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WATCH: Elizabeth Scharpf on that time of the month for millions

, ,    /   Apr 21st, 2010Interviews, Photos & Videos

We all know that that time of the month is a pain, but who knew that it causes millions of women to lose up to 45 days of work and school every year? And for something as basic as a lack of sanitary napkins. Elizabeth Scharpf, founder of Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), shares her start-up plan to distribute low-cost sanitary napkins for women in Rwanda and other countries, and establish women-owned and operated local businesses to manufacture the products.

Dowser: SHE seeks to improve the health and economic welfare of women in the developing world by incubating sanitary napkin businesses. What led you to this idea?
Scharpf: In 2003, I was working as a strategy consultant at a firm that helps pharmaceutical and biotech companies launch drugs and devices. The day after I got home from a business trip to Brazil, the front page of the New York Times said, ‘Clinton Foundation Negotiates Drug Prices with Indian Generic Manufacturers for $300 a Year.”

I thought to myself, ‘Wow! How can the Clinton Foundation negotiate $300 prices when the companies I worked with were pricing those drugs at $15,000 a year? I wrote an old-school letter to the Clinton Foundation, which started, “Dear President Clinton…”

Snail mail?
Yeah. Fast-forward five months – I got into grad school, quit my job, and got a call from the Clinton Foundation. They invited me to travel with them to China to negotiate antiretroviral HIV/AIDS drugs. I realized we could help businesses do well and, at the same time, provide a lot of patients with a low-cost drug.

During grad school I had the opportunity to work in Mozambique in East Africa, and I realized that a ten-cent pad could make all the difference in terms of economic development, education and health for girls and women. And so I thought, given my background and my skill set, this was something that I could apply my skills to.

Why sanitary pads?
Girls and women around the world, particularly in developing countries, are actually using rags, even mud sometimes, when they’re menstruating – for 45 days a year, let’s say. This is causing them not to go to school, not to go to work, and it’s also causing health problems.

And what are the ramifications of this?
Women and girls make up the backbone of a lot of societies and are the support network for families’ welfare and well-being. For every dollar a woman makes, 80 cents is invested in the family’s welfare. For men it’s only 30 cents.

You’ve now partnered with numerous organizations and institutions in Rwanda. What’s the key to success?
We’ve been very careful about how we communicated our mission. When we went to the Ministry of Infrastructure, for instance, we didn’t say, ‘This is about girls not going to school.’ Instead, we said, ‘If you want to grow your economy, you need to make sure that half of your population is not at risk of not going to school because you don’t have a low-cost sanitary pad.’ Once you figure out the appropriate messaging, doors will open.

Have you made any mistakes or false assumptions along the way?
I went to Rwanda with a team of four students from MIT last summer to talk to 500 girls and women about what they do when they’re menstruating. I thought, OK, here I am, this big, tall, white woman going to Rwanda—I need to stay out of the picture in terms of getting feedback from girls and women because menstruation is a pretty taboo issue. Thinking academically, we said, ‘OK, we’re going to have our questions translated into to the local language and then have a local person conduct the discussion.’

But everyone wanted us to be there and join in the conversation. They wanted to know what we do when we menstruate. So we had to adapt very quickly to the culture of the local population, and talk about something that was taboo.

What has motivated you to keep going after setbacks?
A great professor of mine said that if you don’t fail, you’re not a good entrepreneur. It took a lot of adjusting for me to realize that failure is a sign of a good entrepreneur, and a good venture does not take a straight path; it zigzags.

What practical challenges have you faced?
One is getting different stakeholders together that ultimately might not have the same goal. For example, we’re currently trying to work with a big company and with someone who is purely socially oriented. We absolutely have get both parties on board to be successful.

So the question is how do you make it so that you can all sit around the table and discuss your organization’s goal, without having someone drop out because their ultimate goals are not necessarily the same as the person sitting across from them?

Like you said before, it’s all about tailoring the message, eh?
Exactly. The other day I was at a UN agency giving a presentation. I had a slide that was from a previous presentation that said, ‘We must use a profit-maximizing model.’ The gasps around the room were really loud. People said, ‘What? Profit maximizing??’ I realized that, obviously, you have to be genuine about your goal, but you have to tailor your message to the audience.

So your model is for-profit. Can you talk about the benefits of for-profit compared to non-profit?
After about three or four years, we will not be dependent on outside donations. For the last 50 years, international development has been about aid and dependency. We didn’t want to create another model or organization that continued to facilitate this dependency.

What advice do you have for fundraising?
Be absolutely scrappy. Be the Dennis Rodman of social entrepreneurs. Dive on the floor for the ball, continually think about your mission, and do what it takes to fulfill it.

See if friends, family, and people who have been mentors will give you some support, especially in-kind— advice, space for a launch party, or a dinner invitation where you can talk about what you’re doing and form new relationships.

How about for creating a Board?
Don’t think you’re asking people for favors. People love to get involved in social enterprises. Especially in this economic time, people are trying to find their passion and trying to realize how their skill set can be used for good.

You must be pretty busy right now. How do you balance your work and personal life?
You have to make boundaries for yourself. I try to keep a strict schedule, starting at 8 a.m., putting the computer away at 7 p.m., and turning off my Blackberry at 8 p.m. I also have a list of things to do, like ‘sleep,’ ‘exercise,’ ‘eat’ and ‘smile.’

What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned?
Always have a good friend who’s a lawyer. And make business cards! You wouldn’t believe how much people differed in their responses to me based on a simple business card.

What advice would you offer to someone who aspires to a career of social impact?
Put a stick in the sand. A lot of people have ideas about how they want to create social impact and it doesn’t become a reality until you say, ‘This is what I’m doing.’ And don’t forget to take care of yourself. I might be a little mom-like in this sense, but yeah, eat your broccoli.

5 Responses

  1. stokedsteve says:

    This is truly an innovative organization and Elizabeth is amazing. I saw her speak at The Feast and I gave her a standing ovation. This organization motivates me so much. Keep up the amazing work. S

  2. Emily Spivack says:

    Agreed! And ditto with you and Stoked, Steve, when I heard your talk at one of the Feast mini-gatherings.

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