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SHE Disrupts Taboos to Change the Status Quo

Bold Idea: 2008 Fellow Elizabeth Scharpf has a dry wit, a sanguine outlook, and an unordinary perspective on what is possible. She’s putting these qualities to work changing the dialog, and the market, around big taboos.

Elizabeth Scharpf admits that her definition of “possible” doesn’t quite match up with the average. She blames it, only half joking, on her upbringing.

“I grew up in the suburbs at the Jersey Shore where the local farm that my parents would drive us by and stop at had giraffes, elephants, lions, zebras. I grew up thinking that this was what every farm was like. Turned out it was where Barnum and Bailey Circus kept their animals in between road shows. My far-out perception of what’s possible started early.”

The problem, it turned out, was a lack of menstrual hygiene. Even skilled workers like those at her office couldn’t afford to purchase expensive imported sanitary pads. Strange as it sounds, menstruation was affecting the World Bank office’s productivity.Despite having not one, but two “fancy graduate degrees” (as she calls them) from Harvard Business School, Elizabeth asserts that her best education comes from talking to people. It was through talking to people during a 2005 internship with the World Bank in Mozambique that she learned what was behind the frequent absences of female employees in her office.

The problem wasn’t relegated to the World Bank, or even to Mozambique. It was the first Elizabeth had heard about this issue, but the more people she talked with, the greater the problem appeared. All over the world, girls were missing school. Women were losing jobs, or not getting them at all. Some populations in rural villages were getting sick because they were using rags, bark or mud to stop the bleeding. Worst of all, nobody was talking about this problem. The subject was taboo.

This proved to be the moment Elizabeth’s imagination would set her apart. After returning from her internship and finishing grad school, she started bringing her contacts together to solve the problem for women…and use local women to help solve it.

A Rwandan woman lays out banana leaves to be processed into low cost, high-quality, environmentally-friendly sanitary pads.

Despite the support of Echoing Green and a grant from Harvard Business School, Elizabeth was aware that it was no easy path she was pioneering.

“I did get a lot of skepticism because what I was doing wasn’t on your typical career services checklist…even social enterprise was considered unusual then.  But I knew that if I wanted to change the balance, it would have to be through disruption and milestones.”

One thing that got her past the skepticism, besides her own determination and panache for problem-solving, was not taking the skepticism personally.

“I was told nine out of ten entrepreneurs fail,” she remembers, “so I knew that it was not only about my own organization.”

Rather than get discouraged, she set about gathering a community of concerned, motivated people. And rather than keep the focus narrow to this one issue, she says, “I’ve set out to instigate many more—to tackle this and other overlooked, taboo challenges.”

The tactic is working. Since founding Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) in 2010, over 300 stakeholders from more than 25 countries have reached out to SHE for help in changing their communities. Along with the affirmation of winning the 2010 Curry Stone Design Prize and 2013 Grinnell Prize, Elizabeth reports having seen a major increase in research and funding, and…perhaps best of all…the subject isn’t as taboo anymore. “Now there is a larger discussion among corporations, civil society, governments and entrepreneurs about solving this problem. That, to me, is the road to a larger success, and I’m glad we were a pioneer on it.”

Drive Change: Elizabeth’s willingness to be provocative in order to instigate dialog in the face of harmful silence has taken her work to incredible places—including the hands of President Bill Clinton and author Gloria Steinem. Call up whatever it is that gives you strength, and set it to work making the world a more equitable place.

Images courtesy of SHE.


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