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🎙Podcast: Investing in Community Impact with Gemma Bulos and Gayatri Datar

“[We have to] recognize the power and privilege that we have in being able to take on the roles that we have and, and start the organizations that we start and be very deliberate about shifting decision-making power to people who are much more proximate to the communities we’re trying to serve” – Gayatri Datar

Gemma Bulos is an award-winning social entrepreneur, educator, movement builder, co-founder of A Single Drop For Safe Water, and executive director of Global Women’s Water Initiative, two organizations that build the capacity of local communities to plan and implement sustainable water solutions.

Gayatri Datar is the co-founder of EarthEnable, a social enterprise in Rwanda that installs healthy and affordable floors for low-income families, and co-operator of The Creativity Fund.

Listen to learn how Gemma and Gayatri are disrupting the status quo in philanthropic funding and contributing to a system where communities closest to the problems – and the solutions – are in charge of creating impact.

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Episode Transcript

GEMMA:
Hey Gaya.

GAYATRI:
Hey Gemma.

GEMMA:
So excited that we could have this conversation.

GAYATRI:
Yeah, likewise. You’re one of my favorites. Always a pleasure.

GEMMA:
Me too. Me too. Can you tell us, you know, about yourself, about your organization, the titles that you hold, and sort of the day-to-day life that means the most to you?

GAYATRI:
So, my name is Gayatri Datar. I think the fact that I’m calling myself Gayatri instead of Gaya is in and of itself an interesting transition because I actually, my name is Gayatri, but I’ve been going by Gaya specifically to make it easier for other people to assimilate to American culture more. So I think the name that means the most to me is Gayatri, my full name.

And the title that I hold that I actually like the most—I have three organizations, so three different titles within those three organizations. But the one I like most is the one for the foundation that I just started where me and my partner— who we always wanted to be kind of co-COO’s— but now we call ourselves cooperators. Which I really love because we are cooperating the thing. Ideally, the whole point of everything we do is to cooperate with others, to make big change happen. And what about you? Why don’t you introduce yourself?

GEMMA:
Sure. So, I’m Gemma Bulos and I have a few titles that I actually have as well. Serial entrepreneurs tend to be that way. So I am the executive director and founder of Global Women’s Water Initiative which is an organization in Subsaharan Africa that trains women to become water sanitation, and hygiene technicians, trainers, and social entrepreneurs.

I’m also the co-founder of my Echoing Green Fellowship organization, which is called A Single Drop for Safe Water. All about water. And then my current job is that I am the director of Kravis Lab for Social Impact at Claremont McKenna College. The day-to-day stuff that I really enjoy is constantly interacting with people about new ideas and constantly interacting with them about how do we make things not just better and more efficient. Because that’s what’s gotten us into a lot of trouble, but more equitable and you know, much more meaningful.

My goal is that everybody has an opportunity to thrive. And so that’s where I think you and I both have that sort of passion because anything we do is going to be informed by that same mission. And that’s why I love social entrepreneurs and mission-driven organizations because that’s their touchpoint. Their touchpoint is much bigger than just, you know, bringing floors to Sub-Saharan Africans or bringing clean water to Southeast Asians. It really is this bigger picture of equity, social justice, and opportunity.

**

GAYATRI:
Well, so Gemma, why don’t we talk a bit about the work? So tell them what’s the name of your organization and the mission of the organization that Echoing Green funded?

GEMMA:
The organization that I co-founded with Kevin Lee or Keely was an organization called A Single Drop for Safe Water. And we’re based in the Philippines. And what we do is we train communities to be able to design, lead, and implement their own water and sanitation solutions. The Philippines is the most disaster-prone region in all of Southeast Asia and arguably the world. So at any given time in the Philippines, there can be over a hundred thousand to over a million people dislocated from their homes because of both the natural and man-made disasters.

So eventually what ended up happening with the organization and where Keeley’s taken it is that they are really focusing on not only community-led solutions, but also community-led disaster solutions. So they are really focusing on every level of disaster, right? The disaster prep, disaster response, disaster relief, rehab, you know, rebuilding all that stuff. And so they try and go to the root cause and try to anticipate those kinds of disasters and regions that are probably the hardest hit most consistently. And really training those communities to be able to respond to disasters in really healthy and productive ways.

