Heather Ibrahim Leathers: How I Built the World's Largest NGO Dedicated to Widows

Nov 2022

Heather Ibrahim Leathers is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and a successful social entrepreneur. After over a decade on Wall Street, she founded the Global Fund for Widows, the world's largest nonprofit organization dedicated to economically empowering widows.

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"With very little understanding of nonprofit work, actually absolutely no understanding of nonprofit work, I decided I would start a small nonprofit just to help a few grandmas in Egypt."
Heather Ibrahim Leathers: How I Built the World's Largest NGO Dedicated to Widows
“Just start - don’t wait for perfection. Just start and let the work teach you. Your job is not to be perfect, your job is only to be human."
by Jacqueline Novogratz, Founder and CEO of Acumen, author of “The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World"

About The Episode

Even though starting a nonprofit organization is difficult, it forces you to consider your larger life goals beyond revenue and profit. It enables you to concentrate on the big picture and establish long-term objectives that have the potential to change the lives of millions of people.

Heather Ibrahim Leathers joins us in this episode of The Founder Spirit podcast. After over a decade on Wall Street, she founded the Global Fund for Widows, the world's largest nonprofit organization dedicated to economically empowering widows.

How did she do it? Is there something we could learn from her experience? Let's ask the Woman herself and be inspired!


Heather Ibrahim-Leathers is the Founder and President of the Global Fund for Widows the world’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to economically empowering widows in the developing world.  With its focus on training and financing widows to build sustainable micro-enterprises, the Global Fund for Widows has empowered over hundreds of thousands of women and children all over the world. Heather is the leading authority and voice for over 300 million widows, advocating for their human rights at the United Nations, the House of Lords in the United Kingdom, as well as the U.S. Congress. For her groundbreaking work and relentless effort of bringing the epidemic of widowhood into the forefront of global consciousness, Heather was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021.

Prior to her career in non-profit, Ms. Ibrahim-Leathers served as a Vice President, in Credit Suisse’s Leveraged Investment Group, where she was directly responsible for over $1 billion in high yield and leveraged loan assets. Prior to Credit Suisse, Ms. Ibrahim-Leathers worked at JPMorgan where she was an Emerging Markets Fixed Income analyst responsible for over $4 billion worth of debt issuance. Ms. Ibrahim-Leathers earned the coveted Institutional Investor Award in 1997 for her seminal research on Brazilian banks.

In 2013, Ms. Ibrahim-Leathers co-authored a book called "Toddlers On Technology", a parental guide to explain the benefits and risks of toddlers and their use of touch screen technology. Ms. Ibrahim-Leathers earned her Bachelors in Economics from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and is a Chartered Financial Analyst.

Episode Transcript

[00:04] Jennifer Wu: Hi, everyone, thanks for listening to The Founder Spirit Podcast. I'm your host, Jennifer Wu. In this podcast series, I'll be interviewing exceptional, unique individuals with the founder spirit, ranging from social entrepreneurs, tech founders, to philanthropists, elite athletes, and more. Together, we'll uncover not only how they manage to succeed and face the multiple challenges, but also who they are as people and their human story.

Our very special guest today is Heather Ibrahim-Leathers, Founder and President of the Global Fund for Widows, the world's largest not-for-profit organization dedicated to economically empowering widows in the developing world. With its focus on training and financing widows to build sustainable micro-enterprises, the Global Fund for Widows has empowered over hundreds and thousands of women and children all over the world.

Heather is the leading authority and voice for over 300 million widows, advocating for their human rights at the United Nations, the House of Lords in the UK, as well as the US Congress. For her groundbreaking work and relentless effort of bringing the epidemic of widowhood into the forefront of global consciousness, Heather was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021. I'm personally very honored and humbled to have you on the show, Heather.

[01:28] Heather Ibrahim-Leathers: Jen, thank you so much for having me. The honor is mine, I'm the one that's humble, thank you.

[01:34] Jennifer: My heartfelt congratulations to you on the Nobel Prize nomination, and thank you for taking the time today to join us.

[01:40] Heather: Thank you.

[01:42] Jennifer: Heather, I understand that you founded the Global Fund for Widows 15 years ago, shortly after the passing of your grandmother. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how you come to have found such a great organization?

[01:54] Heather: Yes. I think I didn't really appreciate or understand what I was doing at the time. My background was a 16-year veteran of Wall Street. I had recently retired from Wall Street to raise my children and I was pregnant with my second child when my grandmother passed away. Around that time I was about 35 years old.

In my grieving, I realized that she actually had a really difficult life. In trying to problem- solve for that, I realized that all of her troubles began the moment she became a widow. She was disinherited of all of her property, all of the money of the family that she had. Even property that she had brought into the marriage is a gift from her own father. She had four children that she needed to care for in Alexandria, Egypt and she was also young. She was 35 herself when she became a widow.

I started as a research analyst trying to problem-solve for this and trying to understand why is it, and how did this happen? As I researched it, I realized that this is a massive, massive human rights crisis that is operating on an epidemic level but hasn't entered our global consciousness here on this side of the pond. It's pervasive throughout mostly sub-Saharan Africa, but also Northern Africa, all through South Asia, and no one's talking about it.

