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Malala Fund’s CEO Suzanne Ehlers on why it’s important we all fight for girls’ rights

Joining me on the show is the CEO of Malala Fund, Suzanne Ehlers.


For our 80th episode, I wanted to do something a little different to our usual founder stories. But let’s rewind a year. Female Startup Club was born so we could empower women to launch startups and solve global problems, primarily through ecommerce. On May 27th when we launched our very first program for women we also knew we wanted to give back to someone who aligned with our message and in our mission, and for me that meant the Malala Fund. We donate a portion of our sales to Malala Fund, to help the fight for girls rights to have access to 12 years of free, safe, quality education.


So for me, this is a really special episode. Suzanne and I are talking about what it means to have every single girl in the world having access to education. What it means for society, what it means for the economy - and what it means for girls.


Thanks for being part of the Female Startup Club episode! If you know someone who would benefit from hearing this episode please do pass it along so they can have a listen.


Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!


00:02:16

So glad you're having um me and Malala fund on for today's episode. Looking forward to the conversation. Me too. I'd actually like to start by giving our listeners some context of this conversation and how it came about because it's not our usual founder story.

00:03:27 So I read Malala's story many moons ago and was so impacted by her journey and just her light in the world, and I've since admired and supported the work of Malala Fund and followed her journey to. Uh so I always knew that if there was a charity that female startup club could give back to, it would be Malala Fund. And so I reached out to you guys earlier this year to see if we could contribute to your mission to fight for girls secondary Education and if you'd be interested in talking on the show. And so I'm just so thrilled to be talking to you now about the work that you're doing and the impact that you have on girls all around the world. So huge. Thanks for joining me here today, it's a pleasure. I mean, it's interesting. So, Malala is sort of the true founder, right? She's the, you know, sort of the origin story if you will around Malala Fund and I know we'll talk a lot about that over the next hour or so, but happy to have your partnership and I think there's a lot of similarities and what you do with female entrepreneurs and women who are starting their businesses and some of the local advocates and champions with whom we work on the issue of girls education.

00:04:27 So the areas of alignment are actually really rich, so I'm kind of looking forward to exploring it from a slightly different angle than maybe is typical for either of us. Me too and I totally agree. I think there's a lot of synergy and it's a really nice message to be, to be sharing with the world. So to get started, can we have a bit of an introduction of who you are and what Malala fund is for anyone who doesn't know. Okay, well let me start with Malala fund because that's a much more interesting sort of place to start an organization that is sort of headquartered if you will in a lot of different places. We have offices in Washington D. C. And new york and London. And we're working currently in eight countries around the world. I can list them if you'd like. Um Pakistan of course India Ethiopia, brazil Nigeria, um Afghanistan working in Turkey historically and then Lebanon around the Syrian refugee crisis and hoping to expand our work into Tanzania and Bangladesh as well. So that model means that we are working in some of the places where girls have the hardest time, not only getting into school, but then staying in school and finishing those 12 years of school sort of through secondary education.

00:05:36 So our work is laser focused on making sure that any girl anywhere in the world can complete those 12 years of education and we can explore later what that means for the world and for the economy and for politics and for decision making, but where laser focused on what it means for the girl and all that, it makes possible in her life. So we work with a lot of really incredible champions around the world, including Malala and her father Ziauddin who are considered our co founders and kind of permanent board members. And Malala is serving as our board chair right now, which I'm also happy to talk about kind of what that looks like for female leadership. I joined the Malala fund only in february. So my story is one of nonprofit leadership and having worked in the space of kind of global development for several years based in Washington, D. C. With my family and two girls downstairs right now a 13 year old and a 10 year old who are being home schooled in the time of quarantine. So um that's a little bit about me and the organization. Amazing. I'm so excited to jump in and talk all things about all things. I'd love to start by talking more about your background.

00:06:40 You've had a really long career working in not for profit organizations. What inspired you to get into that line of work in the first place and and what kind of has that progression been like? Yeah, I feel like there's sort of like two pieces of it. So first is sort of what's the like the mission, What's the work that's always interested me and I honestly cannot remember a time when I wasn't interested in working on women and girls in some form or fashion. So either it was sort of women, young girls in sports teams or it was the role of women in places of worship. I grew up in south texas in a predominantly white middle class community. Uh, and really sort of like trying to understand sort of what was expected of girls, traditional roles, um, volunteered in the Central African Republic for a time after my university years landed in Washington. And it's always been just this through line of women and girls, um, how women's rights are seen as human rights whether or not we protect in advance the potential of girls from the youngest age and particularly adolescents, which is when I think it gets sort of maybe most dicey for many girls around the world.

