to people who care about such issues. But again, I have ethical and moral values that my team and I share: our children and our cause are not a product on a shelf to be sold.

AB: The lack of media attention – and subsequent lack of popular awareness – has been very frustrating since the earthquake. April 25 was not simply a day that came and went, but the media allowed it to become that for most of the world. We barely even see that #NepalQuake hashtag anymore, and there have been literally hundreds – hundreds! – of earthquakes recorded in Nepal since April 25’s 7.8-Mag. The absence of media attention on Nepal throughout the last few months is normalizing the destruction, danger, and trauma.

Instead of letting media tell society what’s important enough to talk about, we’re constantly working to tell the stories that you won’t find on the news, and encouraging them to spread the word themselves. People will usually skim past quantitative data about destruction. But if you can get someone to watch a video or hear a story, and you replace those analytics with real individual stories, they’ll usually listen. For instance, I wouldn’t just say, “A lot of schools were destroyed.” I’ll tell them about Maan Kumari Tamang, the incredible female principal who lost her whole school facility just weeks after it was constructed. Her classrooms were completely filled with rubble, desks piled under fallen ceilings and walls. Her students have been having class outside in the fields, and the school isn’t getting any aid from the government. We’ve been supplying her school with temporary shelter, school supplies, and rebuilding materials, so that they can return stability and education to these children’s lives. If someone is compelled to donate after hearing about her school, that’s great. And if they’re not, at least they know a little more than what they’ve heard on the news.

Image Courtesy of CYF
One of the greatest obstacles facing non-profits and impact brands is fundraising. Most people feel disconnected from the causes to which they donate. Talk about how you’re trying to disrupt the traditional donation model.

HZ: CYF as an organisation is youth-led vision. For 5 years, we never had long-term staff, full-paid staff, or even a proper office space. My house was my office, our school was our work, and our friends were our volunteers helping with everything from fundraising to accounting. CYF now has any more followers, donors, and supporters because of the 6 years we went through without any grants, organization partnerships, or company sponsors. We survived, and we were able to support the education first of 14 children and now 45 children – all with just individual people and groups of friends supporting the cause. And people saw this!

At first, we mostly had Nepalese living abroad helping us, and then people from all over the world were helping us. People from all over the world knew about CYF because of recommendations from friends or families who knew CYF, and who knew that this cause is about “IMPACT – CHANGE – LOVE.” Our donation model is “Connect with PASSION.” We connect people to the cause via social media and even give people opportunity to come and help in CYF.

Image Courtesy of CYF.
Image Courtesy of CYF.
AB: Connecting individuals to our mission, school, and children is definitely a crucial part of CYF. Because most international supporters can’t make it to LVA, we want to bring LVA to them. Right now we are fundraising to build a bigger, safer, more sustainable boarding school for our students, which will open its doors to 200 children once complete. This is a huge project, and we don’t want our donors to feel discouraged or disconnected by just putting a drop in a bucket. We want people to feel engaged with our students and our school construction, because this is an incredibly exciting stage of our growth story, and we want people to be involved!

We are disrupting the disconnected and boring standard of charitable giving: for instance, we’ve created a donors’ store on our website where anyone can browse through and add items to their cart, as if online shopping on any other site. Then, we follow up with the donor to show them exactly how their impact manifests and grows. For instance, one person purchased our new soccer field in honor of a friend who loved soccer. She will receive emails, photos and videos showing the construction of our field, our kids’ first tournament, etc.

The whole process is personalized, transparent, and authentic. We want to share this experience with them and enable them to participate in a way that makes them feel ignited and involved. This also humanizes our students: they are individual people, happy young leaders with brilliant dreams. We don’t want anyone to send a check out of pity or sadness and turn a blind eye. Even though we’re a charity, our kids are no charity case, and we want the world to know that.

Image Courtesy of CYF.
Image Courtesy of CYF.
Have you endured any challenges in your work with CYF, as an impact entrepreneur, specific to your gender? If so, how have you overcome them? Can you share any specific anecdotes?