With very little understanding of nonprofit work, actually absolutely no understanding of nonprofit work, I decided I would start a small nonprofit just to help a few grandmas in Egypt. Quickly, we began to understand that this was going to have to be a massive global effort if we were going to be able to affect real change. Then we realized we really needed to step it up and not just be in Egypt, but become affiliated with the UN in order to address the issue on a macro level.

[04:08] Jennifer: Heather, you had mentioned the massive human rights crisis that you had uncovered in this process. Can you tell the audience what you mean by the epidemic of widowhood?

[04:21] Heather: As we started doing the work and going out to the field and meeting widows, we discover that there are three main human rights violations that occur on a massive proportion. and it's actually done with astonishing impunity.

The first violation that the widows endure is what I call disinheritance, it's this issue where widows are not able to inherit anything that was rightfully theirs. It could be mutual marital property, it could be a marital home, marital lands, any types of valuable assets including bank accounts for example. Often times, widows are also disinherited of things that they brought into the marriage, jewellery, valuable assets. But what was really astonishing to learn with the disinheritance also is that it's linked to algorithms that sometimes mean that the widow can't inherit her own children. And that was something that was a bit of an additional shock to me.

Because sometimes based on the matron lineage or patron lineage line, either the daughter or the son may have greater share in the inheritance, and so the husband's family will hold onto that child in order to be able to hold on to most of the estate.

The other thing that happens with widows is that sometimes they're treated as properties themselves and are inherited themselves to their husbands’ next of kin. So if you think about it, if there was a dowry paid for that woman, maybe four cows, the family is out four cows. In their mind, they've paid for her. So if the husband suddenly dies, the family still thinks that she belongs to the family because she was worth four cows. And so then she's married off to the husband's brother, the husband's father, or some other cousin in order to preserve the marital property and to preserve that wealth within the family. So that was the shock of disinheritance, and this occurs with impunity.

The other form of human rights violations that I uncovered was what I call discrimination. And I’m not talking about the way that people treat each other on the street. I'm talking about institutionalized policies and laws that actually discriminate against a widow, and somehow, prevent her from inheriting, which 39 countries on the planet today actually prevent a widow from inheriting, or make it very difficult for the widow to inherit because of various loop holes or various inconsistencies and policies. And that's about 102 countries, believe it or not, continued throughout the world today that that prevent the widow from inheriting.

One of the things that I witnessed myself in the field when I was in Egypt was that a widow love to have a micro-loan in order to start a small business. And again remember most widows were widowed under the age of 39, which invariably means that they are mothers of young child, and on average it's about five children per widow. So they go into survival mode they need to survive, especially when they've been disinherited, and so the next best thing is to start a small business in order feed and educate their children. Well what happens is that microfinance companies will come along and say ‘oh sure, we're totally happy to give you a micro-loan, where's your collateral?” And the widow will say “well, I don't have collateral because I was disinherited. I have nothing.” “Oh okay no problem. where's your co-signer?  You need a guarantor and in our country, that has to be a man.” “Well, I don't have a male co-signer, because my husband is deceased, and my father-in-law wanted to marry me. And so, that institutionalized discriminatory policy puts these widows into doom loop essentially, and it really kind of launches the vicious cycle of poverty almost immediately.

The last thing that we uncovered is probably the most tragic, it's what we call harmful traditional practices, or HTPs. Harmful traditional practices are culturally mandated and culturally endorsed forms of violence against women. And these types of violence take multiple forms and really occur with impunity, real impunity, this is ubiquitous. This type of abuse, let's just say for the sake of the podcast, that it's sexual violence, and we've seen it on so many levels. It could be one time, it could be multiple, it could be one individual, it could be gang-related, it could happen over the course of many years. It's preposterous, and it's sad. The widow is blamed for being the curse upon the man. And the members the community, especially the family, are seeking to basically cleanse the widow, or somehow blame and shame her into disappearing, because that's generally what happens when (you) perpetrate violence against women.

And these three forms of human rights violations, when you think about the implications, they're really driving us away from all of the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). If you disinherit a widow, overnight she becomes impoverished. And as she becomes impoverished, she can no longer attain basic needs, which means immediately she cannot afford food, so that's SDG 1. And SDG 2 - no hunger; she can't afford health care, that's SDG 3; she can't afford education of her children, that’s SDG 4. What will she do when her kids come out of school, well the first thing that she'll do and they tell us this every single day, she'll surrender her daughter to child marriage - SDG 5. What happens to the sons? Well then they're recruited by extremists or criminal gangs - that’s SDG 8 I believe. So you'll see that we've moved away from 6 SDGs by the simple act of disinheritance. And that's what we call the the epidemic of widowhood.

[11:08] Jennifer: As you mentioned, you had a very successful career on Wall Street prior to founding the Global Fund for Widows, where you won the coveted Institutional Investor Award for your research on Brazilian banks if I remember. It doesn't sound like a very easy decision to me to go from being a banker on Wall Street to founding a not-for-profit. What was going through your head at the time? I know you were raising children at the time too.

[11:34] Heather: It was a very difficult decision to leave Wall Street. I was living my dream. I had decided when I was in the fourth grade that I wanted to be a research analyst on Wall Street, and I spent my entire life working for that. Everything from all of the studying, all the parties I never went to in high school, just studying like crazy to get to University of Pennsylvania Wharton School so that I could go to the top school in business so that I could go to the top job on Wall Street.