00:07:44 So that's the sort of first write the kind of like the heart of the work has always been the women and girls piece. And then on the nonprofit piece, I think I have to give credit to my parents who were both people of, of faith, but faith from a place of real social justice and sort of giving back and kind of a charitable way. And I kind of just never understood that there was a sort of work that would be meaningful enough for me unless it was really rooted in mission and rooted in kind of generosity I guess. And that's where the nonprofit sector has always most attracted me. I started in private philanthropy, which is sort of the wealthiest part of the nonprofit world, like giving out the money, but then quickly transition to non profit work and then leadership both at a reproductive health organization here in Washington and then most recently at Malala fund. So I'm I'm proud of the path that I've taken so far. I still have a lot of learning to do. And I'm constantly in kind of like sponge mode with the people around me and the different organizations and sectors in which I've worked. But proud to see that there's to true north of women and girls in the nonprofit space.

00:08:49 Mm totally. And you spent 16 years. I think I read at your last company. Is it P. A. I. Or pie? How you say? Well, it's funny because the Europeans have always called us pie. Um, but the acronym is actually P. A. I. And I was there for 16 years, which sounds kind of crazy in today's terms. Like nobody stays anywhere that long. But the truth is, and I'm sure maybe this would resonate with some of the women that you've spoken with in business over the years if the job continues to reinvent itself and you're given new opportunities, you're allowed to grow new wings. You're allowed to stretch and flex new muscles. If it's sort of stays interesting at its heart, then it's worth sticking around. And so that was sort of my first six years just constantly evolving in the work in my portfolio and then six years in my predecessor Ceo um became ill and had to exit the organization and I was in my kind of mid ish thirties, I had just found out I was pregnant with my second daughter and the board asked me to step in his interim president just to kind of stabilize things while they thought about next executive leadership.

00:09:52 And so then that story means that I went for the job and got it and so spent 10 years as ceo really stabilizing and kind of rebuilding an organization that had a decades long history, so really different than Malala Fund, which is such a new and young organization and it's been such a delight and honor to step into this space these last nine ish months, I guess. Yeah, I mean, I bet it must be so exciting working on another, such a current topical mission that's so important for, for women and girls around the world. How did Malala enter your world? What was the moment that you were like, oh hang on, I'm actually gonna think about switching here. Yeah, it's interesting. So when you were talking earlier about how having read the books, of course I'm older and so those books were not out when I was in school, but of course new Malala as like sort of a global icon and a global authority as it relates to girls education and I think that moment in 2014 when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize is this young woman, I think to myself.

00:10:54 my God, it's possible, right, like the credibility and legitimacy of her movement and her activism sort of lifted up. I have to confess that I didn't follow really closely that Malala fund itself had been established, I was really laser focused on Malala as a personality and as a brand and what her kind of activism meant for young girls around the world. So it would have been in the early part of 2019 that the fund was looking for a new executive and when it came across my desk, you know, I I didn't sort of immediately take to it, I thought, well that's not my sector and I haven't really worked in that space, but the more I thought about the opportunities for women and girls and how education is literally like the cornerstone of so much that can then be achieved in the rest of someone's life, it began to attract me more and more. Um I obviously had the opportunity to meet Malala and Ziad in both throughout the course of the interview and that seals the deal, because she is everything that you'd expect her to be, she's um she's humble, she's thoughtful, she's an activist, sort of through and through in a way that I'm still kind of in awe of, she's got a keen mind, very analytical and kind of forward thinking, So uh the prospect of having my boss essentially be someone like Malala and Zia Dean was you know, sort of like a challenge I think that I really wanted to step into and sort of live up to the expectations that they have for themselves, but quite frankly that the whole world also has for them in the work that they do for girls education.

00:12:23 So it was a huge in some ways, a huge kind of courageous leap to say that I could be capable of this and working alongside someone like Malala with her reputation. So it's it's been a definitely it's been a stretch exercise and so far so good uh must be so inspiring to work alongside her. I can only imagine for anyone listening who might not know the story and might not know who Malala and her father is, can you share a little bit about her story and her activism, you know, since she's been a young girl? Yeah, I mean, I think what's um there's a couple of pieces that are really interesting. Um so certainly Zia Dean is an educator himself and if you've ever seen him kind of hold forth in front of a classroom or a boardroom, he really is sort of still professorial in his bearing and he believed deeply in educational opportunities for everyone, but especially for girls and including his own daughter Malala. Uh he had started to school and that was the school that Malala attended and as their region of Pakistan was becoming even more influenced by the Taliban.