Tell us about your organization and the mission.

GAYATRI:
So my organization is called Earth Enable and our mission is to make living conditions healthier and dignified for everyone in the world. But we focus specifically on rural families. And the reason we do that is that the housing industry really hasn’t evolved or changed very much in the past, frankly, several centuries in a lot of places. Largely because there hasn’t been a lot of innovation in housing that is truly low cost and truly affordable and also truly sustainable. So we are innovating on housing products that make a tremendous health impact but are also very affordable and environmentally sustainable.

And our goal is really to build this industry rather than just about building an organization. Our goal is to build an industry where lots of people copy us. We look at microfinance as a model for how it started in one place and then lots of replicators emerged because it really made a lot of sense. So that’s largely how we see this movement building.

GEMMA:
I love that around the movement building and about, you know, people copying you. I mean, that really should ultimately be, I think, you know, every social entrepreneur’s dream. Because essentially what we need to be doing because we’re trying to solve a social problem or environmental problem is that we want to work ourselves out of a job and still have the reach and the depth that we need to be having.

And I think when we, you know, with the work that you do with housing and the work that we do with water and sanitation, where I see a big gap and, you know, a big opportunity is to be able to really recognize the value… that people should have value in their communities. Like for us, women, right? One of the reasons we train women is because they are the ones disproportionately affected by the lack of water and sanitation. Yet because this is sort of traditional… They’re the traditional water bearers or the traditional, you know, caretakers of the family. Their value is not recognized because it’s expected. But, what we needed to focus on was them bringing value to the community that had no question, that did make them be recognized as people who are contributing to their community in much more meaningful ways.

And water was that entry point because, you know, one, it was solving their problem of making it easier, their days easier and bringing and providing them more opportunities to be productive and earn money. But it also was something that the community needed. And so that became sort of the galvanizing point and it also became the launching point for us to be able to train women to be able to bring locally-led solutions and affordable solutions so that their value would be recognized in the community.

GAYATRI:
Yeah and I also think that the way that we’re actively trying to shift the power dynamic away from, you know, “We’re the ones with the funding and the organization. So now let me help these other people.” To kind of reshift that to instead let’s collaborate and get some stuff done. Let’s find ways to be very inclusive. I think that’s something that’s, frankly, a daily journey for me. Because I do find that over time I’m getting better and better at recognizing the moments in which I’m still being quite paternalistic, still being quite colonial in the way that we’re operating, and how we can be very deliberate about shifting away from that.

GEMMA:
You know, I think where I think our work changed was when we stopped coming in with ideas and just came in with, you know, just listening and just saying.. What is it that this community needs? Where are the parts where you feel like you could use a little bit more support? And the way in which we transfer our information, because we’re a capacity building organization. We don’t actually have have products that we sell. We have products that we train people to build. And so as capacity building organizations, you know, that’s where you can really go off the rails with the colonialism. Because you can go in there and say, “We have all this information, we’re sharing it with you, and you need it.”
And the way in which we go into these capacity building trainings is, “Here’s information that you might not have access to. We’ll just give you the tools, but you build the house.”

**

GEMMA:
So Gaya, can you name the most memorable events that led you to your decision to start Earth Enable?

GAYA:
Basically it started as a school project for me. So I was an MBA student at Stanford and I took this class. It’s actually where we met. I took this class called “Design for Extreme Affordability,” and the point of the class was to design a product or a service for some client organization that we had. So in our case, our challenge was to find a way to make the home or community healthier in rural Rwanda. So we came up with this earthen floor solution.

And from there, it was kind of like, “Okay, well, I really want this to happen. So let me do like a summer over there and try to find someone to take it up.”

And then within maybe a month of being in Rwanda, I realized I was going to be here for a very long time. Social entrepreneurship is what I was probably put on this planet to do. And, you know, building markets, building new structures, building new systems, breaking old ones, finding new ways to do things. It just felt so right for who I was. So, I think the moment that I want to talk about is that moment when I realized that I wasn’t just going to be here for a couple years to start something and then leave. I was going to be— even if it’s not within Earth Enable the organization—I was going to be somebody that is deeply committed to not just achieving certain impact goals that I might have, but doing so in a way that might take longer, might be harder. But will be done in a way that really reflects my values and I think will ultimately lead Earth Enable to a better place.