I literally, my entire focus, it was like a laser focus to get to Wall Street. When I got to Wall Street and I got the dream job of being a research analyst on Wall Street to walk away from that, especially not knowing that once you walk away and you give up that seat, you can never get it back. Or it's got to be a really, really great break of luck if you'd ever be able to get that seat back.

I delayed the decision as long as humanly possible and didn't want to take that decision but I also knew that if I were to start a family, there would be only one person that I could trust enough to raise my children. It was something that I needed to do and instill myself. Leaving Wall Street was a very difficult decision.

In leaving Wall Street, I knew that I would somehow have this calling at some point to reinvent myself. At that moment, I just decided, all right, I'm just going to leave it up to the universe and God and that answer will come to me in time when the time is right, but I knew that it would happen, I just had absolutely no visibility on how.

The fact that it was a nonprofit surprised even me but I needed to build something different when the time came. That really was it. That was really the necessity of reinvention, of doing something meaningful in the next days of life, but also having the flexibility to still be there for afternoon pickups from school, Taekwondo and soccer, and everything else that the kids need.

[13:58] Jennifer: Now, what do you think, looking back upon the career that you had on Wall Street, what do you think it taught you about being an entrepreneur?

[14:07] Heather: I really don't think there's any substitute for hard work. I think that if you have conviction in what you're doing, you're going to have days where you almost don't have the energy to get out of bed because of the amount of rejection that you face as an entrepreneur. On Wall Street, you didn't have that luxury of not getting out of bed. On the trading floor, you would have some really great days, and then you'd have days where traders are screaming at you expletives. You think you're going to die because you've been completely humiliated in front of people.

[4:45] Jennifer: Are you sure that's not every day?

[14:47] Heather: It was not easy, especially for a woman at that time. That really does teach you a lot of resilience and a lot of just ability to recover from small failures. I would say that the skillset that I had from Wall Street has been critical in developing the interventions that we use now at Global Fund for Widows. That I think is the greatest key to our success.

Being able to transfer knowledge base of skills like hardcore financial analysis and developing banks and understanding financial institutions and being able to use that with what you're hearing from the field in terms of the needs of the widows themselves, that I think is probably the greatest takeaway from Wall Street.

[15:39] Jennifer: We're going to definitely come back to that at a later point. In the early days, you had named the organization Windows for Widows as I recall correctly. Tell us, how did the organization look back then from day one?

[15:55] Heather: Oh, we really thought that we would just be helping a couple of grandmas in Egypt. My grandmother was from Egypt. I have strong ties to Egypt and I never thought that this would be a thing. We were like, oh, we'll just help a couple grandmas because I know so many widows in Egypt, and that's where we started.

We always knew that it was economic empowerment, so we partnered with someone in Egypt who had created a work fair program for us. That way, we were able to pay widows for very simple tasks that they were doing, but at least there was that satisfaction of accomplishment and reward that they had because I think that all humans really thrive on the success of feeling accomplishment. That was really the original nexus of it.

[16:38] Jennifer: Your vision back then was, let's just do what we can to help the people that we know, or at least in our community.

[16:46] Heather: Yes, exactly.

[16:48] Jennifer: How does that compare to what you've figured out since then? What your vision would be today or what you would like to build tomorrow?

[16:58] Heather: Now that's a great question. I think that everything that we've done so far has come out of these small moments of obligation that are also small moments of realizing failure, whether it was my own failure or somebody else's failure. Those moments of obligations are really the big triggers.

If you think about how we started just helping out a couple of grandmas, what we ended up doing is reading articles all the time about how widows were being treated. I shouldn't say all the time, we were trying to do research to figure out who else in the world was doing this work. We would research it. In every 10 months, there would be an article maybe, or one every year there would be one article out of Africa about the mistreatment of widows. I honestly have to say I've read those articles and didn't believe a word of it.

It was so horrifying, the human rights abuses that I was reading, that I actually thought that they were being embellished by the authors. We ignored it for a long time, for a couple years. We also refused to talk about it because we just didn't believe it. Ultimately, we became affiliated with the United Nations. We received our special consultative status with ECOSOC. That allowed us to really come into the chambers. As we came into the chambers and started meeting other organizations at the commission on status of women and other major convenings, we were starting to actually meet those organizations from the field that were traveling in.

Then we realized how big this problem was. These organizations would come in from India or Cameroon or Nigeria or Kenya and we would have these private conversations because no one would come to our meetings because no one cared about widows. It would be us talking to an empty room, but we started developing programs. Those programs were the original foundations for the successes that we were starting to see in the field.

That was really just through pure rolling up our sleeves and coming up with ideas of how can we fix this for the widows. How can we include widows in this solution or that solution, manufacturing oil, palm oil production, just small projects here and there. I didn't find those to be sustainable. I still wasn't happy with that. It was just really a bunch of moments of obligation.

[19:31] Jennifer: For you personally, what were some of the biggest challenges for you in the early days?