HZ: I have never endured any challenges within CYF because I am a woman, but I have had to fight to get men to let their wives or daughters or sisters come and work with CYF. I have felt the demeaning words that a few guardians of our kids have said to their daughters just because they’re girls. So those are my challenges. I have overcome them by proving to them that education is the tool for educating the mind. When their daughters go back home and educate their guardians, saying, “Don’t judge me because I’m a girl” — when their own child speaks up, then we know we have done our job well.

AB: Part of how I’ve worked to kick-start CYF’s stateside presence has been through the realm of entrepreneurism, and I’ve absolutely found that my gender can impose challenges. As a social entrepreneur, some people already look down on us for being a nonprofit venture –- I get a lot of “Aw, that organization sounds so nice!” or “Good on you for that work!” There seems to be some stigma that nonprofit social entrepreneurs don’t grind as hard, don’t know much about business, or can’t talk money. Sometimes, being a woman in that space doubles that stigma.

For instance, this summer I received an entrepreneurship grant that placed me in an intensive 6-week accelerator where I was the only woman. All the guys I worked with were amazing and never treated me differently (I also destroyed most of them on the office ping-pong table) — but a couple older male mentors did bring some sexism on their visits. While they engaged my male friends in critical business discussions, they’d give me a pat on the back or a glance at my legs. I wasn’t going to start changing my outfits, so I changed how they looked at me by sitting them down and giving them the facts. When I made them listen to the hard results of our work, they finally stopped looking at me like a nice girl and started seeing me as an entrepreneur. At the end of the day, dedication and results don’t have any octave to their voice – they speak for themselves, no gender identity attached.

What has surprised you most about running a non-profit? What didn’t you expect? More importantly, what were you (or not) prepared for?

HZ: Running a non-profit is full of surprises, especially when you’re running it for the past 6 years without any grants or support from organisations. You have challenges everyday, but I have never given up because of amazing people: for instance, our team members Prema, Anurag, and Lucky; our kids; and my friends who were my support pillars. I knew this cause will move ahead, be it with challenges or without challenges. Big organisations want administrative overhead costs to be larger than the cause itself, and we don’t believe that’s right. Our administrative cost should and will always be less than our cause. As an NGO we weren’t prepared for “numbers,” but that’s what big organisations wanted to hear if we wanted their support. I do understand you need large numbers if you want to say “a thousand children,” but let’s not forget the cause behind the numbers. When we start running behind the numbers, there will come a point where you will forget about why you started first of all.

Now when I recall moments of CYF, I think, “What would we have learned if we didn’t have those challenges?” I am glad they came and glad we learned so much more, both personally and professionally.

AB: I’ve been most surprised by how often people genuinely want to help and contribute. When you’re relying on donors’ support and everyone in the world has a million things to care about, it sometimes can feel like yelling into a soundproof room. Then you find someone who actually cares about your mission, believes in your ability to execute, and wants to learn more about how they can support our kids. It happens a lot more often than I expected, to be honest. But, I wasn’t prepared for how much systemization you need to do on the administrative side to keep up with all that support. I always want to give my full attention and gratitude to each of those amazing people, and I don’t think I was prepared for how organized you have to be to juggle all of that.

Image Courtesy of CYF.
Image Courtesy of CYF.

Who has inspired you along the way and why?

HZ: Along the way, the children whom I am working for everyday have inspired me every day. Their dreams keep changing and I need to make sure I know what they might like to do in future. This inspires me because I remember there is A LOT to do and you just don’t give up. With that, my parents have been my biggest inspirations, who have guided me along this path from the day I rescued the 14 kids till date. As parents they never forced me to get into a job I didn’t want to do, and they never gave me negative support saying I should think about myself too. They always told me, “You’re on the right path.” They told me, “Daughter, you will not earn money in the path you’re walking. We have a house that will be your assets, but you will definitely earn a lot of courage and grace for yourself, and there will be thank you’s. Remember in the end we take nothing with us. Not even a strand of our own hair. So when you die, be a good memory. That’s it.” I have lived by that advice my parents have given me, and I have driven my passion towards educating and helping as many children as we can.

