Interview: Helga Perera

I had the pleasure of visiting Helga’s Folly in Kandy twice this year. Each visit made me more fascinated with the house and its amazing murals. I also had some questions about the house. So I wrote to Helga, the owner and creator of Helga’s Folly, and she kindly responded to my email interview for the blog, despite being stricken with a flu.

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Helga at the Jane Lillian Vance grotto, courtesy of Helga Perera

  1. The fact sheet on Helga’s Folly provided on the self-tour mentions that your mother, Esme de Silva, designed the original house in the 1930s. What did your mother envision for the house? 

Just a  family home in the hills. Designed by my mother who was an artist in the 30’s.

  1. What is the story behind Helga’s Folly?

I was almost born here. The house became a hotel in the late 50’s, and has hosted many celebrities, and politicians.

  1. What inspired you to transform Chalet hotel into Helga’s Folly?

I love color, and as I was going to spend much time here, did it my way. Name  was suggested by Richard Mason the South African writer.

  1. There is a mix of whimsy and the spiritual in the artistic theme around the house. Was this intentional from the outset or was the theme an emerging and evolving aspect in the redesigning of the house?

Life should have whimsy and spirituality. The house  still evolves.. No theme! Think of the house as a nursery for all!!

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  1. I understand that different artists have contributed to the Helga’s Folly murals and creative pieces. How did this come about?

Not only artists, guests too.. Many come sad, and in a dark place ..I suggest that they ‘paint out’.. I am a great believer in healing through art’!!

  1. Please tell us about one of your favourite pieces, your own or by other artists, and the story behind it.

I love the Jane Lillian Vance Grotto, where I go for ‘that’ quiet moment, and suggest to guests that they do too. The story behind the grotto : 50 years ago my first husband gave me ‘that’ turn of the century magnificent gilded frame. The frame hung empty for 48 years, for want of an artist. Artists came, BUT went when they were told that I had a penchant for skulls, and would want prominence given in the painting to one! 3 ½ years ago, I was unwell, and I thought before I met my first husband who had gone on to his final adventure, I must give the frame priority. I googled and was ‘taken’ by Professor Jane Lillian Vance’s work. Professor Jane was one of the first Westerners to be allowed to paint the Dalai Lama. ‘Gift To The Village’, on You Tube, is a brilliant documentary of Professor Jane delivering the painting. What hit the ‘Golden Cord’ that I had at LAST found my artist, was the painting also on You Tube by Professor Jane of a field with a fawn,  and bumble bee, although it was the field where they found the skeletonized body of one of her most gifted students,  recognized by her jewellery. Professor Jane had transformed which would have been a gruesome scene into one of peace and beauty.

I knew then that I had found my artist. I wrote to the professor, asking her if she would consider doing a portrait of a woman on a hill in Kandy.

Professor Jane wrote straight back saying that she was brought here 18 years ago, when a Fulbright student, by Waruna Jayasinghe antiques and was inspired.

The magnificient turn of the century gild frame now embraces Professor Jane’s beautiful portrait of me, which she brought over 3 ½ years ago, and then continued to weave, with her brush, her magic in her great 15 ft mural of my family in her grotto!

The Jane Lillian Vance Grotto is ALIVE telling a myriad of stories!

  1. The lighting around the rooms seems to have been arranged masterfully to highlight a specific aspect in the artwork such as the logo of savethenextgirl.com in Jillian Vance’s painting, a cause she passionately believes in. Please tell us about the person who was behind the lighting arrangements.

I like atmospheric rooms. Our electrician  put the spots where I wanted, highlighting certain bits!!

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  1. Which is your special corner or space at the Folly and why?

Depends on one’s mood.. The Jane Lillian Grotto is one, and the other the small green drawing room, with family photographs, and where I used to sit with my parents  and brother as a child. Find this room very comforting.

  1. I noticed that the music played in the lounge area is mostly from the 30s. Was this coincidental on the days I visited or is there some significance of this music playlist to the theme of the house?

This was the music which we grew up with.

  1. To wrap up this intriguing interview, please share a quote or verse that inspires or motivates you especially when you are feeling a little down or stressed out or simply in need of some positivity.

“Tomorrow is another day”!!

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Interview #4 – Vrinda Baliga

Vrinda is a childhood friend from my primary school in Chennai, then Madras. I remember her as an all-rounder at school, proficient in both scholastic and non-scholastic activities and the one who topped the class each term. She had a wonderful, vivacious personality. Having re-connected with Vrinda a few years back, via facebook, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that her friendly and fun personality had survived growing up. I was also delighted to read some of her award-winning published short stories. One of her poignant stories of life in the 80s is “The everlasting car, a memoir of Bangalore.”

