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Catalina Escobar is a 2012 alumna of the Fortune/State Department/Vital Voices Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership and founder and president of the Juan Felipe Gomez Escobar Foundation based in Colombia. A year after her participation in the program, she shares how her work has evolved as a result of her relationship with her mentor, Pat Mitchell, president and CEO of the Paley Center on Media.

I run the Juan Felipe Gomez Escobar Foundation (JuanFe), a non-profit organization I created in 2001 to address the alarmingly high rates of infant mortality and teen pregnancy in Cartagena, Colombia.  At that time, we faced some tough challenges. 68% of the population in Cartagena was living below the poverty line. The infant mortality rate was the highest in the country, at 48 deaths per 1,000 babies born live. And nearly a third of women giving birth were teenagers, most of them poor, and many of them sexually abused.

Our foundation decided to focus on two objectives to combat these issues: reduce the number of preventable infant deaths, and to empower young moms to break the cycle of poverty. 

I’m proud to say that by 2007, JuanFe was recognized as one of the most innovative non-profits in Colombia, with state-of-the-art models of intervention in health for girls and young women. By this time, we had reduced the infant mortality rate in the city by 81.2%, saving the lives of more than 3,000 babies. We’d worked with more than 2,400 teen mothers in six years.

The impact of my mentor

My team and I had developed a vision to scale up our initiatives, but lacked the means and access to raise awareness about our work on an international level. The Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership, and more specifically my mentor, Pat Mitchell, provided us the potential to deliver the impact of our work globally.  

During my mentorship, Pat took me under her wing, shared her expertise with me, introduced me to colleagues in her network, and arranged key meetings that were essential to my work.  She has helped me build a platform from which my philanthropic initiatives are being launched. Pat has opened her heart to me and has become my great friend as well as my mentor. She goes above and beyond for me, and profoundly understands my mission. 

Increased visibility

Pat has continued to open doors for me around the world. She recently invited me to the DLDWomen Summit in Munich, and nominated me for the 21 Leaders for the 21st Century Awards from Women’s eNews.  I was honored alongside other women of great power, including Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland, Sandra Fluke, Regina Scully and Helen Benedict.  Last year, I was nominated for CNN Hero of the Year, and was one of the Top 10 Finalists.

New partnerships

In June, the production team of Half the Sky Movement will be filming at our foundation in Cartagena. Boston University is working on research collaboration between its School of Public Health and JuanFe to collect data and evaluate our models of intervention.  And we are now working with the Inter-American Development Bank for assistance in documenting our models in order to scale up in Latin America.

In the past 12 years we have come a long way, but now we are moving ahead in ways we never before imagined. And in the last year I have seen firsthand the difference a mentor can make. She has shown me what I am capable of, and pushes me to take JuanFe to new heights.  

Photo above by CNN.