[19:37] Heather: I didn't have results. There were no results of any kind of success. There were no articles. There were no, Ford Foundation wasn't talking about it. CNN wasn't talking about it, anyone who's anyone wasn't talking about it. Was almost like, I think people were like, "Oh, she's talking about widows again. That lady is talking about widows again." Nobody cared. We actually again, moments of obligation. I remember my team, this group of widows activists were at the Human Rights Council in Geneva and we were speaking to someone on widows and he turned to us and he's like, ''You know what your problem is? There's no money in it. There's no money in widows.''

We were like, "Oh, now we understand why this has been so hard. We need to figure out a way where we can make widows critical to the economy or critical to social protections or critical to governments. If there's money attached to it, dollar bills, then all of a sudden people will be more interested." It's those types of small little moments that we had that were the awakenings, these moments of obligations. We have dozens of them. We can talk about those for hours.

[20:46] Jennifer: Thanks. A few years then into the Global Fund for Widows, you also co-authored a book I think 2013 called Toddlers on Technology, is a Parental Guide to explain risk and benefit of the touchscreen devices. I don't think anybody was talking about it back then 10 years ago and now everybody's talking about it. Tell us a little bit more about the book just to start and then we'll get into it a little bit more.

[21:15] Heather: I was doing tours for my kids' preschool and at the time the head of that preschool department was a woman by the name of Patti Wollman Summers, phenomenal. She was a friend. We just absolutely adored her. She's almost like a grandmother to my children. Then every time she would give a tour, I would bring the tour throughout her classrooms. She would come out and she would start explaining how the students that she's seeing now were very different from the students of two years ago. The only thing that attributed to it was the fact that they were the digital generation.

They were the children that were born native to the iPad and she was noticing that they had much better motor skills, fine motor skills. They could point, they could do things that normal three and two-year-olds couldn't do, at least in her 40-year history of teaching this demographic. She said that they had longer attention spans and she was just seeing all these things that the toddler before wasn't doing. I told her, I walked into her office one day, I'm like, ''This is really fascinating. You need to write a book.'' She was like, ''I'll only do it if you do it with me.'' I said, ''Okay, whatever you want.''

That's how we started. We did a bunch of research. There was no longitudinal data at the time. This was really cutting-edge. We wrote the book just based on observations that she had in the field and whatever rudimentary research she conducted in her classrooms and it got published. It was fun to publish a book.

[22:55] Jennifer: How would you characterize that book for you personally?

[22:57] Heather: I would say it was cutting edge maybe before its time. Love to be able to reintroduce it under the right circumstances and maybe include data that verifies all of what we were talking about, what Patti was seeing in the field because now there have been a ton of longitudinal studies, so it'd be great to be able to reintroduce it, but for me, it was very cutting edge, I think at the time.

[23:27] Jennifer: Congratulations. I've always wanted to write a book.

[23:30] Heather: Thank you.

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[25:09] Jennifer: You were born in the US but most of your childhood or growing up were actually outside of the US, you grew up in the Middle East in the '70s and '80s and for me, that's a period that I recognize is a period of turmoil and violence. Tell us what it was like growing up in that time. I know that you have lived in several different Middle Eastern countries.

[25:32] Heather: It was fascinating because it was so undeveloped living in those countries and it was fascinating culturally because it was in a state of cultural awakening and economic awakening, but also, that brings along violence and war. I would say the first country that I lived in was Lebanon and right when we got there, basically, the war started. My first memory actually ever was of fighters outside of our window on the rooftops across our window, basically, with machine guns shooting at each other and they had headdresses, their heads were wrapped and--

[26:18] Jennifer: For those of us who don't know, it's the Lebanese civil war that you're referring to.

[26:23] Heather: Exactly. I didn't realize, I was two and a half or three at the time, I didn't really understand what was happening, but my parents knew that we needed to get out. Before we even unpacked our luggage or anything, we were told about the escape route. In the middle of the night, we escaped to the darks and took a boat to Cyprus and we stayed in Cyprus for a couple of nights.

It didn't seem that there would be any opportunity for us to go back to Lebanon. My mom said, let's cross the Mediterranean and just go home to Alexandria where her family was. We would wait it out there not knowing that it would be a multi-year conflict, of course. We ended up taking another boat ride across the Mediterranean, ended up in Alexandria, Egypt, where we stayed for a while and I attended pre-K in Egypt. That was the first two countries that we lived in. That was my first refugee experience. Came back to the United States for about two or three years in between that / after Egypt, and then my father was reassigned again to the Middle East and that was Bahrain, which was a beautiful, beautiful country with maybe two roads.

You could drive the entire country in about 20 minutes. It was magnificent. It was this just untouched, unclaimed, Middle Eastern country with deep culture and wonderful people. We lived there for several years and then moved to Dubai before Dubai became what it is now. Again, we lived on a small dirt road and our neighbors lived in a tent with a bunch of Mercedes parked outside of their tent, and then the boats on top of the Mercedeses. It was that undeveloped. It was really, really exciting to see. Lived there a couple years, lived in Kuwait a couple of years, and then, of course, the invasion of Kuwait, Saddam invaded Kuwait the summer of my rising senior year.

[28:30] Jennifer: We're going to get right to that part because when the Gulf War started, it was summer 1990 and your family was based in Kuwait. Fortunately, you were not there at the time. You were, by chance, out of the country when Iraq first invaded Kuwait. You were in high school going into your senior year. What did it feel like when it first happened? Do you recall that moment?