So, I decided to interview her on her creative writing journey for Perspectives Quilt.

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  • How would you describe yourself, Vrinda?

Someone who enjoys solitude, is ever-curious and finds worlds, both real and imagined, equally fascinating and immersive.

  • Tell us about your creative writing journey and when it began.

I first began writing when I was about nine years old. I would spend school vacations filling notebooks with mysteries and ghost stories and poems, and then transcribe them in neat handwriting into a final copy. My plots were suspiciously similar to the books I used to read, and my characters, for some reason, had a great propensity for “jumping out of their skins” or having their “eyes pop out of their sockets in surprise.” As for poetry, my first priority was to make the lines rhyme; meaning came a distant second. Yet, when I read some of what I wrote in those days, I’m touched by how unselfconscious the writing is, how unrestrained by such stodgy concepts as form and realism. All I can say of those stories is, even though my characters were making complete fools of themselves, they were having fun doing it.

In later years, academics followed by career pushed writing to the back burner and then completely off the stove. It was after the birth of my first child that I returned to writing and almost immediately rediscovered the pleasure I used to take in it. I haven’t stopped writing since.

  • Which writer (s) has inspired you the most and why?

That would unequivocally have to be Alice Munro.

Books have been constant companions to me all my life. They have helped me through all my major life transitions. Whether it was travelling to college and hostel for the first time, taking up my first job, or pregnancy and becoming a mother, I’ve always had a thick book by my side – the one constant I could return to and find solace in when everything else was in a state of flux.

I discovered Alice Munro during one such period of transition. I first came across one of her stories in an anthology (The O.Henry Prize Stories anthology) and was struck by her style of writing, the precision with which she captured the actions, thoughts and emotions of her characters. I was always seeking her books out in bookshops, her stories on the internet, and the more I read, the more I was hooked. Even though she was writing about a completely different time and place, her characters, the locales and neighbourhoods of her stories seemed oh-so-familiar. This was at a time when we had moved to a new city, Hyderabad, where I knew no one, and also a period when I was largely housebound because I had a preschooler to look after. If I felt absolutely none of the loneliness or isolation that would have been normal in those circumstances, the credit goes to Munro. As long as her books sat on my bookshelf, it felt like I always had friends at home.

It has been said of Munro that she turns everyday lives into works of art. That is perfectly true. Over the years, I have read and re-read her stories time and again, and in every reading taken new pleasure in them.

  • Writers have different approaches to their writing in relation to the writing process, writing schedule, etc. What is your approach to writing?

I write in the mornings from around 10:30 a.m. to 1p.m. which is when I have the luxury of solitude. I’m afraid I’m not very disciplined about writing every day, though.

When I have an idea that excites me, I let it marinate in my mind for a while and let the words, the sentences, the paragraphs form and collect around it, let the characters emerge from the shadows, and then I start writing.

I usually write the first draft longhand with pen and paper and then type out the second draft in MS Word. When I’m forced to rewrite every word, I find that I make the kinds of structural changes and additions and deletions that wouldn’t have occurred to me if I were simply editing the previous draft, and the second draft comes out much better for the extra effort (It helps that I write mainly short fiction, following this process is much more laborious when it comes to novels) .

  • Which of your works is the most closest in heart to you and why?

When I’m done with a story and it’s published, I rarely enjoy revisiting it. Because then, I end up second-guessing my choices in the story and thinking how much better I could have made it.  So, the story closest to my heart is usually the one I’m currently working on.

If pressed, though, I would choose The Everlasting Car, my first creative nonfiction piece, because it brought back many old and cherished memories in the writing.

  • As an IT professional and a mother, how do you keep the spark of writing alive?

Since the birth of my first child, I have been on an extended career break, so I have not had to juggle career and motherhood. I do enjoy technology and software development though, and keep my hand in with Coursera courses and by developing apps, etc., independently.

With regard to writing, I would say that motherhood, in fact, helped me rediscover the joy of writing. There is nothing like being around small children, thinking of ways to keep them occupied, and rediscovering the world through their eyes to ignite the creative spark.  Yes, it was difficult to find time to write during the initial years, especially with my second child. Joining online writing groups kept me motivated during that time – writing short pieces based on the weekly prompts was do-able and the immediate peer feedback, a morale-booster.

