True leaders face many unknowns and cannot predict the future. Furthermore, they are often beset by uncertainties and fears. But after discovering their individual passions, they move forward, acting on bold ideas designed to promote the greater good.
The summer of 2015, I experienced this kind of leadership while surrounded by extraordinary global female trailblazers at the HERlead, formally known as ANNpower Vital Voices, Leadership Forum. I was among 50 young women leaders chosen out of 5000 sophomore and junior applicants to become HERlead Fellows at the leadership training and mentorship program in Washington, D.C. At HERlead, I was immersed in an environment with the most outstanding girls in the country and with pioneers of women’s rights. These women included founders of Fortune 500 companies, former U.S. Ambassadors, and a former U.S. Treasurer.
At this conference, I met my own mentor, Maria Pacheco, a biologist who is the Co-Founder of Wakami. As a fellow Hispanic, she inspired me to channel my energy to follow my own dreams, even though my visions may cause me to confront many fears. Maria taught me that it is reasonable not to know exactly what obstacles I may face or the precise path I’ll follow to reach my goals – as long as I’m guided by the right morals and values that motivate me to better my community, I will find my path. She emphasized that a collective dream is usually far more successful than a solitary effort, and a dream that focuses on helping people is far more rewarding than one guided by self-interest.
As a biologist, Maria Pacheco never foresaw herself one day creating a business to better her country, which she once resented. Disheartened by the corruptness of Guatemala, Maria found herself despising her home country and ashamed to identify as a Guatemalan. But, when she visited a deprived village as a biologist, her anger shifted to positive energy, and she was inspired to help. She was soon on a mission to bring prosperity to long-forgotten villages. She hung up her lab coat and founded Kiej de Los Bosques, a company connecting local weavers and artisans in Guatemala to a global market. She then created the brand Wakami, which designs fashion accessories and bracelets inspiring people to create change and enjoy life.
Pacheco has also tackled the issue of fair trade and helped create sustainable, healthy communities in villages that lacked clean water and had many malnourished children. Maria turned her ideas into a catalyst for economic development. She didn’t establish a charity, because that’s not what the people wanted; they wanted to be independent and earn their own money.
Despite the fact, she had never studied business – and that she had every reason to expect failure – Maria Pacheco led with compassion to care for the women of Guatemala. Her business models resulted in economic growth in numerous local Wakami villages. Her “bracelets for change” movement has improved the lives of so many, all because Maria set aside her fears and became a leader and pioneer for others’ prosperity.
After this experience, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the HERlead Ambassadors Forum this past spring in 2017. The forum invited back 25 of the past 200 fellows to strengthen its network and continue the empowerment and education of past fellows through more refined skills for college aged students. While it was easy for me to say that my first fellowship changed my life, it is even easier to say that about the Ambassador Forum. My passion was reignited and a new-found appreciation for mentorship was inspired in me. Not only was it an amazing reunion between me and fellows of my year, but I was also given the opportunity to form friendships and network with other HerLead Fellows of various years.
At the forum, we, as fellows, realized we were not even tapping into the potential our Vital Voices network had. Not only did we not have a platform to find other fellows by location, but there was also no contact or liaison for Fellow hot spots where alumni reunions could be held. To tackle these issues, two ideas were proposed: first, the Digital Impact Map, and second, the Regional Ambassador position. I have been fortunate to be selected to work on both projects as the Design Head for the Impact Map and the Atlanta Regional Ambassador.
My previous HERlead project was known as Positively Post It, an online social media campaign that encourages positively, combats cyberbullying, and promotes positive self-body image. This is done by a visual representation of colorful Post-It notes adhered to school campuses with positive messages on them. This project was originally implemented in my hometown but after the receiving a HERlead Grant in 2015, I expanded my project across the country through a network of HERlead Fellows. My project was then implemented in 10 other schools across the country and expanding to 10 schools locally. Through HERlead, my dreams and visions for my project were realized.
However, the projects and activities from the Ambassador forum provided me a new lens about leadership and my story. After soul searching for a week, being inspired by the openness of the women around me, their vulnerability in sharing their stories, and seeing how important it was to all the mentors to give back to other women, I realized the true meaning behind “Invest in women. Improve the world”, Vital Voices’ motto. Understanding my own story, a story of ceaseless energy to giving back to my community, lacked empowering other leaders, a crucial cornerstone for the next generation of leaders – women leaders. I realized that without women like Maria Pacheco, I could have never realized my full potential as a leader. Through this, I know how important it is to empower women! If we don’t support each other, who will? If we don’t celebrate the success of our female peers, why would anyone else?