Inspirational Woman Interview: Claire Naylor

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Claire Naylor is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Women LEAD Nepal, a nonprofit organization that empowers girls in Nepal to be leaders through education and mentorship. In 2011, Claire moved to Kathmandu to transform a two-week leadership camp for 28 students into a full-fledged organization, which now empowers over 600 young women leaders each year. Claire has always been passionate about empowering women, especially within South Asia where she has lived and worked for over 20 years. She holds a BSc in Gender & International Development from Georgetown University, and was awarded the Youth Courage Award from the UN Global Education Initiative in 2014 for her work with Women LEAD. Claire believes that strong women leaders are the ultimate solution to pretty much every problem that ever existed. She has been heading up Women LEAD’s efforts in Nepal since 2011 and has found it to be one of the most manic and glorious experiences of her life.

What is your background?

Claire Naylor: I’m half British and half American, which essentially makes me Canadian, but I’ve never really lived in either of the countries. I’ve been based in South Asia for the past 24 years now, in Nepal and India. I moved over here when I was three and have lived in both urban and rural areas. When I was thinking how to transition from a student into the professional world, coming into South Asia was a natural choice because of my childhood here.

You are the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Women LEAD Nepal, a nonprofit organization that empowers girls in Nepal to be leaders through education and mentorship. What inspired you to found Women LEAD Nepal and what has been Women LEAD’s impact on the community so far?

Claire Naylor: The biggest inspiration for starting Women LEAD is twofold. Firstly, it was my lasting impression of how strong, resilient and powerful women in Nepal are – from my early childhood memories from the West of Nepal and women who I also knew in Kathmandu. Many women were illiterate and had very difficult lives but against all these odds they were able to hold themselves, their families and companies. I thought that they would be able to do so much more if they had educational and professional opportunities so that they’re not just focused on surviving and holding their families together but also having a national and international impact.

Secondly, what inspired me to turn our summer pilot in 2010 into a full-fledged organization was the participation of our very first pilot and how much change we saw in just those two weeks and staying in touch with them for the following year and the fact that we were asked to come back and keep doing that was very inspiring at the beginning.

In terms of Women LEAD’s impact on the community so far, we’ve empowered and equipped over 1250 girls and boys so far and they have gone on to impact thousands of other youth in Kathmandu.

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced leading Women LEAD Nepal?

Claire Naylor: The two biggest challenges when leading Women LEAD has been the amount of external unpredictability of working in a place like Nepal, combined with internal changes that any startup faces wherever they are in the world. A lot of time goes into change management because the environment is changing so quickly on every single level; being able to balance our program and growing our impact and strengthening the work that we’re doing while at the same time being able to predict and mitigate and intentionally manage and reflect on the changes that are happening has been one of the biggest challenges for me personally. The second one is with such a big demand for our program, we have to focus our efforts and resources in a way that allows for the biggest, most exponential impact in those areas. That involves saying no to a lot of other areas and opportunities that in and of themselves are really great but not something that we are always able to take on.

Beyond your work with Women LEAD, you served as a Research Associate at SASANE, an organization with the mission of ending violence against women and the realization of women’s legal rights. Can you talk a bit about your involvement with SASANE?

Claire Naylor: The summer I came to pilot Women LEAD in Nepal, I quickly realized I did not need the entire summer to test the pilot since it was just a two-week program. I also spent that summer assisting with the research project with SASANE. It was a research project that documented trends in human trafficking and foreign employment abuse. I was working with five other researchers: four Nepal-based staff who had experienced those situations themselves and one American woman. We went around to the most heavily trafficked districts in Nepal and talking to everyone from district judges to police officials to heads of civil society organizations to local government officials. We were trying to identify women who had experienced those situations and looking at the challenges they faced upon returning and in particular, the legal aspects involved – namely if they were filing reports with the police, and if they weren’t, why they weren’t, and if there were, were their cases being successfully tried, were they taken seriously and were there any convictions.

I came away from the situation very overwhelmed and pessimistic. I realized that if even just one thing changed, if rule of law was strengthened, then absolutely nothing would change about the situation of trafficking. If corruption, impunity within the government and political community and mafia were changed, that wouldn’t change the situation of trafficking and human trafficking here. I realized there had to be major overhauls across every single sector that touched on the issue which includes education, rural education opportunities, the way the media treats human trafficking, and other issues as well. Looking at this one issue that is often treated in a silo but is at the intersection of so many social issues in Nepal, and then going straight from doing that research into a program where we’re empowering young women who are going into medical school, law school, and becoming journalists, job creators, and agriculture leaders, we are affirming that long-term, this is the only real solution to intersectional issues like human trafficking. It takes very competent and visionary leaders within those sectors so that they can co-create and actually drive the change that needs to happen.

You also served as a University Partnerships Associate at Ashoka, a global platform that empowers social entrepreneurs with resources and peer networks. Can you share some of your experiences with Ashoka, and some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned about social entrepreneurship?

