Claire Naylor is the co-founder and executive director of Women LEAD Nepal. Naylor grew up in Nepal, and her experiences observing the lives of women there fostered her interest in gender inequality. Her commitment to women’s empowerment continued during her undergraduate education at Georgetown University, where she studied much of what she had observed through the academic lenses of gender inequality, conflict, and the feminization of poverty. While at university, Naylor and a fellow student conceived of creating Women LEAD to empower female leaders in Nepal, and the project began after their graduation in 2010 with a two-week summer leadership program for young women. The organization has since expanded to train and empower high-achieving young women through a yearlong afterschool program.

Alison W. Steinbach spoke with Naylor about Women LEAD and her experiences developing the organization.

Growing up in Nepal, what did you observe about the problems that girls and women face? How did that influence your life’s work?

Growing up in Nepal had a huge influence on my life. I moved there when I was three years old and spent the first four years in a rural village in the far west of Nepal, where my parents were doing rural community development work. My first memories are of the incredibly strong and resilient women that I grew up around. They were my best friends and my best friends’ moms, and it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized the realities and the hardships they faced. Even before fully understanding that, though, I had always been impressed by who they were and how they approached life. When I started learning about feminized poverty, the levels of illiteracy and gender discrimination in the village, and practices of rampant polygamy and son preference, it just made me realize that if women can live through that and still come out so tough, they are incredibly strong. What could they do if they actually started going to school? What could they do if they had careers? I started thinking about how powerful that would be for the country. Those very early memories formed the core of my interest and dedication to women’s empowerment and leadership.

What is the central mission of Women LEAD?

Women LEAD began with a vision of women and girls occupying key leadership positions alongside men, with the theory that if we have competent, visionary, and inclusive women leading Nepal across all sectors, from politics to law to education, then the country will move forward in ways that it never has before. Women LEAD manifests itself as a yearlong afterschool leadership and empowerment program for high-achieving young women.

We identify these amazing young women when they are around 17 years old, in their senior year of high school. We target them at this critical turning point in their lives and work alongside them during that transition. The three areas that we target to achieve our vision are identity, community, and experiential learning. First, in terms of identity, we want them to self-identify as leaders, form their own values, and work on critical refection. Second, for community, we bring them together with other ambitious, like-minded young women who become their mentors and support systems. We focus on incorporating our powerful network of alumnae, a growing group of young women in Nepal who all have this shared experience. I am optimistic that in a decade or so, the alumnae community will be a really powerful network for these women in their professional careers as well. Third, we focus on experiential learning opportunities. We achieve this through more traditional trainings, workshops, and seminars, but also through having all our participants run their own afterschool projects for middle schoolers. This allows them not only to form habits around the leadership issues we talk about, but also to have other people look up to them as leaders. Through this, they become role models and mentors for younger students and pass on their learning. Identity, community, and experiential learning are really how Women LEAD is working on getting more women into leadership positions in Nepal.

What was the initial inspiration for Women LEAD, and how has the program developed since then?

At university, I took classes on gender, international development, and conflict resolution, and Nepal would repeatedly come up as a case study. At that point, the country had the highest levels of women in armed conflict as combatants during the Maoist war, and after the conflict ended, due to advocacy from the international community, 33 percent of the seats in the Constituent Assembly were reserved for women. A very small fraction of those seats went to women who were elected through the first-past-the-post system, and the majority of them went to women who had been appointed through proportionate representation to fill that percentage quota. All eyes were on Nepal to see whether this quota was going to translate into meaningful change. The results were interesting: in the first Constituent Assembly, which lasted over three years, the female members had higher attendance rates than the men but were still barred from all of the key finance and constitutional committees. Many of the women were just political appointments — people’s wives or relatives — and ended up for the most part being puppets of the political parties through which they had been appointed. Even though there was a women’s caucus in the first Assembly (which, unfortunately, later got banned in the second Constituent Assembly), it had not resulted in the impact that people had expected and hoped for. Watching all of this unfold from school in Washington, DC, looking at the situation in a more academic context, and working with key US players, I realized that while quotas are important temporary tools, they are not sufficient to create the necessary changes.

