I’m Safeena Husain, Founder of Educate Girls, and this is how I Lead from Within
Safeena Husain, an active social worker, is the Founder and Executive Director of Educate Girls – a non-profit organization. Safeena’s efforts to bridge the gender gap in education in India have been widely recognized. Under her leadership, Educate Girls has received the prestigious 2015 Skoll Award, 2014 WISE Awards, the 2014 USAID Millennium Alliance Award and the 2014 Stars Impact Awards and the India Development Marketplace Award in 2011 from the World Bank.
I grew up in Delhi; after my schooling, I went to the London School of Economics and I lived in England for about five years. After that, I lived in the Bay Area (San Francisco) for about a decade. I really started my career and my work journey in San Francisco. For about nine months I worked for an Internet start-up, which was a complete failure; it was just such a bad fit. But those nine months made me realize that I didn’t really want to be in the for profit sector, I really wanted to do something meaningful. Whatever I was going to do, I wanted to be more in love with the outcome. So, I started volunteering for a couple of Bay Area non-profits, and with that started my non-profit and development career.
I ended up running Child Family Health International for about ten years. It was a very tiny outfit when I began, there was one program in Chico. And in my ten years there, I scaled it up to five countries and 250 program partners. CFH ended up working in Ecuador, Mexico, Bolivia, South Africa and, of course, in India.
Around 2005, I came back to India and then started working on the issue of gender. I founded Educate Girls, and now it’s been nine years. Educate Girls has also scaled and grown in the last decade; we’ve gone from working in 50 schools to 500 to 2,500. As of this July, we will be in over 10,000 government schools in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Last year, we also launched the world’s first Development Impact Bond for education. It’s the only fund of its kind in the world and in education; essentially because it ties funding to pure outcome. So, it’s been quite a journey for me.
For me, it’s all about gender. All about patriarchy. Everything. Growing up in Delhi, in the north, it wasn’t easy. Throughout my childhood, I experienced the inequity of gender norms first hand. It was an internalized thing, and I thought this is just how the world is. I didn’t see a way out of it, and everybody around me accepted it as well.
But I went away for almost 15 years, between living in London, San Francisco and everywhere else where I was working. When I returned to India, at that point, the inequality hit me. It was a lot more pronounced, and also I returned with this feeling of ‘it doesn’t have to be like this.’ That’s what propelled me to start Educate Girls.
The rest of the world does not behave like this; this is not the norm. This behavior cannot be accepted. It’s almost as if you have to move away from it to gain perspective, and then when you come back, you can actually see everything much more clearly.
On Vision and Leadership
As a leader, there’s one thing that I feel is my key responsibility, and defining values are a subset of it, but my key job is to always be really clear about my vision on success. In this field, we start our work because of problems we see in the community; a leader’s job is to define what success looks like. Then your funders, your team, your volunteers, the organization can work together to achieve that vision of success. Nobody else serves that function in your organization. In any new project that comes up, anything, I feel that becomes my key role as a leader. It’s to talk to everyone and then to define what success for them looks like. And obviously, then from your values, how are you going to achieve that success, through empathy, through collaboration, through whatever those values might be.
On Advancing One’s Career
I wish I could have gotten a mentor or coach early on. I feel like, even today, I lean so much on my coach; now, I have a professional coach. It’s not that nobody teaches you in college, or that nobody imparts wisdom outside of a mentor, but everybody needs somebody to guide them. The first time you have to let someone go, how will you do it? What’s the best way to do it? Nobody is going to talk to you about this; there are no training camps for that. You eventually will have to make some hard decisions, and having a mentor, coach or guide can help you with your day-to-day problems. I think I would have not made so many mistakes in life if I’d had that day-to-day sounding board and support. I would say everybody must get a coach or a mentor as early as possible in your career.
My super power is that I’m actually deeply excited by things that others would think were very difficult or impossibly hard. I almost relish that; I really enjoy unraveling a difficult problem. I don’t know how you would describe that, maybe tenacity? It’s the excitement of a challenge that I feel is my super power.
We as a nonprofit have to hold ourselves to a really high level of accountability towards the girls we serve. So, for instance, with the fund, I loved the idea, but I struggled for three years to bring the parties together to launch it. A fund like this had never existed in the world before, but I was very excited to make something that seemed impossible come to fruition. It was a struggle; it took three years, but it was something I just had to continue with and be tenacious.
On Role Models and Choosing a Partner
For me there are just two people I look up to who are my role models for equality as well, that’s my dad and my husband. They’re both great cooks, which means I’ve never had to learn to cook. My vision of equality is their vision, and so my father and my husband both have reshaped my worldview. They’re sort of my role models.
In terms of equality in a marriage and roles in the home, you do a type of recruitment when you’re looking for a husband. You look for shared values, etc. For me, that was very important. The first time my husband asked me out, he asked if he could cook for me. I was just like, “Okay, that’s a good sign!” Sometimes, I would try and cook, and he would be like “No, no, no.” I just realized that cooking is his passion. Or, for instance, my husband and I both travel extensively for work. My husband is a filmmaker, so we both have really intense lives, but with the children we share all the responsibilities. Equity and sharing is key. And it’s his core value of how he treats women, and how he relates to women.
On A Way Forward For Women and Society
My philosophy is we need education. Without education everything is useless; you’re not going to access opportunities because doors are not going to be open for you. Whether or not you get stuck in a support function is irrelevant, without education you won’t even get to that point. So education is definitely critical; it’s non negotiable.
I feel that the other non-negotiable with education is mindset change. They’re almost like two sides of the same coin. They have to go hand in hand. All of our programs with Educate Girls are designed to address both these issues. You can’t leave mindset change behind to focus on education. Many think education will make everything okay, but we know that it is not what happens.
For instance, if you look at Middle Eastern countries, like Bahrain. A lot of women are doing their Masters and PhDs and a lot of boys are dropping out after 10th grade. But that doesn’t necessarily lead to women being able to fulfill their potential, because a change in mindset has not happened. Women still get left behind or subjugated, even though they’re highly educated, because in the rest of the society the mindset change has not taken place.
Or, if you look at South Korea, they have very high per capita income and very high levels of education. However, it is illegal to carry a camera phone that takes pictures without the shutter noise. Why? It’s because the problem of men taking photos of women under their skirt without consent was so prevalent. Even though a society might be very rich and very highly educated, it doesn’t mean that society is going to be equitable.
That’s what I mean when I say education is critical, but without a change in mindset, it’s incomplete. We won’t be able to go down the road to equity without both of these growing in parallel.