But it is essentially reading that keeps the spark of my writing alive.  There has been no period in my adult life, no matter how busy, when I’ve not found time to read. I enjoy all genres of fiction. In non-fiction, I enjoy science and travel writing, and the occasional memoir or biography. The internet is another rich source of reading material and I especially enjoy works of long-form journalism and creative nonfiction. My reading informs and enriches my writing and keeps my mind engaged with new and diverse thoughts and ideas.

  • What do you do when you come across a writer’s block?

I don’t worry too much about it. In my mind, whenever you put the first word down on an empty sheet of paper, you are essentially making a leap in faith, trusting in yourself, and in the process of writing itself, that your feet will ultimately land on solid ground.

If I’m stuck somewhere, I put it aside for the time-being, maybe write a short story on a different topic instead. Something that usually works for me is going to the library and getting a couple of interesting books, the thicker the better. There’s nothing like immersing oneself in a really good book to get the creative juices flowing again.

I find that walking helps, too.  My regular evening walk (usually 45 minutes long) is very effective in clearing my mind of all clutter. And it is usually during this walk that the clogged up sentences of whichever story I’m working on unravel themselves and begin to flow once again.

  • Tell us what you are currently working on or plan to work on.

I have several short stories, published and unpublished, that I’d like to bring out in a collection.

I’m also working on my first novel, untitled as of now, that revolves around the discovery of iron ore and the effects of this discovery on a Bronze age society, and a present-day one, whose parallel storylines will ultimately merge.

  • What are some of the things you enjoy doing that makes you happy?

Reading, writing, spending time with my children, travel, meeting up with old friends.

  • Wrapping up this interview, do share a quote or verse that inspires you.

An old favourite from school days: “Nothing is beyond those who reach beyond themselves.”

For more info about Vrinda Baliga’s published stories, do check out her Facebook page.

Interview #3 – Dr. Amanda Kiessel, Good Market

While working on my business plan for a social enterprise I was planning to start-up last year, I was looking up social enterprises in Sri Lanka especially as I am fascinated by how enterprises define themselves as a social enterprise. Many of my online searches came across articles that referred to Good Market as a social enterprise. Having visited the lovely Good Market shop on Reid Avenue, I was even more interested in learning from its founder, Dr. Amanda Kiessel, about how Good Market came to life.

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  • Three words that you would use to describe Good Market.

People. Planet. Fun.

  • It is always fascinating to hear about how interesting ideas come to life. So, do share your ‘eureka’ moment when the idea for Good Market came to you and when did you decide to make it a reality.

I’ve been in Sri Lanka for 14 years and I’ve been fortunate to work with amazing local organizations.  I knew groups throughout the country that were doing great work on health issues, social services, and environmental sustainability.  They were producing organic food and socially responsible products.  At the same time, you’d find people in Colombo that were interested in mindful consumption, but didn’t know where to find the products.  The idea was to have a space that would bring those producers and consumers together.  We thought there would be 10 to 15 vendors.  The big surprise was the response.  We started in December 2012 with 32 vendors, which was far more than we expected.  There are now over 300 Good Market approved vendors and new applications coming in every week.  The customers are incredible.  They ask great questions and push the vendors to constantly improve. 

I think the eureka moment came after the market started when we realized that people were looking for public spaces and community.

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  • What were some of the challenges that you had to overcome in making Good Market a reality?

The initial challenge was finding a venue.  We were looking for a space that would be available on the weekends, centrally located and easily accessible by public transport.  Some venue managers didn’t think people would come to a weekly market.  Others had high payment expectations.  We didn’t want to use external funding or sponsorship because we’d seen too many donor-dependent initiatives that started off with a bang but stopped when the funding stopped.

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  •  How do you define Good Market as a social enterprise?

There are many different definitions of a social enterprise, but for the Good Market, a social enterprise is an organization that is mission-driven and self-financing.  We have Good Market vendors that self-identify as social enterprises.  We also have vendors that are non-profit organizations that are trying to be more financially sustainable or responsible businesses that are trying to expand their social or environment benefit.

The Good Market is registered as a Guarantee Limited Company and operates as a not-for-profit social enterprise.  The focus is on financial sustainability.  If there is any surplus, it is reinvested towards the mission to expand services for consumers or vendors.

  • What does Good Market focus on? How has it evolved since it was started?

We focus on curation and connection.  Good Market is a curated marketplace which means all of the vendors go through an application and review process, and the products and services have to meet Good Market standards and be good for people and good for the planet.  Our goal is to help vendors connect with like-minded consumers and with each other.