Women LEAD was born out of the idea that if we want women to thrive in all these new spaces and opportunities that are opening up in Nepal even at the highest levels, they have to be equipped to fully leverage those positions. I think both because of how old we were — we were only 21 at the time that we started Women LEAD — and because of the experiences that my co-founder and I had gone through, such as Girl Scouts, high school, and university mentoring and leadership, we settled on the Women LEAD model. We began with just a two-week summer program and had 28 participants that first year. Our goal from the start was to find brilliant, ambitious, talented, and high-potential high school seniors and to work with them so that by the time they reach 30 or 40 and are starting to get to the prime of their careers, they can take full advantage of the growing number of opportunities. Moving on from that first year, most of our key elements have remained the same, and it is shocking how similar the program is to our initial idea. We now run a one-year program, and every single year, we [alter] our model through participant feedback. Our initial idea of bringing together a select group of outstanding young women and investing in them has remained entirely the same.

What does the day-to-day programming look like?

There are four main components to our program. The first component involves trainings and workshops. [Workshop topics] range from core life skills like time management and conflict resolution to public speaking and active listening. We also bring in inspiring women that participants can learn from and look up to as role models. This year, we invited two really inspiring women: one who summited Everest when she was in her late teens and one who is blind and started an organization for blind youth. This component also includes field trips. Students visit the Election Commission when they learn about how democracy works in Nepal. We also have a service learning trip where our leaders learn about how community service can be done to empower rather than disempower. We also visit Singha Durbar, Nepal’s capital building, to meet with senior level ministers and advocate for issues that participants care about.

The second component of our program revolves around mentoring. Each of the 30 leaders is paired with an alumna who mentors them throughout the year. These mentors not only help them get the most out of Women LEAD, but also help them transition into university at the end of the year. Mentor-mentee pairs are matched based on their strengths, backgrounds, and what they want to learn. We tend to pair leaders who lack family support for the program with hands-on and supportive mentors who will be their cheerleaders and helpers throughout the year. Participants who already have that support system in place are paired with mentors who can help them with the transition into university or a different area. We have group events for mentors and students, and they also meet one-on-one.

The third component is tied to experiential learning, and I think this is the most critical piece. The 30 leaders are paired up to run a four-month afterschool program for middle school students (both boys and girls, making this our only co-ed program at the moment). They are given responsibility and full autonomy to select their partner middle school, recruit students, and think through diversity criteria, student dynamics, scholarships, and more. They then run this program on a weekly basis and teach a curriculum adapted from the core LEAD course. This aspect of Women LEAD programming is where we consistently see the most transformation and change among participants; as their program participants hold them to a high standard, they start holding themselves to a higher standard as well.

The fourth component is around advocacy. This year, our participants chose two topics: menstrual taboos and street harassment in Nepal, and they will run advocacy campaigns around these throughout the year.

What aspects of Women LEAD set it apart from other groups in Nepal?

We are unique in how girl-led the organization is and how much our participants have a say in the day-to-day management of the programs, as well as in the strategic direction of the organization. This has grown from year to year as our alumnae community expands, since the alumnae of our very first pilot program in 2010 are now older and doing more. Alumnae involvement definitely makes us stand out. They’re heavily involved not just in giving us feedback about the program, but also in interning for us and helping run the programs. Our Nepal board is entirely made up of program alumnae, so they also speak to the strategic direction of the organization and represent us on a national level. This aspect has made our programs very relevant and is something that is quite valuable to the population that we are serving. From what I have seen in other similar organizations in Nepal, the involvement of their participants does not go as deep as it does at Women LEAD.

You mentioned selecting girls in their senior year of high school. What is the process for joining the program?

We have a rigorous screening process that, for the past two or three years, has actually been led by program alumnae. To start, we organize one month of heavy outreach within the Kathmandu Valley. We talk in high school assemblies, and try to have Women LEAD graduates from those schools go back to recruit. Girls who have applied report that it has been so powerful a motivator for them to apply to see girls who are one or two years older than them, whom they may have known in their school days, coming back completely transformed and encouraging them to invest in themselves now. We also do a lot of online recruitment through Facebook, and our alumnae are highly involved with that outreach as well. This ranges from having people change their Facebook profile pictures, to paid advertising, to having one of our interns infiltrate and advertise in Facebook groups that teenage girls in Nepal use. For the last couple of years, we have also worked on targeted recruitment through both non-profits that work with marginalized girls and hostels in Kathmandu that cater to students who have moved in from more remote parts of Nepal to pursue their education. Through targeting non-profits and these student hostels, we have been able to greatly increase the diversity of our cohort.

After the month of outreach, students submit a written essay application and then are interviewed by a staff member and a program alumna. This past year, we had over 200 applications submitted through schools and online, and we interviewed about 80 of them for our final cohort of 30. Alumnae know how different personalities and dynamics have played out in the program in the past, and they usually end up strongly advocating for certain participants that they think would really thrive in the program. From start to finish, the process lasts about eight weeks, and then the program begins.