00:13:25 It became clear that learning opportunities and continued learning opportunities for girls were going to continue to be limited in really significant ways and in ways that should have enraged sort of the whole world, but definitely angered Malala and her schoolmates and the families and community around them. Malala began to speak out and I think what's important here is that if you've met her and you've seen her will, you're clear that no matter what age she was, she was making decisions about how she was speaking out and the ways in which she was articulating the challenges for young girls. Um she was blogging anonymously for the BBC I think many people know that under the name of Cool McKay um which was a name that we had used within Malala Fund in its early years, I think many in the world of course know that there was an attempt on her life um for no reason other than that she was going to school and believed that girls should be able to go to school. It was out of that tragedy, that of course she survived stronger than ever. Her family was relocated to England and it was in the years following that tragedy that as she began to sort of rebuild and recapture sort of a voice for this work around the world, that Malala Fund is an organization was established, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and I think there was, you know, I wasn't there at the time, but clearly a real sort of coming together of a campaign if you will around this issue and Malala Fund as one of the sector leaders in the fight for girls education around the world.

00:14:51 So that's a very, I mean, I again was not there at the time when so much of this building work was happened, so I feel almost a little ashamed to be the one talking about it, but that's what I know of the history and that's what I know of the journey that got us to where we are today, with Malala having just graduated Oxford this summer, as many of you, as many listeners will know, and taking an even more active role with her father alongside a board of directors and a really um incredible staff to do this work. Oh, she's such just an incredible soul and I think especially from a young age, the adversity she's had to overcome to be able to, you know, just live on her life and do this incredible work in the world, it's just such an accomplishment that we can all really look to for for inspiration. So when you've joined Malala Fund, what was your kind of ceo role to be like? What was your instruction and your mission? What was the, what was the goal and the impact that you were going to be starting to work on. Yeah, it's sort of me, because we're talking about Malala, let's start there.

00:15:55 That being the ceo of an organization where you have someone like Malala and Ziauddin is your co founders is a little bit different and I would say that I understand my voice and my leadership and any visibility that I have all in service to the organization, into the two of them, and I said it earlier, like the origin story starts with her. Um and so that's a that's sort of a slightly different muscle to flex for some leaders who say it's it's my voice and it's my story and it's my experience with Girls Education at Malala Fund, it's not it's Malala's experience with girls education, it's Z Dean's fight for Girls education uh that really kind of sets our course and so for me coming into this, I I first had to ask myself that question, can I be a leader at an organization where all of my voice and energy is in service to this much larger kind of imperative and clearly I felt comfortable with that and quite frankly really excited about it, What a moment to be lifting up the story of a young muslim woman from Pakistan who has become kind of a global icon, uh it feels kind of uh you know like an honor, I never would have expected for my own career path, so so I would just say that the ceo equation at an organization like this is a bit different.

00:17:10 Um I also think that ceos and maybe this is in particular to me, but any ceo anywhere should know that the skills that got you here aren't necessarily the skills that are going to get you there and you don't really know what that means until you get to a new organization. And I think what Malala Fund has taught me in a really short period of nine months is you really have to be kind of in service to employee voice and desire for growth and desire to improve and make hold the organization and sort of always and facets so you can call yourself a servant leader and a lot of people do and maybe I even did on my linkedin page before I got to Malala Fund, but being here has really already taught me like what it means to not be led by my vision as much as I'm led by kind of a co created vision with the team that is among the most passionate and powerful and accomplished group of professionals I've ever worked with.

00:18:13 So that's, you know, it's sort of a different dance, I think that you're doing these days as a leader in an organization and especially then perhaps in an organization like Malala Fund, I think the last piece of it may be the technical sort of parts of the job, I think that the board and and I think I hope the staff also was looking for someone who could come in in a kind of a non drama way and really bring seasoned executive skills to some key pieces of the equation. And that's what I hope I'm doing right. We've got great program work. So what does it mean to really deepen that work and expand it? Um, we've got a strong presence around the world. What does it mean to really build efficient systems so that we can reach even more places around the world. We have incredible relationships with donors, both individuals and foundations. And what does it mean to continue to maintain those relationships to cultivate new supporters so that we can do more good work around the world. So I see my role in that kind of more technical skill set area as sort of continuing on what's really working well and then prepare us for the growth and the expansion and the ever strengthening of our delivery.