GEMMA:
It already is based on everything that you’re telling us. I already knew the work that you did with the floors, but now with the whole systems. That’s fantastic.

GAYA:
Well, even beyond that, I mean, the fact that we’ve really invested in training our team. And now our entire senior leadership team is people who grew through the organization and through the rungs. Like we’ve made very few senior-level hires that that come in and lead and we haven’t followed the model of hiring expatriates to do that anymore. We did for some time. And that was something that I think was an interesting journey for me to realize that there’s another way to do things in a way that’s a little bit less typical, less traditional and much more inclusive and much more reflective of the values that Earth Enable exudes.

What’s the most memorable event that led to your decision?

GEMMA:
I was actually a professional jazz singer and a preschool teacher way back in New York in the early 2000’s. And on Tuesday, September 11th, I was supposed to be in the World Trade Center when the planes hit. I wasn’t. I called in sick for very selfish reasons. And of course that was the day that changed my life and everybody else’s life. And how this all relates to how I ended up doing this work was because I was incredibly inspired by the New Yorkers that were around me and, you know, what tragedy does. It just brings out the best in people.

And so as a songwriter, I ended up writing a song called We Rise, and I had this notion that I was going to build a million voice choir around the world to sing it. To bring people together not through tragedy as they were through September 11th, but now through sort of how we overcame it. And my invitation for people to join this movement was the metaphor, the notion that it takes a single drop of water to start a wave. And so I was inviting people to see that their every thought, their every word, their reaction has that power. No matter what, a drop of water will ripple out, you know, will ripple out the water and it will affect the other drops of water.

And so I started to get invited to these conferences. And one of them was the United Nations Water for Life Conference. And here I am singing this song and asking people to sing with me and having this hippy-dippy message of like, “Ooh, everyone’s a drop of water. We’re all so powerful. We can do good.” You know? And then, you know, the other speakers were like 1.2 billion people in the world don’t have access to water. Three to 5 million people die of water-related disease every year. You know, all of a sudden these, these messages of like—Oh my god, I had no idea there was a water crisis. And so that was the day sort of my metaphor turned into my cause.

I started to really go deep into everything that I could learn about the water crisis. So maybe if we can try and solve some of the issues around that, then it will ripple out and affect education and affect women’s rights and affect health and affect commerce and affect all of those things.

GAYA:
Well, it takes a very rare person to turn the metaphor into the cause and to actually do it. But that must’ve been quite a transition for you. I mean, like, what were some of the early challenges you had and early successes you had as a founder that helped you and those around you grow?

GEMMA:
As a performer, everything is about you. And one of the big shifts for me was to make that sort of ego or turn that ego around, riight? And because I went into this water and sanitation thing knowing practically nothing, I really leaned on people who were smarter than me, who are better than me, who knew more about everything than me. And I really have to prop up my partner, Keeley or Kevin Lee. Because when we first ended up working together, a lot of the things that he was saying we should be doing was very counterintuitive to what I thought. He knew that there was going to be a much longer, this was going to be a much longer road.

And then in terms of community, one of my biggest failures was that, you know, we went in and we trained people to build—it was a new technology to the Philippines. I thought we’d go in and just train everybody. But all the organizations that we were working with, they were like, well, “Now we have this technology, but we don’t have the resources. We don’t know how to roll it out. We don’t know how to do the marketing for it.” We don’t know how to, you know, all of those things. And so, it really turned our mission around from training people to build technologies, into training them to design their own solutions for their own communities. So that was sort of my big challenge, you know, but since then, it’s like, you know, I just surround myself with people who know more than me, who are smarter than me. I love being the dumbest person in the room.

What about you and what were some of your challenges?

GAYATRI:
Such a analogous situations, honestly. As you were talking, it’s like, yeah, you could literally find and replaced, through what you were saying, water with floors and you could have had the same answer. But it would mean the floor that we came to Rwanda with is nothing like the floor that we’re building.

