Ritu Sharma Fox – Co-founder & President of Women Thrive
A Thriving Do-Gooder: Ritu Sharma Fox, co-founder and president of Women Thrive Worldwide, talks to PINK about running a nonprofit – and living in Nicaragua on $1 a day.
By Taylor Mallory
While working for an environmental nonprofit straight out of college, Ritu Sharma Fox realized that among the lobbyists on Capitol Hill, there were plenty of representatives for the oil industry, giant companies and even some social issues, but there was no voice at the table for impoverished women worldwide. So 10 years ago last month, the wife and mother of two boys (Raam, 4, and Kai, 9) founded Women Thrive, a nonprofit organization that petitions Congress on women’s behalf. She started with $40,000 she got from 12 other nonprofits, including CARE and Save the Children; today it’s a $2 million organization. And while Sharma Fox says Women Thrive has had to cut its budget this year by about $150,000 due to the economy, the organization is still going strong.
PINK: You lived in Nicaragua on $1 a day for four days this February. Why?
Ritu Sharma Fox: I spent time in Matagalta with women who are living on quite a bit less than a dollar a day – to see what it’s like and let them tell their stories (available at womenthrive.org). And it’s really hard. There are women forced to choose between a tortilla or beans – and that’s their only meal for the day. They can’t have both. If they need to take the bus into town, that’s all the money they have to spend for the day, so they don’t eat that day. God forbid their children get sick and need medicine. That’s one or two days’ worth of food. The choices these mothers must make are heartbreaking. What’s amazing is that they don’t feel sorry for themselves. They are really focused on what to do to make things better for their children. And I think they’ll succeed. They won’t be rich, but they’re definitely on their way to a much better life.
PINK: What did you buy on a dollar a day?
R.S.F.: I bought one tortilla – that was 20 cents of my dollar – and a bottle of water for 50 cents. They have sources of dirty drinking water; most can’t afford bottled water. I also bought one egg for 10 cents and a cup of rice for 10 cents. I put it all on the table and asked our guide, “Tell us how far this would go.” She said everything I bought is what a typical family of six would eat for the full day. Women support one another so they can supplement their diets – particularly in rural areas where one is growing avocados, for example, and another is growing onions. But it’s still not enough.
PINK: What is the greatest lesson you have learned from working with these women?
R.S.F.: Every time I travel to poor countries it makes me grateful for what I have and reminds me that I don’t particularly need that new pair of pumps. And so it’s made me more conscious about where I choose to spend my money and what I do with it.
PINK: Women Thrive celebrated its 10th anniversary last month. What have you accomplished in that time?
R.S.F.: We’ve leveraged more than $250 million from the U.S. government for programs for Afghani women and girls. After the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, we found out that the federal government had only given $150,000 to Afghanistan’s new Ministry of Women’s Affairs. So I went walking around Capitol Hill with some Afghani women talking to anybody who would listen to us. And in two days we got $2 million for the next year. And then the next year we got $7 million, then $50 million the next – eventually getting $75 million in a year. And in 2002, we developed a framework called the Trade Impact Review to figure out how international trade agreements, like those at the World Trade Organization, would impact very destitute women in the world’s poorest countries. And in 2004, the U.S. government actually took our message and used it to look at eight poor countries. It was a $6 million program over five years, so we definitely made that happen.
PINK: What are you working on right now?
R.S.F.: The International Violence Against Women Act. A coalition of women’s organizations like us, the Family Violence Prevention Fund and Amnesty International U.S.A. wrote the bill, and we are all working to get signatures on it. You can sign our petition online or write a letter to your representative and senators. A handwritten note on personal stationery to your legislator saying you support this bill is the most effective thing you can do because they get bombarded by e-mails and phone calls, and that’s just not personal. It’s so easy for someone to push a button and send an e-mail, but if you have actually taken the time to sit down and write a short letter, it gets through all of the gatekeepers and filters. We’re encouraging women to have evening get-togethers with girlfriends where everyone brings some wine, their stationery and a fountain pen. You only spend 10 to 15 minutes writing the letter, and the rest of the time you can catch up and gossip and socialize.
PINK: Some nonprofits come and go. You’ve been around for a decade. What’s the secret to your longevity?
R.S.F.: Results. I’ve had a very businesslike approach to running a nonprofit, and we are very results-oriented. We have annual legislative goals, and I hold my staff accountable to those. Politics are messy, and there are a lot of factors that play a role in what we can accomplish, but at the end of the day, if we’re not getting things done, we don’t deserve to exist. I think that has been the most important factor in our success. Otherwise, why should people continue to support us?
PINK: So with all that work, how do you balance work with your family?
R.S.F.: We’re really committed to Life/Work balance. I started the organization and then had my first son six months later, which was completely insane, but it forced me to build in balance from the beginning. We’re now a staff of about 15. All of my senior managers are mothers, and four of us have children under age 9. So we’re very efficient, and we understand that our jobs and lives aren’t separate. We’re not like men in that way. We don’t compartmentalize our lives. We have very clear guidelines in our personnel policy about working from home. That is a privilege, not a right. You have to be available and working – and you have to have childcare. We’re also really respectful when people set boundaries. My staff knows not to call me at home on the weekend, because I won’t answer the phone. And it’s pointless to expect a response to e-mail when I’m on vacation. Everyone has her own particular set of rules, and we just tell each other, “Here are my pet peeves,” or, “If you do this, I’ll kill you, and if you do this, that’d be great.” And that works for us.
PINK: How do you personally maintain balance?
R.S.F.: I’ve learned that I can’t be a perfectionist, because I have to be a good-enough mom and a good-enough leader. And you have to get comfortable with that. If the house is a little messy, so what? Hire help. There are certain problems you can outsource: housekeeping, getting your dry cleaning done, getting your car fixed – things that have to be done but not necessarily by you. If you can afford it, throw money at those problems. But when it comes to taking my kids to the doctor, I need to do that. And I need to show up for their performances and be there to help them with homework. I’m also blessed with a fantastic husband who shares half the work with me – sometimes even more because his job is more flexible than mine right now. I know my Life/Work balance scale is tipping when I start resenting my job. Then maybe I need to spend more time with my kids or do more pottery. When I’m burnt out, I’m no longer bringing my best self to the work. I’m cranky and not as effective.
PINK: What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in growing Women Thrive?
R.S.F.: The obvious challenge is raising money every year to support a nonprofit. But the challenge I didn’t expect was carving out a base for this organization and for myself as a women’s leader. I was 29 when I started Women Thrive, and I thought I’d be welcome, that people would be happy to hear from new voices. Not the case. I was really shocked at how competitive the field is because of funding. I made it work by letting the women leaders who were more established than me know that I value them, that I’m not trying to replace them, that I get that they know a lot more than me and that I owe them deference and respect. And I was really clear about what my organization would do and how different it was from what they were doing – that I wasn’t competing with them.
PINK: How do you define “success”?
R.S.F.: Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get. It’s about having passion and a mission in life.
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