Transformational programming: iteration and innovation

It seems obvious in retrospect, but when I walked out of the funder’s office on that bright summer afternoon in 2018, I had no idea how we were going to do what I’d just promised.

I had been told: “We won’t fund anything that doesn’t explicitly address women’s rights–it’s got to include some advocacy for women.” So I had quickly agreed we would do that.

I was a former academic with a background in women’s history and had founded Artistri Sud in 2009 with the mission of empowering women to be leaders and changemakers. We helped marginalized women become entrepreneurs by leveraging their existing assets (typically heritage craft production) so they could generate sustainable revenue, and ultimately become influencers at the household and community levels. I had spent five years working directly with women artisans in the global South who were trying to make a living selling their production, so I had an understanding of the challenges they faced. I had also seen firsthand how all strata of women faced injustice, and lacked opportunities to improve their lives. Studies and reports from the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) were pointing to the multiplier effects of women’s economic empowerment and calling for greater investments in women. Beyond that, as a feminist, it was clear to me that profound social change could not occur until women stepped into their full empowered greatness—and for this to happen in a capitalist patriarchal system, where money talks, they would need to generate revenue for themselves.


Bootstrapping a pilot program

Our flagship program, created with the (volunteer) help of an experienced education specialist and a team of advisors, was designed to meet the needs common to the hundreds of women artisans in the dozen or so countries in the global South that I had worked with. This program is a five-day intensive entrepreneurship retreat with a heavy emphasis on innovation and sales—both key factors in revenue creation where women struggled greatly. The week-long boot camp was to be followed by a year of coaching, aimed at supporting integration of the new concepts and practices into participants’ daily work lives.

In 2013-2014, a handful of volunteers and I bootstrapped a pilot project in Bolivia, and just kept going from there. We worked with local NGO partners to recruit our target clients in the field—low-income marginalized women with few opportunities to change their situation. Some were illiterate, while others were victims of domestic abuse. We were scrappy and figured out how to raise money and talent, and we expanded our programs to indigenous groups in Chile. Most of those involved were volunteers, and our Board did a lot of heavy lifting. Our trainer and a few others were paid for short-term contracts, but many stayed on as volunteers to contribute to the next editions, and to co-create new programs.


A growth mindset: Continuous improvement

This quickly became a mainstay of our approach to curriculum design: continuous improvement by the program delivery team itself. The team had been on the ground, and they had their own experiences in the field. They knew what led to “Aha” moments, and what didn’t. With our very first iteration, our goal was for women to increase their incomes by 10%. (In fact, we had reduced our goal from 15% after a freak storm in the Andes wiped out a quarter of a million alpaca that year.) That first cohort, however, increased their incomes by an astonishing average of 46%.

By the summer of 2018, three-quarters of our program graduates were consistently doubling their incomes within a year of graduating. Critically, they were also more confident, had more influence over household decision-making, were mentoring other women, and participating in community groups at double the rate they had prior to participating in our programs. As we tried to figure out how to reach more people, we added leadership training and Train-the-Trainer programs to grow our trainer pool and develop leadership and expertise locally. We increased the cohort size every year and that summer, of 2018, we were also expanding our program geographically: for the first time, we were running two programs in two very different regions at the same time.

We were no strangers to iteration; many of the same trainers and experts were still volunteer consultants on our program team, committed to innovating and improving our program design and methodology year after year, and incorporating the learnings from each experience into the next year’s version. Nonetheless, working in a remote province in Vietnam walloped us with very different challenges than we had faced in Latin America: women were visibly more cowed and needed more targeted strategies to bring them out of their shell and build confidence—even just getting them to speak in class was a chore. They were much less literate and tech-savvy (despite all having smart phones), and at least one participant had never even held a pencil before. As well, the poverty was so much more grinding—one participant admitted that in the days before the training, she had had to give some of her money to her sister, whose kids hadn’t eaten in three days.

So that year, when we went back to the drawing board with the team, we had a long list of challenges to address. In addition, we faced the challenge presented by those funders I mentioned earlier—we also had to raise awareness of women’s rights.


Some iterations are more successful than others

It seems obvious in retrospect: incorporating women’s rights education was the single most important innovation we’ve ever made. The shift from focusing exclusively on economic development to incorporating rights-based approaches was transformative. Somehow, proactively raising awareness around the systematic oppression of women and teaching about inalienable human rights hadn’t seemed necessary.

But the change over time has proved nothing short of miraculous. We implemented this new module, on women’s rights, the following year—our second year in Vietnam—which also happened to be the year where we again doubled the size of our cohort, such that we were training 85 women.

The first part of the women’s rights module was a warm-up activity—a true or false game, with a series of questions about the status of women in Vietnam. Upon hearing a given statement, women had to move to the left or to the right to indicate whether they thought the statement was true or false. The first fact had to do with the number of women occupying ministerial positions in the Vietnamese parliament. Another was about the number of women in the labour force—they weren’t too sure about the answer to this question (some weren’t even sure women could be ministers!), so they hesitated, some moving left, others moving right.

The last question was about the percentage of women in Vietnam who were victims of domestic violence. When the question was put to them, to answer either “true or false,” without hesitation all 85 participants moved immediately to the left: Yes, came their response, the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese women are victims of domestic violence. The room went still as my own team of six processed the women’s answer. The team—all young, privileged women—reeled. One of our local staff rushed out of the room in tears. Two others gaped at me, visibly shaken. For most of the people in that room, violence against women was a given, a simple fact of life. And in that moment, that room full of women, nearly 100 of us from different backgrounds, ethnicities, countries, worlds—became one. A sisterhood. Unified as endurers of violence.

