Written by Megan Blevins Tuesday, December 18 2012
Elizabeth Scharpf has her credentials: she’s an entrepreneur, has her MBA from Harvard Business School, an MPA in international development from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a bachelor's degree from the University of Notre Dame.
But more than her academic certifications, Elizabeth is known for saying her “best education has come from talking with those sitting next to her on buses around the world.”
“I never wanted to be an entrepreneur for the glory,” said Scharpf. “I did it to inspire others to challenge themselves and make a change – there are too many taboos and conversations in today’s world that fall through the cracks.”
And as founder and chief investigating officer of Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), Scharpf has given the international taboo that surrounds women and girls in menstruation the global microphone it deserves through the SHE28 initiative and the SHE LaunchPad.
Access for All. Period.
SHE's goal is to invest in overlooked people and ideas in order to drive social and economic change around the world. The first overlooked issue that Scharpf and her team are working on – through the SHE28 initiative – addresses how millions of girls and women in developing countries miss up to 50 days of school/work per year because they do not have access to affordable sanitary pads when they menstruate.
For most developing countries, this health issue is not categorized as a priority.
“These are not popular, everyday conversations, and at first, it wasn’t easy,” said Scharpf. “But we are becoming successful because we are able to have these traditionally taboo conversations with all different types of people – men and women – and with people of power and influence. At first, many of them had puzzled faces about why I was trying to tackle this specific problem, but this health issue is affecting so many demographics. It is incredible to now have, for example, people of my dad’s generation on our side.”
In 2009, SHE launched SHE28 in Rwanda. SHE28’s mission is “to fulfill girls’ and women’s unmet needs by helping women in developing countries jump-start their own businesses to manufacture and distribute affordable, quality and eco-friendly sanitary pads.” These pads are known as the SHE LaunchPad, which are produced by using local raw materials, instead of all imported materials, to ensure affordability and accessibility.
In Rwanda, the SHE LaunchPad is being made from banana fibers, and SHE is working with 600 local farmers – most of them being women – to make this happen. Scharpf and the SHE team are now replicating this production to a larger scale, with the ability to provide pads for 3,000 girls in Rwanda in the next school year.
“Girls and mothers have always known about this issue, but it wasn’t a priority for key decision levels, including school districts and employers,” said Scharpf.
But even more important than support from local government and employers, Scharpf learned a key educational fact early on from a conversation with a complete stranger: SHE needed to include men in the health and hygiene training because most of the income to buy pads comes from the men in the families.
“I learned that day that most women don’t feel comfortable asking for money to buy pads for their own daughters, let alone themselves,” said Scharpf. “To truly get a great education, you have to let yourself be inspired by the people who you sit next to on the bus because hearing the true stories behind
people’s lives is something you are not going to learn in a Harvard class.”
Scharpf paints a pretty clear picture. In Rwanda, 36 percent of the girls who miss school aren't attending because pads are too expensive. The girls and women in this setting, if they have an option at all, turn to premium priced international brands which are too costly to sustain. SHE estimates the economic loss for missed days of school or work in Rwanda alone is at $115 million a year… till now.
“We have created the blueprint for success in Rwanda, and now we replicate it in other countries,” said Scharpf.“We have worked hard and have put together best practices of hygiene that the Minister of Health [in Rwanda] has agreed to put in the National Education Curriculum, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has adapted hygiene guidelines… Our goal is to help equip communities across the globe to be successful.”
Blueprint for Change
The goals behind SHE are more than professional. They are personal goals for Scharpf because she knows that women have the potential to lead all over the world when given access to the blueprint for change.
“I wake up in the morning, and I am happy to be going to work. Even if I’m doing a boring task, I know it is worth my time because we are working toward a positive change,” said Scharpf. “We are the hearts in it from the beginning, and we are moving the needle.”
Scharpf and her Rwandan counterpart Chief Operations Officer Julian Kayibanda were honored as the Sub-Saharan African Laureate for the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards in October for their continued effort to make a change in Rwanda. The award includes $20,000 of funding, one year of coaching, networking opportunities and media exposure and is another step toward making SHE28 accessible for more women and girls, in more countries.
When asked how it feels to be here, with SHE winning awards and being covered by known names such as the New York Times, Scharpf remembers what an old business school professor told her once:
“He told me that the only way I could achieve the goals that I had was to work for Procter and Gamble for 10 years, and then I would have the skills… P&G would have fired me after three days,” said Scharpf, laughing. “Ask any teacher of mine and they will agree that I am disruptive – I operate under a theory of disruption – which can be positive and negative, but how can you change the status quo unless you challenge the ideas that aren’t taken seriously? This has influenced me and our team, and the work that we do.”
Scharpf paused a moment.
“He was telling me to wait my turn and I said no. If I have learned anything from people sitting next to me on buses it’s that it is okay to not follow the rules. This continues to drive me and SHE forward.”
More global game changers:
Realizing that there was a serious lack of opportunity for Rwandan women to further their education, Elizabeth Dearborn Davis co-founded the Akilah Institute for Women, which provides leadership and career training.
Dedicated to bringing electricity to African villages, Solar Sister follows an "Avon-like" model that utilizes social capital in order to improve communities.
International human rights activist Naomi Tutu is motivated by her past experiences as a black woman in the midst of apartheid South Africa to empower underprivileged men and women.
Megan Blevins lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia., and is a full-time freelance writer. Her work has been featured in newspapers and blogs including The Washington Post Express, Urban Organic, the Daily Citizen News, Get Storied and Wildlife Promise, a blog of the National Wildlife Federation. In January 2013, she relaunched her personal blog, One Girl In, where she publishes fictional short-stories and personal tales. In 2010, she was named a Rotary International Ambassador for her volunteer work with the local Rotary Club in Bariloche, Argentina.