[28:58] Heather: Yes, I recall talking to our family friends the night before. My father was on the phone, and my uncle, a family friend. In Egypt, everybody is your uncle.

[29:11] Jennifer: In China, it's the same thing.

[29:13] Heather: My father was talking to one of our uncles and he was just like, "Look, I think that something bad is about to happen." My dad was like, "All right, get out, get in a car, start driving." I just remember my dad also saying, If you need to hide somewhere, you can use our house. There was definitely an ominous sense. I remember growing up in Kuwait we had bomb drills and there'd be lots of times where we'd be just sitting around and we would hear bombs in the desert and that was just Iraq loving one over.

[29:48] Jennifer: That was before the war.

[29:49] Heather: That was before the war. Then, obviously, no one thought that this would actually happen and so we were away from the country on August 1st, and I know that my dad spoke to his friend or uncle at that point that night. Then next thing I know, my sister's shaking me in bed. She's like, "Saddam invaded Kuwait, Saddam invaded Kuwait." It was the next morning, August 2nd, and we woke up to our lives completely turned upside down. For me, it was almost, again, another, "Really, we have to start all over again?" I was valedictorian, president of National Honors Society.

[30:27] Jennifer: Of course, you were. Of course she was.

[30:30] Heather: I was working hard for it. President of the National Honors Society, about to start my senior year, I had toured all the colleges. I was getting ready to apply and to have that all just taken out from me, you really went from being somebody to nobody, and all of a sudden, we're making decisions about enrolling in high school, public school, and wherever we were, and massive survivor's guilt. Massive survivor's guilt because so many of my friends were still in Kuwait and they were finally escaping through the desert in the middle of the night as well because they started to realize this war wasn't going to be over anytime soon and they too, were going to try to get out before schools started.

That month was a really dark month, August of 1990, and we ended up just enrolling. I had to look my future in the face and say, "I could get really lucky and be able to get into school that I always dreamed, the college I always dreamed of," even though I don't have a transcript, I don't have anything to prove who I am, no one to write a recommendation for me. It was a really rough time or I could succumb to all of this and not accomplish anything. You just have to make your decision at that moment on who you want to be.

[31:47] Jennifer: We can unpack this a little bit more if you're willing to share. You've developed a medical condition as a result of the stress from the Iraq invasion of Kuwait. It's something that you're still living with today. Luckily, it's not life-threatening. It's something that's treatable. When you went through something like that, do you see the silver lining now? Or how do you feel about that whole experience?

[32:14] Heather: I think from the stress compounded with, of course, other things happening in the body that we probably don't know enough about. In fact, I know we don't know enough about it because we really lag in terms of women's health research across the globe, not just in the US. I developed thyroid disease and autoimmune disease, which is called Hashimoto's. At the time I think it was pretty new. There weren't a lot of people being diagnosed with it. I only discovered it because I needed to take a physical to enroll in school. As a result of this war, I had to enroll into a new school and so we had to take a physical to make sure that we were healthy enough.

That doctor was the one that diagnosed it originally. Then he sent me to a university campus, which just happened to have an excellent practice in this field, a cutting-edge emerging practice so I got very, very lucky. Hashimoto's is an autoimmune disease of the thyroid, and it was luckily treatable with taking a pill. I've been on medication for 30-odd years and it's interesting because you get to be very attuned to your body when you have an autoimmune disease. I just had to stop being a teenager and be more of a grown-up inside my own head to be aware of what's happening. Miss your medication one or two days, how do you feel or what does that result in?

Then, of course, as we get older, there's a lot of changes that happen. Your body gets a lot weaker and so the things that you were able to do, you can't really do anymore. Like gluten, stop the gluten, which was a big one for me. Those are things that weren't necessarily available in terms of information, just had to figure it out. I think that the world needs to spend a lot more money, resources and time addressing women's health issues, to be honest with you.

[34:14] Jennifer: Would you have lived through that experience differently?

[34:18] Heather: Oh, yes. There was a lot of unhealthy days. We were very lucky to have it diagnosed, but did I know that it was directly related to sleep? No, and skin issues, no. All of these things that I just had no idea. Massive hair loss, all of this stuff that I didn't know I just lived through. Had there been research out there addressing it, it would've been a much easier life. Especially the sleep, especially the sleep issues. Insomnia's awful.

[34:54] Jennifer: Heather, a few years ago you pioneered the WISALA, which is short for Widow Savings and Loans Association. It's a financial inclusion program based on the traditional VSLA, Village Savings and Loans model for which you've won numerous awards, including the 2020 Business Council for Peace Women Forward. Tell us how you came up with that program and how it works.

[35:20] Heather: We had been doing programs in the field for widows. The widows were coming to us and saying, "Oh, will you help us build a pig farm?" Or, "Oh, will you help us build a palm oil mill?" All of those were really great solutions, but it was really difficult for us to become experts on any one of those and invest directly into those. I wanted a product that addressed every widow's need, and it could be modified for every country or every culture, but it was the same product and that it would be a permanent and sustainable product.

