Interview #2 – Ellen Needham

I first met Ellen Eileen Needham when she arrived in Sri Lanka around eight years ago to start up Emerge Lanka. I remember that I admired her confidence to come to a country she had not visited before, when still in her early twenties, and start up a social enterprise that worked with teen survivors of sexual abuse by providing them training on bead jewelry making.

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Since its initial start when the target market were potential buyers back in USA, her home country, Ellen tells me that the social enterprise has evolved now to have a large local market within Sri Lanka. They recently were awarded the second place at Project Inspire, a global social enterprise competition hosted by the Singapore Committee for UN Women and MasterCard.

Given my interest in social enterprises and my interest in Ellen’s story, I decided to interview her for Perspectives Quilt.

  • Tell us a bit about yourself.

I grew up in a small town in Indiana, and from an early age I was mesmerized by travel—my grandfather would travel all over the world and send me back postcards from Zambia, China, Greece, and more. Since then I have sought a life (from the type of jobs I’ve taken to the man I’ve married) that allows me to experience this world more fully.

Through travel to Sri Lanka, I met my husband who was at the time also working in the country—we were engaged during a trip back to Sri Lanka in 2014 and married a year later.

I recently moved across the USA (from the East to the West coast) in the pursuit of new experiences and opportunities. I’m currently learning to ski and embracing the outdoor life that Lake Tahoe, about an hour from my home, has to offer.

I also enjoy being physically active—I played volleyball through college, and continue to look for new opportunities (rock climbing, yoga, mountain biking) to push myself.

  • What made you decide to join the Emerge initiative?

I first got involved with Emerge as a senior in college when I was introduced to a classmate, Alia Whitney-Johnson, who had recently come back from Sri Lanka and was sharing her experiences. I was drawn into the Emerge story immediately, particularly the strength and courageousness of the girls Alia had met.

I decided to join Emerge because I was excited about the possibility of contributing and helping to build an organization that addressed issues that I was passionate about. And ultimately, it was Alia’s dedication, drive, and compassion that convinced me to commit my time to Emerge.

  • How did you feel about leading the expansion of Emerge in Sri Lanka?

When I arrived in Sri Lanka in 2008 Emerge had several goals: first and foremost was to make the organization sustainable. What was less clear was how we would go about doing so, and the lack of clarity was both exhilarating and overwhelming. As an engineer by training, I approached leading the formalization and expansion of Emerge Lanka Foundation like I would any complex problem: identify the goal, system, and key variables (people, places, etc.) and then test out different options until one worked, learning throughout the process. This was trying; I can recall several times I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to succeed, and was going to let the team and our girls down.

  • What were some of the challenges you faced when you started up in Sri Lanka?

While living in a country different from your own is never easy, I was incredibly fortunate to have Emerge supporters and, at the time, our only staff member Nirukshi, to help guide our work. What I found hardest about starting up in Sri Lanka was figuring out just how things got done. Often it would be a relationship, or a certain external perception of the person you were working with that would be the difference between moving forward and not. Sometimes being a foreigner was advantageous; other times, the only person who could get the job done was a Sri Lankan. Navigating these relationships was by far the most challenging part of my time in Sri Lanka.

  • When you refer to Emerge as a social enterprise, what do you mean?

We call Emerge a social enterprise because it occupies the space between a pure-play for profit company and a charity, or nonprofit. While Emerge does fundraise and solicit donations, our goal (and model) is to be self-sustaining on the programmatic level. Through Emerge, we teach women important skills—a byproduct of this is the creation of jewelry, which we then sell to generate savings for the individual girl as well as cover programmatic costs.
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  • How would you describe the impact that Emerge Lanka has made on the lives of the women it works with? Please share an anecdote.

To me, Emerge is a collection of stories of the courageous young women we work with. While I can share the facts: the support of 556 girls, the sale of more than $125,000 worth of jewelry, the stories of Emerge are just as powerful. One story that particularly struck me last year was that of a past program participant who is in the midst of completing nursing school. She wrote a letter to the Emerge office in which she shared that she “worked hard and was able to fulfill your hope by becoming second in my batch out of 108 students.” You can view her entire letter here: http://emergeglobal.org/5413-2/

  • What has been the most positive impact that Emerge Lanka has had on you?

Working for Emerge Lanka has taught me the power of unconditional love, given me perspective regarding the things that really matter in life, and shown me how powerful and resilient we can all be.

  • What do you plan to do next?

I recently started a role at Patagonia, a global outdoor clothing company with environmental and social responsibility at its core. I’m looking forward to learning a new industry (retail) while contributing meaningfully to a company that cares deeply about the impact it has on the world.

  • What do you do to de-stress or recover your equilibrium when things do not go according to plan?

I try to keep perspective, and remember how fortunate I am to have an amazing family, career that I meaningfully contribute to, and the freedom and flexibility to pursue what I’m passionate about. Also, nothing beats a good massage!

  • Wrapping up this interview, do share a favourite quote or verse that you look up whenever you feel you are in need of inspiration.

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” – Albert Einstein

[Photo Credits: Ellen Needham]

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