00:19:23 So it's a, it's kind of a fun job to be invited to do quite frankly, I bet. Sounds amazing. Can we talk a bit about the programming that you mentioned and what are the actual kinds of efforts that you're doing around the world to change girls education? Yeah, I think there's there's sort of two big pieces, the first will be most obvious to everyone because it's using Malala's voice and Zia Dean's voice. So what we do on a kind of global activism. So whether it's calling heads of State or whether it's influencing the G Seven agenda, whether it's going to the World Bank or the United Nations, Malala is a U. N. Messenger of peace. It's all of those big global opportunities that can be meaningful for either education in emergencies or education financing and funding and kind of what it's status is stacked up against other kind of key issues. So that's sort of a big piece of our work that like I said, I think is probably best known because that's what carries Malala's voice and sort of face. But then we also do an incredible amount of work in all those countries where I listed where we're working with local education champions who in many ways are fighting the fight that Malala and her father fought in Pakistan.

00:20:32 So how do you provide safe education spaces for girls? How do you provide high quality education? How do you get past social norms that say girls shouldn't be in school and they shouldn't have access to tech devices. So, the partners that we work with in those places are leading us on kind of local advocacy and local campaigns to solve problems in their communities and we call them our education champions and they form or constitute a part of our education champion network and although the best known part of that work is the financial support we provide and I'm proud of how generous and kind of multi year the support is that we give to our Education champions. I think some champions and certainly Malala Fund staff would say that that's only a small piece of what we do. We also do, you know, collaboration and partnership and applied learning. We amplify the voices of these champions on our own social media channels. Um where appropriate. We have Malala loan her own voice on either twitter or instagram to the fights that are happening in some key places.

00:21:37 Um, I'm thinking of sort of the in SARS work that's happening in Nigeria right now. I'm thinking of the complicated circumstance for Syrian refugees. I'm thinking of the explosion in Beirut and what it meant for some of our Lebanese partners. So really just sort of a whole host of kind of local fights around girls education that we're able to invest in and amplify. Um, and then the last example is that we've got a girl's activist program which we should because we're Malala Fund and it's a program that's just getting launched this year and we'll be happy to share more about it over the coming months and years. But we will work with a small group of young women activists and we'll put them through kind of a fellowship program that is really designed by them and led by them and that will position them to be. Some of the leading voices for for advocacy for the rights of young girls around the world in the coming years. Um so a program that sort of new still to Malala Fund, but I think one of the most exciting programs that we have available.

00:22:39 Yeah, wow, that sounds so exciting. When you say you have these champions who are in countries and they're working to change social norms of people thinking that girls shouldn't go to school and people thinking that, you know, women belong in the home. How do you actually change someone's mind who thinks that what are the kinds of activities that those people would be doing on the ground to combat against that? Yeah. To sort of get around it. It's a good question. I mean, I think there's, you know, you can fight some of these battles with data, you know, and with evidence. Um and that is powerful perhaps for a Minister of Finance in a particular country where you say, you know, listen, if you help all girls finish secondary education, Do you know that it contributes 30 trillion or could I should say, could contribute $30 trillion right? That's getting all girls through secondary education. So those 12 years and really securing them. So sort of using that sort of data and evidence to sort of rope in a finance minister who otherwise might not think that education priorities are part of their job or their remit, we also see much less, you know, sort of data informed work.

00:23:55 Um, but work around, you know, sort of like Hearts and minds like what does it mean to ensure that your daughter is getting um a digitally relevant education so that she can be part of, you know, sort of the paid labor work force in a way that gives back to the community. If 90% of jobs today have some sort of digital skills or sort of literacy component to them, how are we making sure that your girls are not kept behind? Um as that becomes sort of what the workforce looks like, just so we can be clear, what is the impact on the world if girls don't go to school and have access to an education? Well, I think there's, I mean, we're living right now what the impact is. I mean, that's sort of it. And we haven't even talked about Covid, which is um kind of crazy given that it's the world that we've been living in sort of swimming and now for the past nine months. So so think about pre covid, we had 130 million girls who weren't regularly going to school were considered out of school and what that does not only to their own potential and power for whatever their life course might look like, but also the really negative and harmful effect that it has on a country's stability, prospects for peace, prospects for prosperity.