That's what we were looking for. At the time, we started working on financial inclusion, especially with the World Economic Forum. We were working on it because the widows themselves were coming to us and saying, "We need access to capital and decent work." Those were the two things. Again, widows are, for the most part, young. Most widows are widowed under the age of 38, and they are mothers of young children. Having lost everything in their disinheritance, they go into survival mode. All they need is just a small break, some money so that they can start a business, so they can basically survive and allow their children to survive. Educate their kids is the number one thing if you ask them.

We knew we were working on financial inclusion, which was critical, and I wanted to build something that was sustainable and permanent. We started working with the World Economic Forum. Right around that time, I had a cocktail party in my home. I was a class mom for my kid's school, and I had a cocktail party in my home, and one of the heads of a major division at maybe one of the world's largest banks is over. He's like, "Oh, Heather, how's your project going?" I said, "You know what? We're really focused on financial inclusion. It's really critical that we financially include these widows. It's important because of all the inter-sectionalities, education of their children, health, nutrition, human trafficking, violence against women, child marriage. Think about all the things that come out of that one event of widowhood." 

I remember he just looked at me, he was like, "Oh, Heather, it's so funny. Every year the governments come to us and they give us a ton of money," but he used maybe some more casual language than that. "Basically, they give us a ton of money and they say, don't forget to include the marginalized. Every year we say, yes. We take their money and we have absolutely no intention of doing anything about it. Isn't that funny? Ha ha ha"

I think that that was, again, going back to the moment of obligation. For me, as a bank analyst, I was a financial institutions’ (analyst). It was another, of course, you're never going to help the marginalized, you're never going to build a bank in Kibera and Korogocho or branch anywhere, in any one of those slums or rural areas because it makes absolutely no sense. I'm going to have to invent my own bank. That's what I ended up doing. Again, because I had the privilege of being able to travel and see extensive poverty and live it throughout my life from rags to riches, I was able to draw on what I knew. What I knew was in Egypt, we call a Gamyeiya, which is a savings and loan.

It's not just Egypt. Every country, they all have a similar product. They basically gather, agreed to make a monthly donation to a pot. That pot then is won by one person, and that capital windfall allows them to go out and do something. As the daughter of a widow, that's how my mother ended up buying her first sewing machine and ultimately became a fashion designer. It's how the unbanked (people) bank around the world, and it's called different things all over the world in Tanzania, a VICOBA, other parts of Africa, an USUSU. all the women know how to do it because they've been doing it their whole life.

I said, I'm not reinventing the wheel. I'm going to use this as a base, but we're going to improve on it. We started talking to widows in the field, how much will it cost you to start a small business? On average, it costs about $100. We said, great. You save about a third of that, and when you're ready and after we've trained you and how to manage your small little bank, we'll boost it. We end up providing two-thirds of the capital. We created it formally called the Widow Savings and Loan Association, and we invented the WISALA.

The main thing is that it's a group of 25 widows. It's a “box bank” model, although we're now moving into creating more of a digital space for them. The widows invest one-third, for every dollar that the widows put in, the Global Fund for Widows puts in two (dollars). Immediately there's a very large capital base from which the widows can borrow money, instead of just take the money.

[40:12] Jennifer: Instead of waiting for their turn month after month, they get to take the money right away.

[40:17] Heather: There's immediately enough money for them to borrow against each other. That one-third investment that they make of the bank's capital is actually their purchase of their 125th share in the bank, which means they are owners for the first time in their lives of something like this. They're super highly invested, they're not going to allow it to fail because it's got financial equity and it's got sweat equity.

The two-thirds boost from the Global Fund for Widows allows them to borrow that whole amount that they need to immediately go out, start their microenterprises, and then pay it back according to the decisions they made at the underwriting. It gives the widows themselves complete agency and dignity on the terms and the structure of their loans. It also allows them opportunities for reinvention. They're able to create things like insurance products because they'll decide to save a little bit of money to help one widow who may fall into hard times. Other groups are doing things like scholarship funds.

[41:24] Jennifer: If they are created these women--

[41:26] Heather: Yes. They're addressing the issues of their need. They'll save a little bit of money every month so that they can send one of their children to school if one is destined for college in the city or something. They're coming up with brilliant solutions on their own, but it's only because we gave them the space to do that. We're not in there telling them how to run their bank. We give them the tools, we give them the training, we also legally empower them. We follow up with legal training as well so that they know what their rights are under the law, and we bring lawyers and ombudsmen to them so that they're able to seek justice.

The widows are great. They go out, they start these great micro-enterprises, very creative micro-enterprises, things I probably would've never come up with. The first thing they do is send their children to school. They improve the health and nutrition of their families. Then with excess profits after that, they start saving. The WISALA that started with maybe $2,500 at the beginning of the year and the year with $5,000. These widows are now up 500% on their original 33% investment. It's really remarkable and really, really very powerful in catalyzing for growth.

[42:39] Jennifer: That's really amazing. How many widows do you have on the waitlist for this?

[42:43] Heather: We're approaching about 30,000 widows on the waitlist for the WISALA. It’s incredible success story and widows are just desperate to get it. One of my partners in Kenya was telling me, she's like, we need to fund this particular group. There's 200 widows in this very remote part of Kenya who literally show up to the chief's house every day. Where is my WISALA, 200 of them. That was our most recent round of openings because the chief was like, "Your guys got to come back here and build this WISALA for my people."

