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When people ask me how on earth I ended up starting my non-profit Women LEAD at the age of 20, I often don’t know what to respond. The process of starting Women LEAD is full of moments of luck meeting opportunity. If you had told me 4 years ago that I would be co-founding a leadership development organization for young women in Kathmandu, Nepal, I would not have believed you.
Women LEAD was an idea born in a dorm room. The journey began in 2007 when I met my friend and co-founder, Claire, when we were both freshmen at Georgetown University. I was an excited and slightly homesick kid ready to study international politics at my dream university, almost 10 000 miles away from my home in Singapore. Claire was also a multicultural kid, and far from her home in Kathmandu, Nepal. Our experiences witnessing discrimination against women in our home countries had shaped our common commitment to women’s empowerment.
In Singapore, I had seen the discrimination my fellow Filipino citizens were living through as migrant workers, young women my age who had been given no educational opportunities. Claire had grown up seeing the discrimination and violence that women around her were facing every day in Nepal. Despite these challenges, we saw strength in these women. We had a profound respect for them, and we knew how much they could accomplish if only they were given a strong education and leadership and professional opportunities.
In January 2007, we found out about a summer opportunity to start a community project through our school. With that, the seed was planted: here was an opportunity for us to DO something, not just talk about what we’d like to do in classes and essays. We knew that we wanted to start a project in Claire’s home country, where we felt the drive to support women as they transformed the injustices preventing them from pursuing their passions and following their dreams.
We were particularly passionate about leadership development for young women because we both strongly believe that the lack of female leaders around the world is one of the biggest inequalities of the 21st century. We think that nurturing local female leaders is the most sustainable and empowering type of support we can give. Young women have the passion, vision and solutions to change their communities; they just lack the resources and opportunities. Given the tools to succeed, we know that young women can be powerful agents for change.
We came to Nepal in the summer of 2010 determined to support young women leaders and change-makers. It was a difficult experience, equally rewarding and frustrating. I felt particularly helpless, since it was my first time in Nepal and I did not speak the language. I had to rely on my co-founder to direct me and lead the way. We had not yet figured how to divide our responsibilities, and we had to juggle a million tasks at once: creating the curriculum, co-leading the course, recruiting volunteers to help us and dealing with logistics.
But despite all these challenges, Claire and I were intent to follow through with our vision for the program. We successfully ran the two-week leadership development course for 28 girls, our hard work and determination overcoming our lack of connections and track record. We realized that what could be perceived as one of our weaknesses (our youth) was actually one of our core strengths.
By the end of the program, we knew we did not want to leave this as a one-time project. Our project had a far bigger impact on our girls than we had expected. Seeing our participants’ enthusiasm for the program and desire to expand it made us realize that we had an effective and unique model, one that has become much bigger than we ever imagined.
We completed our senior year at Georgetown, and in the summer of 2011, decided to officially launch the organization. Claire moved back to Nepal to run our Nepal office and our programs, while I stayed in the US to focus on our fundraising and outreach efforts.
There were clear rational arguments for taking the plunge and working on Women LEAD full-time: the need for our organization, the girls we wanted to keep on working with, my co-founder, and the amazing support of my family and friends. But finally, it was my intuition that ended up convincing me to follow my passion.
I woke up one night at 3 AM, absolutely sure that doing Women LEAD was what I needed to do. I couldn’t sleep until 7 AM, even waking my sister up to tell her of my decision. In some ways, it felt like an inevitable step in my life. I had to do it; there was a pull I could not ignore.
From August 2011 on wards, I threw myself into my work for Women LEAD. As with anything you put out into the world, I was terrified of the reaction I would get back: how would people respond to our idea? Would they take us seriously? How would this all work in the end?
It also felt terrifying going down this road that no one around me had gone down before, and which was not the expected road for a 22 year old to take. There was so much safety in taking a traditional job, getting my monthly paycheck, and receiving directions from a boss. But I knew I would regret it if I didn’t try to make Women LEAD into the organization I knew it could be.
The past year that I’ve been working on Women LEAD has not been a fairytale or success story, as many people who have started companies will tell you. As many doors have been shut in my face as there have been opened. When people say: if you have a great idea, people will come, that is simply not true. You have to work every single day to get your name out there, competing with thousands of other charities that have a better and longer track record.
Despite multiple unexpected challenges, we are proud of what we have accomplished in the past year. Our team has empowered more than 200 young women in Kathmandu through our new yearlong program and we have established offices in the US and Nepal. In one year, we have built a youth-driven and youth-led organization that contributes to the Nepal we envision, one where women and girls speak with amplified voices, and families and schools support and applaud girls’ accomplishments.
One of my biggest worries, though, is how we’ll get enough funds to become a sustainable organization. Above all, my biggest fear is failure – not what people think of me or what I think of myself, but how disappointing it would be for the girls in Nepal if we had to discontinue our organization.
So for those who wonder how I ended up starting Women LEAD, I say: I took opportunities even though I had no idea where they would lead. I went along for the ride, and I didn’t let the unfamiliarity of the path or my doubts stop me. Do I have all the experience needed to start a non-profit? Certainly not. But I believe in our vision and passion.
It’s hard, but I’m also incredibly blessed. Despite all the frustrations, I have learned so much, and I am still constantly learning. I am surrounded by people who inspire me with their hard work and selflessness: from my co-founder, to our staff, to volunteers, to our supporters. No matter where my social entrepreneurship path leads me, I’ll never regret having started Women LEAD.
Image cover credit: laxmanthapa
Claire Charamnac has always had a passion for empowering women. Her feminist journey started when she wrote her first op-ed against sexism at 12 in Singapore. At Georgetown University, she interned at women’s rights NGOs and co-founded Women LEAD, the first and only leadership development organization for young women in Kathmandu, Nepal. Claire’s other passions are writing and traveling. She is a guest contributor at Levo League and SocialChangeis.