For the participants, a floodgate had been opened. We wrapped up the evening’s activities, and they went to their rooms, big groups of them, doors opened, talking and laughing and crying well into the night. The next part of the activity took place two days later, when we delved much deeper into human rights. One of the questions was, What would you need to live a decent life? They were surprised to discover that the needs they identified were already theoretically guaranteed by international conventions. When a full group discussion followed, women who had spoken little all week shared their deepest feelings and aspirations with the group of 85—an enormous feat for most.

The discoveries made with this approach helped provide a lens for seeing and understanding something that previously had been hidden from them. After the learning activities around women’s rights, the women saw that there were forces outside themselves which were holding them back. One graduate later explained: “My father-in-law was the worst. He would say I shouldn’t go out, I should just take care of the babies and the house, that my ideas were stupid, that I was stupid, that I couldn’t do anything. I always felt bad. I used to try to explain my ideas. I tried to show him he was wrong. But he never listened. After I did the training about women’s rights I realized: it’s not about me. I realized I wasn’t stupid. I stopped caring about what he says. I created my businesses. I made my ideas reality. I became free.” The awareness of systemic oppression helped them to break free; it took the burden off them, personally. It was no longer their fault.

It was obvious that something significant had changed in the delivery of the program—the women shared more amongst themselves, they were more vulnerable and emotional with each other, more caring. They vowed to stay in touch and shared their contact information. On the last day dozens sobbed openly, hugging each other and all of us on the training team.

This shift also provided a theoretical framework which lent coherence and cogency to other issues we had been covering but which were not strictly part of an “entrepreneurship training.” Tackling barriers to action such as limiting beliefs, lack of self-confidence, and feelings of rejection had proven essential for women to progress with their enterprises, and now made sense when considered in the light of a women’s rights-based approach.


Lessons learned

Program design can be transformative. The following approaches have been useful to us and now constitute structured steps in our process.

Focus on results: It can be easy to be distracted from your ultimate aim, or to get attached to a particular approach, methodology or ideology. A willingness to rigorously test outcomes based on their relevance to the mission helps teams make effective decisions. This seems obvious, and yet the program activities of many charities and non-profits do not hang together with rigorous cohesion upon closer inspection. A single mindedness is needed to evaluate whether innovations are truly leading to accomplishing the mission. Let the mission drive innovation, rather than attachment to a methodology, ideology, or funding source. When we added women’s rights training to our programs, we were initially acting on a recommendation from a potential funder, but it was one which aligned perfectly with our mission, so it made sense to put it to the test.

Coachability: Consider advice from different actors, or ideas and practices from different sectors. Good ideas and innovations can come from anywhere and can be extrapolated from other fields. Entrepreneurship and lean startup principles have guided our learning activities and innovation practices; new research and thinking in the fields of education, psychology, neuroscience, and community development have been integrated into program design. Fostering openness and even seeking out different modalities drives better results over time.

Iterate/innovate: Commit to experimentation and continuous improvement. Accepting that interventions won’t be perfect is liberating—we need to try new approaches in situ to be able to properly assess their impact. Sometimes that means taking some risks and making mistakes, and embracing the learning which comes from them. We’ve had to course-correct on site many times; those corrections find their way into the next program as a matter of process.

Trust your target audience: Making mistakes is less daunting when you believe the beneficiaries know best, and when you involve them as co-creators every step of the way. We never get this perfectly right—technology, language, culture, time differences, and other factors make it challenging to involve participants in the design process. And it has taken some trial and error to navigate nimbly between training and facilitating in the actual workshops. We do teach some skills and best practices; but much of what we do is create an environment where participants discover and share from their own knowledge and experience. One of the critical concepts which graduates who are admitted to our Train-the-Trainer program need to come to terms with is that they don’t need to know all the answers; they need to learn how to ask questions and encourage others to share their answers, then guide them in discovering, applying, and synthesizing solutions that emerge from those conversations. Looking to beneficiaries to drive solutions puts them in the driver’s seat in a way which empowers them. It also takes the pressure off us, as leaders and facilitators, to get it 100% right. A dependable, likeminded field partner can also provide important context and feedback.


What next?

In the 10 years since our pilot, we’ve directly trained over 600 women, and through them, had an impact on over 7000 others in eight countries: about 35% of graduates have become homeowners; nearly half now employ others in their communities; many have gone on to become teachers and trainers, or leaders of local associations and boards, or even elected officials in their communities and municipalities. An integral part of our sustainability plan was to stay in a given location only four to five years, which was how long it would take to train a cadre of autonomous local trainers. These local trainers could then deliver our programs and be respected knowledge bearers and guides in their communities. Working with trusted local partners enables us to bring what we have to offer to a target audience while maintaining a light footprint in a region—we don’t open offices and set up long-term structures. This in turn means we are able to move nimbly and experiment, to uncover what works to bring about the results we seek. We’ve relied on pro bono consulting and volunteers to accomplish these goals on a shoestring. The challenge going forward will be to build sustainability as an organization, while retaining the lightness that has enabled us to pivot and adapt gracefully while doing so.

Jennifer Lonergan, PhD

Jennifer Lonergan, PhD

Founder and Executive Director, AWE Global