[43:20] Jennifer: It sounds like you found the magic formula, and we call this in the startup world, we call it product market fit. It took a while to get here today, right?

[43:30] Heather: Yes. I think that we were doing this for about seven years before we came up with the solution, but I love it because it's a permanent source of capital for the widows that they can keep tapping and it's sustainable. They'll always have this foundation from which they can build any business on top of it. Widows now that have not only microenterprises but have excess money in their bank and WISALA are now running out and doing group projects like buying land, pooling their capital and buying land or building computer centers in Korogocho, just incredible solutions. Building mills so that they can grind grain in the urban slums so that you don't have to go into the marketplaces and they're bringing solutions to the people of the community. It's great.

[44:18] Jennifer: That's great. Also for those startup entrepreneurs who are listening, it's a reminder that they need to build repeatable, scalable businesses and have that business model in mind. That's very, very important and it might be a little while for all of us to get there.

[44:33] Heather: Yes, exactly. By the way, even though I was a bank analyst and I covered the banks and I invested in banks and worked banks out in bankruptcy and all of that took me a while to develop this model.

[44:43] Jennifer: Came back to your core.

[44:45] Heather: Right, exactly. Again, going back to your original question about what I learned on the street that informs what we do now, everything, 100% of what I was doing on the street has now just been morphed into this incredible product that we're rolling out.

[45:01] Jennifer: I'm going to ask you about another big achievement that you did earlier this year. Earlier this year, you helped to draft and pass the first United Nations general assembly resolution on widowhood, acknowledging the institutional discrimination, the harmful practices against these women as a violation of human rights. Because you're, not only are you building these WISALAs on the ground, but you're also advocating for these women in front of sovereign governments.

It sounds like an incredible feat after a decade of effort. You mentioned earlier about how you became associated with the United Nations. Tell us a little bit about that journey that took you to get to where we are today, which is that we passed the resolution, it took years. I've heard other women who are also advocates of widows' rights have said, This is incredible. Heather, you've done an incredible thing. Tell us about how you got there.

[45:59] Heather: I think it also was born again of another, I would say failure and another moment of obligation. A lot of everything that I do really comes out of me being incredibly, quite frankly, pissed off.

[46:10] Jennifer: Use that anger channel that anger into positive energy.

[46:14] Heather: Again, like I mentioned, we were talking to empty rooms for years. We would put all these incredible panels together, all of these widowhood advocates or from all around the world or widows themselves who would come to the United Nations to testify during the commission on the status of women. In all of these little parallel events, we would be alone. We would be talking to ourselves. That happened for the first two or three years. Then I offered an intervention at an Africa group meeting during the CSW where I said something a bit controversial.

[46:54] Jennifer: Tell us what CSW stands for.

[46:56] Heather: Oh, the CSW is the commission on the status of women. It's a major conference that occurs at the United Nations and New York City every March. We always brought our friends to come. Everyone got a pass and we would run around trying to talk about widows and every meeting that occurred and linking what they were talking about to widowhood. HIV/AIDS and harmful traditional practices linked back to widows. We would be running around talking, our Our teams would be talking about it.

I remember going to an Africa group debrief, and they were talking about how they were working on creating all of these cooperatives that were teaching women how to sew. I finally received the mic and I gave an intervention. I said, "You're not helping these women by training them on how to sew. If you really want to help these women, teach them how to sew, and then help them get contracts that are sustainable, police uniforms, children's school uniforms, give them government procurement contracts so that they can actually have an income with this skill."

That actually received an ovation in the chamber when I said that, which I wasn't expecting. Then afterwards the ambassador Malawi pulled me aside and said, "I have a soft spot for widows because I was the one who drafted my country's law for widows." I was like, "What do you mean?" He was like, "Well, I was a young professor at the university. I was a law professor, and no one wanted to touch this issue of widowhood because they're taboo and they're considered dirty and witches. I was tasked with it. My boss gave me this task to write this law, and I wrote this law and it passed. I want to work with you."

I said, "Wow. Malawi was the only country that has this type of a law protecting widows so yes." I went and I asked him, I said, "Would you please hold a side event?" Because no side event had ever been done at the United Nations on widowhood during the commission on the status of women and he did. We pulled in Egypt, we pulled in Kenya, We pulled in Algeria.

It was the first time a site event had ever been done where ministers sat down. We had chiefs fly in from various countries to testify. Parliamentarians came in to testify. It was really remarkable, but at that moment, what I realized was that in the room was an ambassador from Sierra Leone, and she heard us speak and she didn't say anything for a couple of years.

Then, all of a sudden, she approached us and said, "We need to talk. This happened to my father, and I'm the daughter of a widow, my mother was close to being disinherited." At that moment, we really found a very strong ally. There were a lot of other matrons of, I can't deny and all that she did for us. She really opened the door. Minister Maya Morsi, all these amazing female ministers are really breaking down barriers, but it was Ambassador Soleimani from Sierra Leone who I finally went to last year and said, "I drafted this resolution four years ago. It's been sitting in our hard drive for years. I've dusted it off.