So I think our biggest challenge was that our first couple of floors really didn’t work. I mean, there were cracks, they were mushy, they were drying, like so many challenges.. So anyway, by reorienting the entire organization not to be about me training others or us training them, or even their being an us and them. To everybody’s working together to solve this problem and to actually come up with a solution that everybody believes will work to solve this problem. And I think that the biggest success was that we were able to really, from that point onwards, create a lack of hierarchy in the organization. Create an ability for the organization to be flat, to be democratic, for anybody in the organization with a good idea to be able to contribute to what the end outcome looked like.

I genuinely believe that the best ideas of Earth Enable have come from every part of the company and almost none of them from me. And I think that is my biggest success is that I’ve created the culture and the environment where that’s possible.

GEMMA:
I totally agree with you. You know, the people with the least resources are the ones who are the most resourceful, right? Innovation comes from constraints. And so here you have the communities, one who obviously know exactly what they need and know what their resources are, know what their assets are. They know exactly where to find the right kind of sand. For us to like go in there and say, we know what’s best for you, or we know how, you know, how to solve your problems… That’s the one big thing that needs to change.

GAYATRI:
It’s entrenched in how we were raised to think and entrenched in our world. And it is part of us. And so to extract that is something that takes a lot of deliberate reflection and feedback, and desire to want to be something different from who you have become due to all the years and years and years of conditioning.

And this comes from both, you know, the backgrounds that we come from and the type of education system that we grew up in, and everything else from the society we live in as BIPOC women. I mean, all of these things are influencing the way that we show up and the way that we lead. And I think to do what we’re talking about is a lifelong journey of finding more and more ways to realize the ways in which we’re broken and that we need to first figure out how we ourselves become who we want to be before we can do anything for anyone else.

GEMMA:
Yeah, preach, lady!

**

GAYATRI:
I think one thing that might be really helpful for other people to hear about is the tips and tricks that you’ve picked up along our journeys that have helped you navigate the world of philanthropy, donors, fundraising. Especially that, I mean, you were an artist, you were not a fundraiser type. So how did you figure out how to do that?

GEMMA:
I think the first, the biggest thing that I needed to overcome in the, you know, in the very beginning, and I think this might be…For a lot of BIPOC’s, it’s just that you are going into rooms with white people and asking them for money. And that, for me as a child of an immigrant, that was just not done. My father hated that I was doing that kind of work because he did not, you know, he, you know. It’s all about being able to be self-sufficient and all that stuff. So, it was very much embedded in me to not ask for money. So that was a very, very, very big thing I had to overcome.

And I think what the shift that I had to make was not so much, you know, trying to get over that piece of begging for money. It was reframing what asking for money looked like. You know, the reframing was more around look, I’m going to give you the opportunity to have an impact, right. And then starting the conversations out with, you know, what is the world you want to see? What are the kinds of things, the changes that you want to have? So listening for their needs and their desires first, and then trying to reframe yours so that it, and of course with integrity, see if it aligns. And then when it aligns, rhen going forward and having the conversation about, you know, about funding.

But I had to stop seeing it as me, Gemma, BIPOC woman asking for money and become the me, Gemma, the organization, the mission looking for partners.

GAYATRI:
I love the way that you put it up having to reframe your own mental model of what it means to be, you know, not the brown girl with a tin cup begging for money, but instead to be a partner towards achieving a mission and a vision.And I think that was the mindset exactly for me that shifted when I actually started to enjoy fundraising, which was a very big transformation in my life.

In terms of actual tactical tricks and tips, I’d say that really understanding— Use your resources and your network is the biggest thing. So know who other similar organizations are to you. Find out who funds them from annual reports, from their websites. Then go to those donors. See who you might be connected to on LinkedIn. Try to get a conversation with somebody through somebody that you know. If you don’t have a network yet that you feel like you can lean on, build it. Other entrepreneurs are usually very happy to help other entrepreneurs. And so if it’s a matter of just, you know, picking someone’s brain for something or asking, what do you think about this? You’ll find that, you know, get 80 “no’s” before you get one “yes.” Rhat’s fine. That sometimes happens. But I was once told that if you’re not getting told no 90% of the time, you’re not asking enough if you need money.