How do you measure the success and impact of Women LEAD programs?

With a program like Women LEAD, qualitative evaluations are very easy. We are constantly hearing anecdotes and seeing change happen because we have such frequent touch points with the leaders. Because self-refection is such a big part of the identity piece, they do become quite good at identifying changes and tipping points for themselves. The quantitative evaluation piece is slightly more challenging because they are adolescents and English is their second language. We do what we can with validated scales and use everything from the Rosenberg self-esteem scale to scales for civic engagement, awareness, and inspiration to “pre” and “post” surveys and employing a control group for comparison. These methods provide hard numbers to back up the anecdotes.

The two other ways that we measure concrete change are self-rankings they perform at the start and end of the year — although there is a challenge with this being self-reported by the leaders themselves, since it has resonated with them, we take that as a sign of accuracy. At the beginning of the year, they rank themselves on how powerful they are on a scale of one to ten. They repeat the exercise at the end of the year, and we compare both how their numbers have changed and how their understandings of power and the types of power they hold have changed. We also conduct a “pre” and “post” survey where participants choose three words to describe themselves. This year, over a third of them used the words “leader,” “good leader,” or “awesome leader” as one of their “post” words, whereas none of them used the word “leader” to describe themselves before the program started.

What challenges has Women LEAD faced?

There have been so many challenges. Nepal is very unpredictable and at points has suffered instability, ranging from political instability from nationwide strikes to the economic blockade imposed by India last year. Also, I think the nature of a start-up poses challenges, and internally, there have been a lot of changes over our first five years as an organization. One of the challenges is learning how to split energy between managing change, which is constant both externally and internally, and maintaining a laser-focus on our programs and our impact. I think pretty much all organizations face this, both in Nepal and around the world: this challenge of being able to strategically prioritize in the face of constant change. Another difficulty — and again I do not think this is necessarily unique to us — is knowing which opportunities to say yes to and which ones to say no to as we continue to balance focusing on our vision with expanding our impact. We have seen a huge demand for our programs and an increasing number of partners coming to us with events or pilot programs they want to do together, so it has been challenging to figure out which ones are going to build on our strengths and help us in our vision and which ones are important programs but not ones that Women LEAD should be a part of.

How are Women LEAD programs funded?

This has also changed over the years. For the last fiscal year, our funding was about half individual donations and about half institutional donations. Institutional donors are some of the bigger foundations in the United States, like the National Endowment for Democracy and the Foundation for a Just Society. We have a fundraising board based out of Washington, DC to help with individual donors and target that unrestricted source. Last year, for the first time, we focused on fundraising within Nepal as well, both through earned revenue streams by fiscally sponsoring organizations that are also working on girls’ empowerment and through program and service fees. Over 5 percent of our income last year came from within Nepal through earned revenue streams and Nepali donors, so that was very exciting to see. It is definitely a minority source at the moment, but we are looking at how to build on that over this next year. Last year, we also had around US$80,000 from services — pro bono services and in-kind donations — so the savings from all of that ended up coming to a pretty significant number. We still definitely bootstrap as much as we can to keep costs down so we can run really cost-effective programs.

Lastly, what do you see as the future of Women LEAD?

This is an interesting question because we are currently in the midst of a strategic planning process. We are reflecting back on our first five years and this milestone, and also looking ahead to figure out how we want to scale our impact in Nepal as well as regionally. Right now, we are asking ourselves whether we want to go deeper with our existing populations — 15- to- 25-year-old high-achieving young women — or whether we want to start working with tangential demographics — women in their mid-to-late 20s in the professional world. Should we be running LEAD courses in other urban centers around Nepal, such as Pokhara and Biratnagar? Or should we do pilot projects with organizations that are already working in rural areas and have preselected these girls? What might regional expansion look like? These are some of the big questions about how we want to scale our impact while maintaining our high quality and sticking to our values and core competencies.

The trickiest piece for us will be the fact that we make a lifelong commitment to each of the leaders who go through our program. We believe in them enough that we promise to support them throughout their entire career, not just for this one year. We have seen that it just does not work when groups push you in, do a program, and then leave with no follow-up or reinforcement of the change, especially when it is behavioral and social change that takes at least nine months to achieve. These long-term commitments are obviously harder to do the more participants we have, and harder to do across multiple locations as well. In sum, our biggest question is how we might expand without compromising on this essential piece of our program.