Claire Naylor: I was working in their Youth Venture Department, which involved working with young social entrepreneurs both in the US and other countries where they had branches in. It was wonderful to work with people who truly believed anyone can be a change-maker and that’s not something that should be elitist. They really wanted to democratize the idea of entrepreneurship and how it had social benefits. What I did with them in supporting very young social entrepreneurs informed the way I viewed our leaders at Women LEAD in the future as people who could create change as 17-year-olds as students, as teachers and other labels they were carrying. They did not need to wait until they were in their 30s and 40s to become a leader. The media often seems to tell us that you need to get your degree and all these qualifications to be able to do something yourself. Everyone can be a change-maker, it’s just a question of what you’re passionate about and what you can bring to the table.

On a personal level, why do women’s empowerment and leadership matter to you?

Claire Naylor: One of my core values that I’ve always had is justice. The injustice that I’ve seen that affects women’s lives has made me incredibly upset. Ever since I was three or four years old and couldn’t articulate it, it was a subconscious level noticing discrimination and differences. When I was getting older, analyzing it at Kathmandu and studying it at university, it’s just been an issue that has always struck me in every shape and form. Whether it’s migration, education, or employment, it’s always been something that’s really mattered to me. Leadership specifically matters to me because when people talk about women, it’s always in relation to women achieving very basic human rights. While I think it’s incredibly important to address issues like domestic violence, child marriage and basic literacy, we do a huge disservice for women when we stop at primary school or secondary school instead of looking at how we can get more girls into tertiary education if that’s what they want. A lot of the entrepreneurship training that happen in Nepal are around small, craft industries of teaching women how to become tailors or make candles instead of asking them what their aspirations are. If they want to become a lawyer for example, we don’t have many resources for her to achieve that. A lot of what we see in the women’s development space is very insulting to women; while it is laying a very important foundation, leadership is the natural next step of how can we get very competent women to create the policies about child marriage rather than it just being a room full of men who are sitting there deciding policies and programs that will affect women’s lives. I think that until that happens, the solutions that are put forward will never be enough – not just around women’s issues but around national issues that affect them too.

What advice do you have for the next generation of social entrepreneurs who want to improve the lives of women and girls worldwide?

Claire Naylor: I’d say two things. One, you should start small and you should start now. You don’t need to have a perfect business model or plan before you start something. You just have to get in there, start meeting people, start experimenting and figure out from there. A lot of people can be held back by the idea that it must be perfect and a success from day one. A lot of the conversations around the startup world, especially surrounding tech startups that happens overnight, suggest that the same model should happen for social entrepreneurship. But usually it takes years of iterating, building relationships and finding the right people before you even begin to get it right. It has taken Women LEAD five years of iterating on one program to finally get the model to a place where it’s very impactful. It’s about doing a lot of listening and having good feedback mechanisms in place. If we had waited to have this perfectly researched, perfectly funded model, we probably would never have founded Women LEAD by now. You must not try to force growth but really appreciate organic growth especially when it’s around social change issues.

My second piece of advice is to do a lot of listening. Get really close to the community that you’re trying to serve and don’t try to superimpose your own idea into their problems. That’s going to be a square peg in a round hole and it’s not going to be as great a solution; if it doesn’t solve a real problem for people, it’s never going to have a transformative impact. A lot of entrepreneurs tend to be impatient, action-oriented people, so taking the time to listen and absorb what’s around you can be hard. But I’ve found that it’s really important.

What are your favorite books, websites, films and resources related to women’s empowerment, international development and social impact?

Claire Naylor: There are two films that I really love: Girl Rising and Miss Representation. Girl Rising makes me cry every time I watch it. Even seeing the We Will Rise documentary, it really does a beautiful job of telling the stories of girls around the world, and also portraying them as protagonists and as change-makers and not as victims. I really love using Girl Rising as a resource.

We have embedded Miss Representation in our programs, as that documentary explores how damaging and insidious the media’s portrayal of women is and how dangerous that is – both for young women’s self-esteem and perceptions, and also for men’s treatment of women. Even relating it back to my own experiences of trying to figure out why sexual harassment was so rampant when I was in India for high school, I had the lightbulb moment where I realized that the only times that Western women are portrayed in Indian media (specifically in Bollywood films), were as dancers in a club or as hookers. Either that, or they were celebrity columnists in newspapers – there were no other portrayals of Caucasian women in mainstream media in India. If that’s people’s only frame of reference for Western women, that is a root cause of harassment. I never realized how embedded into Western media it also was.

Something else that I’ve really enjoyed recently is a website called Nonprofits with Balls which has a lot of great resources. It’s about nonprofits who have to juggle a lot of balls and not only challenges that are realities in the nonprofit sector but also challenges that people face in general when overcoming the status quo. For example, there are discussions on hiring for diversity versus hiring elite, educated, upper-class people to try and serve impoverished communities. There have been Facebook groups founded out of this site and there’s this one specific group for Executive Directors, which has served as my support group. If I have a question, I can just throw it out there and know that there are hundreds of other Executive Directors who can chip in around their own experiences and share their resources with me. I’ve found that for the last year, that’s been hugely helpful and very practical.

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