00:25:07 The contribution to a global economy that educated women and girls can make so so much that you lose out on and Covid threatens to put another 20 million girls out of school. So that number increases pretty significantly. I mean, I think the assets frame is to say if you get all girls in school and you give them the 12 years of free, high quality safe sort of well delivered education, what do you get? And the World Bank quote that we love is right like $30 trillion contributed to the global economy, which is like outrageous that we wouldn't be sort of like fighting to make that a real thing and a certainty for the globe. I also think that there are micro impacts at the family level. In terms of greater sharing of responsibility of housework and childcare, we know that it impacts the size of families. We know that it impacts the accumulation of generational wealth when you have educated girls who then turn into educated women who are in the workforce.

00:26:08 I think it can shift the equation of conversations around inheritance and land rights in certain places. I think it informs the political world that you've got more um you know, sort of elected officials and heads of state who are women who have been through an education system, which I think certainly again, in the time of Covid, we really have seen some sort of stark differences in the way that women leaders have led their countries through this time of Covid and the way male leaders have. So, um, the impact is kind of incredible. And sort of just across the board of the ways in which educated girls can change the world totally and shout out to new Zealand their leadership is top Quality. Yeah. If you haven't watched, you know, she gave, she gave her acceptance speech. It's on YouTube and it's just an incredible, you know, sort of 5-6 minutes of what it looks like for a female politician to give thanks and gratitude for a victory. That was just sort of one. But also then how generous and how welcoming she is to her political opponents to come and join that larger table so that they can create solutions for new Zealand.

00:27:16 It's really, it's a real study in leadership that I think is worth a watch. Mm totally. Absolutely. I want to talk a bit more about Covid 19. Obviously this has been just a shocking year overall. But especially for women and girls, you mentioned that you were previously pre Covid there was about 130 million girls out of school and now there's a further 20 million who are potentially impacted. What have you been able to do to combat that? And how have you had to shift your strategy and approach during this strange time? Yeah, it's um, it's such a great question. And I think there's everybody will remember, you know, that day in March when we all were leaving our offices thinking, well I'll see you in a couple of weeks and here we are, you know, eight plus months later. So I think the first thing Malala funded and this again like I can take no credit for because I was like still four weeks in the job, barely maybe six. The organizations had to really quickly pivot and say how are we going to support our employees to continue bringing productivity and excellence no matter where they are while also giving them the space and time, they need to adjust to this really new reality.

00:28:25 So I just want to say to all the companies out there, the nonprofits, any agency anywhere that has had to kind of re imagine who it can be for its workforce. Congratulations. And keep pushing like constantly be asking yourself new questions about the psychosocial toll of covid, um, the mental health aspects of covid, the productivity, the child care taking. Like all of it is stuff that Malala fund I think is always thinking about and yet like constantly having to evolve in our understanding of the way in which this quarantine in this lockdown has really changed the way we do business, no travel, you know, sort of no global gatherings, no convenience with our partners. So all the new ways that we've had to consider doing that work. So that's kind of the hardware piece of it, if you will on the strategy side of it, which I love, we had to pivot completely right like this was work that our education champions had projects and campaigns and things that they were expecting to, you know, sort of unfold over the next couple of months.

00:29:28 And much of that came to just a grinding halt as as people were in lockdown and not only that was the sort of the regular pace of work wasn't happening, but then Covid began to impact these communities. So we developed internally, I think in pretty quick order what we call our Covid initiative, which was kind of reorienting the delivery of small grants to our partners around the world and applied learning and all the other kind of, you know, sort of work we do around elevation and amplification of their message and gave them not only flexibility um, to kind of reorient their work in ways that most answered the needs of their community in the time of Covid, but then also invited new ideas and new innovations. Um, asked our education entrepreneurs if you will to tell us what they were seeing and to come back to us and see if there was ways in which we could partner with them in totally new and unexpected ways to meet the challenges of Covid. And I think that we've now just completed a bit of primary research in four of the countries where we work.

00:30:28 So about 7000 respondents so far. And I think that we are finding that in the time of Covid, while on the one hand we transition so easily in some places to e learning, for example, we find that E learning still excludes are most marginalized students um that it's not, you know, we're not able to bridge that gap. Always we find that, you know, sort of very few of our learners are really using Edtech in ways that some of us might expect. Edtech was sort of the answer. So what's what's the chasm there? What do we have to get over and what kind of champions teach us a