As I write this, Winter Storm Jonas is blanketing us in several inches of snow, and I'm daydreaming about warmer days last weekend when I was visiting She's the First Scholars in Santiago, around beautiful Lake Atitlán in Guatemala.
The best part about my visit was connecting with our She's the First partner organization, Starfish, on a whole new level. While I've always understood their programs and theory of change, on this trip, I got even more insight into the conversations my extraordinary co-founder Christen Brandt, STF's Director of International Operations, and Starfish's Executive Director, Travis Ning, have all the time about quality education.
What you should know about Starfish.
In Guatemala, the programs impacting our Scholars are directed by Norma Baján (Her bio in 140 characters: born in rural Guatemala to illiterate parents, one of eight siblings to graduate university, has dined with the President in the White House. In one word, she's amazing.). Norma told us all the girls Starfish serves are born with four strikes against them: Poor, Rural, Female, and Indigenous. Their parents have just a few years of schooling, if that, and only speak the indigenous language. Only 1% of Mayan women will ever go to university.
Norma told us how Starfish's motto, "her infinite impact" or "sin límites," explains their philosophy, and it's our belief at She's the First, too. More important than how many girls you reach is how far each one you do will go. With extremely engaging mentorship programs building the leadership capabilities of these young women, they are well-positioned to make systemic changes in their communities or on a national level, which will enable them to affect exponentially more girls and families. (It's already working. Starfish proudly jokes that the girls in their program dominate the student councils at their respective schools.)
I think I'm as passionate as I can possibly be about She's the First, but then every time I travel, I come back even more reinvigorated. It occurs in moments like this, when Norma presented three graduated She's the First Scholars to us with their mentors from the Starfish program.
Give me a moment to brag...
Maria Lucia is now in her first year of university, studying teaching and school administration. She did everything she could to try to fund her own higher education, but then came to Starfish when all possibilities were exhausted. She qualified for an additional scholarship and at the same time, she started a small business selling baby clothes to work her way to financial independence.
There's Lola, who is co-founding a tourism company called "Mayan Life" and capitalizing on an unmet demand. Donors who come to Panajachel to visit Starfish, for example, want an authentic experience and she can take them to homes to make tortillas with Mayan families, or bring them to the roving Catholic saint/Mayan deity Maximon, which turns out to be a huge tourist attraction that only the locals can find for you. (As someone who took Lola's tour of Santiago, I give her a warm recommendation!)
Then there's Brenda, who is a receptionist for a female architect, a job she was recommended for by someone who worked for Starfish. Just like in the U.S., to get through the door, you need to know someone. Now these girls not only have a high school diploma, they have contacts. Brenda's the oldest of nine siblings, who are all able to attend school, since she's helping supplement her family's income. She's on a scholarship to continue her education in business administration at the university on weekends.
Back in New York, I happened to read a couple articles that helped me process what this all really means for the future.
One is called "What's Your Endgame?" in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, co-authored by Alice Gugelev, whom Jill Iscol introduced me to in her Hearts on Fire community. It so intelligently synthesized everything I observed from Starfish and am experiencing while working on the growth trajectory of She's the First.
I loved this article because it defines success for nonprofits based on the metric that truly matters. Scale is not the goal for every nonprofit, especially when funding is so limited. I underlined this: "Nonprofits, in short, should take into account not just the direct impact they hope to achieve, but also the sector-wide change they ultimately aim to create."
In that statement, I saw the magic of Starfish and She's the First combined. Alone, neither of us will get remotely close to reaching all of the 62 million uneducated girls around the world. But together, and with our other partners, we can be a strong force in the sector-wide change we aim to promote: Investing in quality education, so that graduates can be the ones to drive bigger change and have "infinite impact." When you invest in a She's the First Scholar, including one who is a Starfish Girl Pioneer, you may be changing one life, but she's changing so many more because she's learning the skills needed to lead and challenge the status quo.
Starfish called itself an "open source" organization--which is one of the endgames defined in Alice's article--meaning while their direct services may never go beyond Sololá, Guatemala, they're sharing their knowledge base and helping others replicate their model and programs elsewhere.
She's the First has a mission achievement endgame. We have a well-defined, achievable goal, which is to live in a world where it's difficult to find girls who will be first-generation high school graduates to sponsor. We'll get there by investing in the scholarships of girls with the greatest need and highest potential of disrupting the poverty cycles that have oppressed their families for generations.
Another example: In Fast Company, I was reading about Toms founder Blake Mycoskie and how he took a step back from scaling the business up, when sales started to plateau, to create the Toms Social Entrepreneurship Fund that will invest in other businesses with social purpose. He had $100 million to start this after selling 50% of his shares of Toms to Bain Capital, which also invested $100 million of its own into his fund. Applying the endgame question, you begin to see how Toms' impact isn't just how many shoes or eye surgeries they've provided through their one-for-one model, but it's the sector-wide change they inspired. Social entrepreneurship and one-for-one models are now far more commonplace in business than when Mycoskie started his company a decade ago.
"What's your endgame?" I'd love to know in the comments!
- VIDEO: Norma explains Starfish's model (the girl at the opening of the video is STF Scholar Ana Teresa!)
- Sponsor a Guatemalan She's the First Scholar
- Stanford Social Innovation Review: "What's Your Endgame?"
- Fast Company: "Behind Toms Founder Blake Mycoskie's Plan to Build an Army of Social Entrepreneurs"