AB: The biggest inspiration for me has come from within CYF: Our kids and team at LVA inspire me every single day, even though I’m not even there on the ground with them. Haushala inspired me to jump into CYF in the first place, and she continues to encourage and motivate me every day. She’s truly my biggest role model; I’ve never met anyone with more selfless dedication, more concentrated passion, better creativity and leadership, or better balance in her conscious lifestyle. The LVA kids inspire me by their bravery, creativity, and confidence. One day they want to be a dancer, the next day a gardener, the next day a social worker. I try to be like them in never limiting my own potential and in always believing I can do anything, despite how unconventional it may be. Our team on the ground also inspires me through their tirelessness and engaged compassion. Our caretakers, teachers, and staff are really the wind beneath these 45 sets of young wings, and I so admire the huge daily impact they make.

What are the three things that people who are interested in starting a non-profit should know?

HZ: 1. KNOW YOUR PASSION. 2. Non-profits are always about a cause. Do you CONNECT with the cause?? 3. If you believe you can help someone or a certain issue by starting a nonprofit, go for it! START IT NOW!

AB: 1. You will never be ready; nobody is ever “ready” for anything. Don’t wait for that magical, illusive feeling of “readiness.” You’re here, you’re alive, you can do this! 2. Know that you have no idea what you’re doing — but nobody else did either! Ask questions, lots of questions, and take the answers to heart. It’s not easy at the beginning, but being able to step into a room and authentically say, “I don’t know what I’m doing” is one of the most courageous and important parts of starting anything. 3. You should know how bad non-reusable K-Cups are for the environment! You’ll probably need a lot of coffee, and there are much more environmentally-conscious ways of staying caffeinated without giving into the Keurig!

What are the three essential tools (or resources) you rely upon to get through your day?

HZ: 1. A mobile set with internet! 2. A quote I carry everywhere in my purse, and see it when I need to so that I motivate myself. 3. My mini writing note pad

AB: 1. Messaging Apps! Haushala and I are in constant contact, and chatting online allows us to reach each other around the distance and time differences. 2. My journal. My brother once told me that writing is like putting fireflies into a jar; adding something small may not feel or look like much, but you’ll come back later to find great light. 3. My amazing parents: they constantly push me forward and hold me up. My mom is always cheering me on, and my dad makes sure I wake up to a text of encouragement every day.

Image of Amanda Brown Courtesy of CYF.
Image of Amanda Brown Courtesy of CYF.

Recently, I read On Kindness, and this particular passage remained with me: “We are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us. There is nothing we feel more consistently deprived of than kindness; the unkindness of others has become our contemporary complaint. Kindness consistently preoccupies us, and yet most of us are unable to live a life guided by it.” What you do is rooted in a humane sense of kindness; we exist to mutually belong to one another. Can you share any anecdotes—large or small—of kindness you’ve seen since you’ve started CYF? Reminding us that in darkness there always exists light.

HZ: I saw kindness when the children we supported collected their own old clothes, shoes and toys, and told me they wanted to donate it to children in villages who didn’t have any. We’ve seen, heard and read about kindness, but have you done any kindness yourself? Ask that once to yourself and the reward of kindness is much bigger than money.

AB: This summer, Haushala and I went to a meditation session to talk with members of the Bodhi Path Buddhist Center in Tisbury, MA. We sat down near a woman who had one of those beautiful energies you just notice. Within the hour, this incredible woman named Mai had invited us over to her house for dinner. She insisted on cooking us a homemade meal that night and introducing us to her family and friends. She shared with us her vision of building a school for kids back in her home country of Thailand; “Your dream has touched my dream,” she told us. Her compassion astounded me, and we all shared a beautiful night of laughter, storytelling, inspiration and light. It keeps me going sometimes to think that there really are people like Mai out there, waiting to meet you around the next corner.

Image Courtesy of CYF.

All Images Courtesy of CYF.

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