I know that now the UN is interested in hearing the story, but they're not willing to put it in any documentation yet and I'm tired of trying to put it in documentation that doesn't matter. It's time for a resolution." She took the resolution immediately from me and she said, yes. She gave it to her minister and her minister also had just presented for us last year. She was very pleased with the work that we were doing. Minister approved it immediately and took it to the president and the president approved it immediately and we submitted the resolution to the General Assembly to begin the process.

Over that process of negotiation, Global Fund for Widows met with over 100 countries bilaterally, most of whom had never heard of the issue of widowhood. As we gave them the information, and that I think was really the powerful movement that occurred. It was really wonderful to have that resolution start from just an idea on my kitchen table. In the chambers of the GA, Global Fund for Widows was mentioned twice during that approval and it was unanimous. It was just phenomenal.

[51:11] Jennifer: Well, congratulations, Entrepreneurs today who are starting out. What are some of the advice that you would give to these entrepreneurs if they were in front of you?

[51:21] Heather: I think everyone would say there's no substitute for hard work. There's no substitution for hard work, but for me, I think the key to success is a quote that I actually saw when I first got on the trading floor at JP Morgan when I was 21. I was this young 21-year-old. I got this amazing job. I show up on the trading floor and the trading floor has like 200 people sitting on these small little three-foot desks, but it's lined. The whole trading floor is lined with these glass offices and in the glass office directly across my field of sight was a whiteboard. On top of it, whoever had that office had this quote written, know what you don't know. At first, I was like, "Oh, that's so stupid."

I just went on with my life trying to-- I'd look at it every couple of minutes because every time I looked up, it was staring me in the face. Know what you don't know. I didn't appreciate it at all. Then one day I was working on a problem and I realized at that moment I'm like, God, I don't know how to solve this problem, because I don't have the skill to solve this problem. It was at that moment that I realized, Oh, now I know what I don't know. Oh, that's the key to life. Then I was like, Okay, well I guess I have to go learn foreign exchange derivatives now in order to be able to understand how to do [laughs] this to answer this question, but the idea is that it really forces you to set aside your ego.

[52:53] Jennifer: About being humble.

[52:55] Heather: Being humble and putting away ego and really knowing and having honest conversations with yourself. A lot of other people have skills that you don't have. How do you learn from those people? It's about finding the people and the resources to help you answer the questions that you don't know and knowing what you don't know. Take out your ego. Find people who may be better than you. I like surrounding myself with people who are a lot smarter than me, who are a lot better than me because I learn from them constantly.

I think that that's really been the key to the success of Global Fund for Widows. We rely on information from widows. They know more than we do. We rely on information from field operators because they're in the field and they know more than we do. We rely on government officials because they know more than we do. We're not trying to go in with an answer to your problems and just listen to us and we know everything. We're listening first and then building solutions together.

[53:53] Jennifer: Well, thanks. I think that means to me is knowing what you don't know and then putting together a team of board members, advisors, your colleagues, and building your own management team. That's what that quote means to me. Well, thanks a lot for sharing. We're just about to end our episode. I would like to give you the opportunity for anyone who wants to learn more about your programs, and about the course. Where would they go to? How can they find you?

[54:23] Heather: Thank you, Jen. Anyone interested in learning more about Global Fund for Widows, please join us on our website at globalfundforwidows.org. You can watch a lot of our programs on our YouTube channel. We're also active on Instagram, and you're always able to send us emails through the website as well. We welcome any discussions about the work that we're doing and love to learn from anyone out there as well.

[54:50] Jennifer: Well, fantastic. Now we're coming to the end of our episode and we always like to end with a quote. It's from Jacqueline Novogratz. She's a Founder and CEO of Acumen and the author of The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World. Just like you, Heather, she is a fellow Wall Street banker, turned into a social entrepreneur. This is one of my favorite quotes actually, and I think it applies really well to you. “Just start, don't wait for perfection. Just start and let the work teach you. Your job is not to be perfect, your job is only to be human.” Thank you very much, Heather, for joining us today. Thank you for being a very inspiring human to us all.

[55:43] Heather: Thank you, Jennifer. It was a great honor to be here today and congratulations on your podcast.


[56:05] [END OF AUDIO]

Show Notes

(01:54) Death of Heather’s Grandmother Inspired Her to Found the Global Fund for Widows

(04:08) Epidemic of Widowhood

(11:08) Heather’s Transition from Wall Street to the Nonprofit World

(14:07) Lessons Learned on Wall Street 

(15:38) Windows for Widows: the Early Days 

(19:36) Biggest Challenges that Heather Faced in the Beginning

(21:15) The Story Behind Her Book: Toddlers on Technology

(25:12) Growing Up in the Middle East during the 70s & 80s 

(35:00) The WISALA: a ‘Microbank’ for Widows

(45:38) The Journey of Passing the First Widowhood Resolution of the UN General Assembly

(51:01) Heather’s Advice to New Entrepreneurs

Social Media Links:

Website: GlobalFundforWidows.org

Instagram: Global Fund for Widows (@globalwidows)

YouTube: Global Fund for Widows (@globalfundforwidows7505)

Links Mentioned:

Book: Toddlers on Technology: A Parents' Guide

WISALA (Widows’ Savings and Loan Associations)

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