The Philippines was the setting for Gretchen Steidle Wallace's awakening to the inequities of life in developing countries. As a kid growing up in a military family, she spent part of her childhood in the poverty-stricken Southeast Asian islands. Today, she is the president and chair of Global Grassroots, a social entrepreneurship organization that supports women in developing countries, particularly Africa.
While Gretchen's earliest ambition was to be a peppermint patty tester (good idea), in high school she began to aspire towards international diplomacy, and perhaps a future in the United Nations. While applying to college, she expressed her desire to work in developing countries. Over time, her method for doing so became more grassroots-oriented.
"My day often starts at 8 AM and doesn't end until after midnight."
Gretchen attended the University of Virgina as a Jefferson scholar, where she earned her BA in foreign affairs; after graduating in 1996, she worked for three years at PMD International, doing international project finance for developing infrastructure in underprivileged countries. Then, she went to Dartmouth to earn her MBA. There, she helped found Tuck's Allwin Initiative for Corporate Citizenship in order to promote social enterprise in business leaders. MBA in hand, she joined Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, a social venture organization.
Doing Her Homework
In 2004, Gretchen went to South Africa to help with the AIDS/HIV epidemic by combating the disease in a creative business investment. To understand the relationship between business and society, she met with multinational corporations to study their AIDS initiatives. She learned about the financial consequences of AIDS in terms of health care costs and costs associated with loss of labor-and she also began to study how efficient companies' solutions were to these problems.
She found that many of the solutions were flawed, mostly due to the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS and to a lack of understanding of health care. Many employees did not want to get tested for the virus or come forward for help if they knew that they carried it; they also did counter-productive things such as sharing medications. Compounding the problem was lack of autonomy among women, who could not, for instance, insist on using condoms. She came to realize that the best solution was social enterprise. Some courageous women were already using grassroots operations to promote women's rights, especially with regards to sexual freedom and HIV/AIDS prevention. Since these women often had few or no resources for their work, Gretchen began making the effort to fund them.
One Person's Effort
Gretchen met one particular woman, Zolecka Ntuli, a 25-year-old unemployed woman who lived in poverty outside Capetown and who, with very few resources, had started a women's group to prevent rape. Since rape was a common yet taboo problem, promoting dialogue about it was an important initial step. Gretchen learned more about the global problem of rape through her brother Brian, a former U.S. Marine, who knew about militias' practice of raping female survivors of genocide in Sudan. This demonstrated to her the importance of grassroots efforts on behalf of female genocide survivors. The brother and sister duo co-wrote his memoirs of genocide in Sudan, titled The Devil Came on Horseback
. Gretchen also produced the documentary film based on the book.
With all this in mind, Gretchen returned from South Africa to start Global Grassroots. Her first mission in 2005 brought her and Brian to Chad's Darfur refugee camps, working on solutions overlooked by aid organizations-such as establishing a human rights library and providing education about refugee rights, domestic and sexual violence and female genital mutilation. She also provided training to make sure that her projects would be sustained in the long-term.
Then, Gretchen returned to the U.S. to develop Global Grassroots' social entrepreneurship program; from there, she went to Rwanda to work with genocide survivors and trained 180 Rwandan women to develop social projects. Many of these women were widows raising several children alone, and many were HIV/AIDS positive.
It was this moment that Gretchen pinpointed as the "big break" for Global Grassroots: the women developed project ideas to meet their needs (childhood education and medical care, for example) and were given grants to fund them. Their joyful response to the grants was beyond what Gretchen could have expected-they applauded and sang about the good news. The women went on to be success stories-through their enterprises, they improved the situations of their families and communities.
Being an Entrepreneur
Like many entrepreneurs, Gretchen found it difficult to get resources for her venture when she had no track record, but the support of her friends and family was valuable, both financially and emotionally. She also describes the dynamic process of her enterprise: the program is constantly being reworked to increase productivity.
"Everyone has a special gift to offer and it doesn't just belong to you-it belongs to the community and should be cultivated and offered to the world."
Gretchen's work, of course, requires a lot of travel and wearing a lot of hats. Her day-to-day work includes "developing and refining our training program, conducting the training workshops overseas, forging partnerships with women's organizations and microfinance groups to offer additional support services for our women, fund raising, communicating to donors, investigating new training opportunities and advocating around the issues facing women in Africa." She says, "My day often starts at 8 AM and doesn't end until after midnight, but I feel so lucky to be able to work on issues I am so passionate about." While she least enjoys the fund-raising aspect of her job, she finds the impact she helps to make on women's lives extremely rewarding.
While her enterprise was scary and financially challenging at first, Gretchen would not have chosen anything different. She might have made some changes though-such as working in the Peace Corps and being more proactive in asking for help-since her experience has taught her the value of networking and the support of others. "Trying to do too much yourself can limit your growth," she says. She also takes a very philosophical standpoint on her career, which she communicates in her workshops: "everyone has a special gift to offer and it doesn't just belong to you-it belongs to the community and should be cultivated and offered to the world." Gretchen believes that if you have the skills and capacity to do something, go for it. When a lot of people talk about what they want to be doing in life, she says, it is often very different from what they are actually doing.
"Never self-sacrifice yourself out of business."
Gretchen is similarly philosophical when it comes to giving advice to future social entrepreneurs. "First take the time to determine what you feel most passionately about and what you feel your gifts are that you can leverage to work towards social change," she begins. "Then, build your network, form strong mentorships, and study the models of social change that exist so you don't reinvent the wheel."
She advises looking for gaps in the current system and ideas of what to do about them. She urges young entrepreneurs not to be scared to experiment. "Never self-sacrifice yourself out of business. If you are not willing to take care of yourself and/or you are not willing to be open to personal change, you will be doing the planet and your cause a disservice. Ask for feedback and challenge yourself, but be persistent with your vision. Share your passion and ask for support as well as guidance. Laugh at yourself and also take time for personal restoration. Listen and enjoy."