So just keep on asking and keep putting yourself out there and keep using your network to find introductions to like-minded people and to meet more like-minded people. And from there really nurture those relationships. Relationships are life. That’s what all our work is, and it should apply the same way that you apply to your other partners.

**

GEMMA:
Okay. So Gaya, can you name a specific trend or innovation in the field of community-driven impact— which I know you guys are so great at—that worries you or another that might excite you?

GAYATRI:
Yeah, sure. I think about this a lot as I think about what I think needs to change in the field of community-driven impact. I mean, the one that worries me is that I do believe that ultimately in order to really achieve true results and true impact that is community-driven, the decision-makers of where resources go need to be communities. And I don’t believe that we currently have efficient structures that exist in the world that enable that to really happen in a democratic process.

Which is, quick pitch, why I started a third organization fundbetter.org. We actually have a randomly selected group of people from the communities that the projects are meant to impact as our board. And they actually decide which grants to award based on what they think would be best for their own communities. And so I think, if there are more mechanisms that exist like that, where truly it’s community-driven what projects happen that will be better. The thing that worries me is that I don’t see that shift truly happening, even though I think what excites me is that I do see a shift towards local founders getting resource. And understanding that people like me probably are not the right people to create impact in Rwanda, a place that I’m not from and where I don’t know the language. Unless I really have a deeply deliberate strategy to be deferring my own power and decision-making to people who are actually from Rwanda and who actually understand what communities need more.

I think that the answer is to just recognize the power and privilege that we have in being able to take on the roles that we have and start the organizations that we started. And be very deliberate about shifting decision-making power to people who are much more proximate to the communities we’re trying to serve. But, you know, it’s step by step and I think we’ll get there eventually.

**

GEMMA:
Okay, so then what ways have you leveraged Echoing Green experience to better serve your community?

GAYATRI:
Echoing Green has been the most powerful community of other social entrepreneurs that I have been a part of. And the reason Echoing Green has been so powerful, I think is because there were so many different types of people who were so different from me working in such different contexts and who I could learn different parts of what leadership means from. The bonding that had to happen to not to be at the lowest common denominator ended up being very deep. So it wasn’t necessarily just like, “What’s your distribution channels that you use? What are your sales channels? What are the ways in which you, whatever hire in Rwanda or Uganda or whatever it is?”

So you would have those conversations too, with people that you had that in common, but other than that it really became about what drove us, what motivated us, what are the ways that we manage stress, what are the ways that we manage personal relationships and family relationships. And I think that type of fellowship and that type of very intense, deep connection with people that we had a whole several weeks with at the same time. So it could be checking in with each other over the course of several years. It’s so lonely to be an entrepreneur in so many ways. And so building up that network of people to be lonely with was really something that I can’t overstate how important that was to me and

GEMMA:
I totally 100% agree with you. I am Echoing Green ride or die. Because, you know, there are so many different opportunities like this with the different fellowships and different incubators. And you know, some of them are a bit longer. Some of them are shorter.

But I think what Echoing Green does really, really, really well is they trust you at the beginning. Here’s that, you know, idea of trust. They trust you from the beginning. They don’t need you to prove anything to them. They know that you are a responsible and transformative leader. They know that you have an idea that might not work. It’s like they are investing in people and their idea.

**

GEMMA:
So for those who are listening and inspired by your work, how can they find out more?

GAYATRI:
You can always go on to any of the websites, that’s www.earthenable.org, www.unlocked-impact.com, or www.fundbetter.org. Those are the three organizations that I’m currently involved with.

GEMMA:
You’re so awesome.

GAYATRI:
What about you, Gemma? Where can we find out about all of your work?

GEMMA:
My current social enterprise is Global Women’s Water Initiative. So you can go to globalwomenswater.org. For my Echoing Green funded organization that Kevin Lee is still running, I believe it’s singledrop.org. And then for the work we’re doing on at Kravis lab, you can look up https://kravislab.cmc.edu/. And there you have it!

GAYATRI:
Gemma, this was so much fun. Always so good to talk to somebody who expands my perspective and my vision

GEMMA:
Yay. Me too. And, and I feel the same way and someone who makes me laugh about it too.

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