Along the Way with Maria Douglass, International Development Entrepreneur

Maria Douglass, International Development Entrepreneur

Photo Credit: Maria Douglass

The first impression I had when I read Maria Douglass’ blog: man, this is something smart.

What I like about Maria so much–and why I decided to share her work with you today–is because she is a fine communicator and has so much practical insight to share based upon her experiences in both her profession and on the side of her entrepreneurial ventures. The commitment of female business leaders to economic development and empowerment of the underprivileged is something noteworthy, to say the least.

Us women (and all inspired male readers alike) should take note. Lying beneath the surface, surpassing the purchases we make and the products we invest in, are the individuals like Maria promoting innovation and positive change for other women just like us, these same women who have hopes and dreams for brighter futures just as we do.

You indicate that your interests are in entrepreneurship with a focus on women’s economic empowerment.

What started that for you? How did you draw the connections between that interest and your experience in private sector development?

I have always been interested in entrepreneurship and empowering others as long as I can remember. I see entrepreneurship as a means for empowerment. I lived through a situation in my life when I was “stuck.” I was under someone else’s power because I could not support myself financially. I empowered myself through education and hard work. So now I have a burden for empowering others that are disadvantaged or otherwise disenfranchised.

I only connected this with gender when I started living and working in Saudi Arabia. I knew about the issue of women’s rights in the Kingdom in my mind. Everyone knows that women aren’t allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. But it goes much deeper than that. But, I had never internalized it until I developed relationships with Saudi women and came to understand how it impacts them – both on a day-to-day basis, but more importantly, in terms of their psyche, sense of self-worth, etc.  That coincided with my reading “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson. In this book he succinctly stated something that I had intuited but that had never totally coalesced for me: educating girls builds communities because they are more likely to stay and contribute to their community, as opposed to boys who often leave to seek opportunity elsewhere. How this relates to private sector development is relatively simple. It has everything to do with sustainability.

What private sector development means to me, is supporting a viable business case that can keep giving back to the economy, helping it grow and prosper. It breaks the cycle of dependency associated with foreign assistance programs – the whole “give a man a fish…” thing. To develop the community, the girls need to be educated and the women empowered to thrive in their economic activities. I am mentoring a start-up company right now, which is bringing new, absolutely cutting-edge water filtration technology to rural villages in Bangladesh. The technology provides an inexpensive means to remove naturally-occurring arsenic from groundwater.

According to the World Health Organization, 200 million people across the world drink arsenic contaminated water (WHO, 2000). Over 100 million people are affected in India and Bangladesh. A Lancet study in 2010 found in Bangladesh alone, 1 in 5 deaths occur due to arsenic poisoning (The Lancet, 2010). But this is by far not the first effort to address arsenic contaminated water in the developing world. The difference is this: what makes this start-up really compelling is that they are adapting a micro-franchising model, focusing on female entrepreneurs in their villages to take ownership of the water purification and distribution businesses, thereby providing these community leaders with sustainable income, as well as improving the health and welfare of their communities.

While the term “social enterprise” is relatively new, the field of private sector development, sought to develop win-win cases where a little bit of assistance achieved a multiplier effect, having a bigger, scaled-up impact through public-private partnerships… which doesn’t differ very much from social enterprise. What has changed is the level of awareness of the possibility of “doing good” and “making money” at the same time. Another thing that has changed for the better, is the growing recognition of the positive impacts of women as entrepreneurs.

On your blog, you write about some of the women entrepreneurs (i.e. Olga in “Innovation is a Matter of Perspective”)  who you come into contact with.

Can you share a little more background about how you get connected with these individuals based upon the work that you do? Why do they approach you from the start?

What has brought me into contact with entrepreneurs in general – of both genders – has been listening, and being open to new ideas.

I have read articles that talk about the fact that when someone is listening, they are often composing a response in their head, which detracts from them actually REALLY listening.

The listener thinks that they already know what the other person is saying, so they go into response mode before receiving the entire message. I discipline myself to listen to other people. Part of what helped me to learn to do that, was being immersed in a foreign language environment. When I lived and worked in Russia in the 1990’s there were plenty of foreign aid workers. I had studied Russian, worked in the Soviet Union, and thereby started developing the ability to do business in that language. That was a start contrast to the majority of expats who clustered in Moscow and St. Petersburg, staffed their offices with English-speakers and transacted business through interpreters.

I am very proud of having achieved a near-native level of fluency and immersed myself in the culture outside of the capitals. But that foreign language ability had impacts far beyond my ability to communicate in that particular language. I re-learned how to communicate with others. The experience of communicating in Russian taught me to slow down mentally and focus on the speaker. It also made me more confident about “awkward silences” in conversations. They stopped being awkward when the speaker was respectfully allowing me – a non-native Russian speaker – to take a minute to process what I had heard. As I grew more and more fluent in Russian, I started adopting that practice of listening, processing and pausing in English-language interactions.

But getting back to the main point, being overseas and embedded in a foreign culture enabled me to start fresh listening and distance myself from preconceived notions, which helped me be more open to opportunities. In the early 1990’s I was approached by a woman named Olga, whom I had met through a business-language training program. She was from a fairly remote Russian region. She had formed a cooperative to help get a variety of handicraft and folk art items to market. She proposed that we work together to sell them in the US. I realized that this was a problem all over the world, that what talented artisans in remote areas most lack, is access to lucrative markets – I wanted to do something to help.

Of course, today, eBay and Etsy, and a host of other programs exist to help sell handicrafts on the global marketplace. But at the time, my business partners and I basically had to attend trade shows and set-up exhibitions in department stores to sell the container full of lacquer boxes and trays, filigree and clay figurines that we imported. While we all basically broke even (unless one counted the cost of our labor), the effort turned out to be unsustainable until the advent of eCommerce. I guess my focus on listening makes me approachable.

What was the moment that made you realize that what you’re currently doing is your calling?

I have never had such a realization, because I have always consciously followed my passion or my “calling,” wherever it leads me. My adolescent self was surrounded by all kinds of JohnathanLivingstonSeagull-esque inspirational quotes. I guess I was just naive enough to believe them. So my calling always came first.

Who are the other thought leaders you follow? Who inspires you to do what you do and share your expertise?

The “just plain folks” – the regular people I meet every day – inspire me much more than any public personae.


For more information on Maria Douglass, visit her blog. You can also connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter

If you would like to be a part of the Along the Way series, you may send me an inquiry.


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