We started with a weekly event as a way to bring people together.  We now have weekly events in multiple locations and a shop that’s open daily.  We’re currently working on a web app that has the potential to promote vendors beyond Sri Lanka.  The services have evolved, but the core focus is the same.

  • How has the trend for social enterprise start-ups in Sri Lanka evolved over the past decade?

Sri Lanka has a long history of socially and environmentally responsible initiatives.  Some are community-based, some have come out of religious groups, and some (like the cooperative movement) have direct government support.  According to the World Giving Index, Sri Lanka is one of the top 10 most giving countries in the world.  The term “social enterprise” might be new, but this type of start-up is part of Sri Lanka’s culture and history.  The biggest change we’ve seen is greater recognition that these initiatives are part of a larger international movement.  As international aid for NGOs declines, we’ve also seen greater interest in social enterprises as a sustainable alternative to aid dependency.

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  • What do you consider some of the factors that could be improved for a better environment for local social enterprises?

Other countries are developing special forms of registration for social enterprises (e.g. CIC in the UK and B Corp in the US).  A special form of registration would help raise awareness and create a better environment for local social enterprises.  Currently, most people assume that a company registered as a Private Limited is profit driven and a company registered as a Guarantee Limited receives donor aid.

It would also be helpful to have preferential services and investment funds for social enterprises.  This is something that many groups are currently working on (e.g. Lanka Social Ventures, Social Enterprise Lanka, Lanka Impact Investment Network).

  • What do you consider the impact of Good Market on local communities?

Since most producer groups that sell through the Good Market have fewer than 50 members, I’m not sure that we’ve had impact on geographical communities.  There has certainly been impact on interest-based communities.  There are frequent meetings between people working on similar issues (disability awareness, organic agriculture, etc.)

Good Market Shop

  • I understand that socialenterprise.lk is another initiative of yours. Please briefly describe what the site aims to do.

Social Enterprise Lanka (socialenterprise.lk) was started by Eranda Ginige.  His goal is to build the social enterprise sector in Sri Lanka.  While not all Good Market vendors are social enterprises, we feel those who are deserve special recognition and support, and we’ve been linking them with Social Enterprise Lanka.  We are very excited about this initiative.

  •  To wrap up this interview, do share one of your favourite quotes or verse that inspires you whenever you are in need of a pick-me-up or some inspiration.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

[Photo credits: Dr. Amanda Kiessel]

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]

Interview #1: Cheryl Ka’uhane Lupenui

One of the pre-programme assignments given us, as fellows of the Asia Pacific Leadership Programme of East West Center, was to identify three individuals in Hawai’i whom we would like to meet and to subsequently carry out an informational interview during the programme. I decided that my informational interviews would be of social entrepreneurs as I had just started an enterprise at the beginning of 2012 and which I hoped to expand to a social enterprise. I came across a 2007 Hawaiian news article that mentioned the 25 Hawaiians to watch out for the next 25 years and I decided that I would reach out to three of the social entrepreneurs mentioned in that article. The following is a summary of my interview with Cheryl Ka’uhane Lupenui (Hawai’i, 27.08.2012)

Cheryl Lupenui is the founder of The Leadership project, a social enterprise based in Hawai’i and a board member of the Hawai’i State Department of Education. She was  the former chair of Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and has  also served on the Resource Advisory Board for the Tourism  Authority in Hawai’i, Organization for Women Leaders (OWL), national board of the Center for Asian Pacific American Women and on the community-building committee for Aloha United Way.

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Source: The Center for Asian Pacific American women

Working at YWCA

Cheryl Lupenui comes from a business background and was introduced to business with a philanthropic mission through her work at YWCA – an organization functioning over 100 years. YWCA has a business model tied to social enterprise. The primary revenue source for YWCA is mostly through fee-based services and a smaller percentage through philanthropic services. The YWCA mission is mainly focused on empowering women and eliminating racism within the national mandate of freedom and social justice for all people. The local state organization, focused on health and well-being, economic and leadership development, is part of the state-wide network, national network and international network.

Cheryl’s initial work at YWCA started with the restaurant and she created a venue for youth through culinary art. Her roles and responsibilities grew and eventually, she became the Chief Executive Officer of YWCA, where she worked for 10 years. A key challenge that YWCA has faced, according to Cheryl, is the struggle to continue to be a viable organization locally and across the country and internationally. One of the reasons is that women are really busy and YWCA counts on the presence of women. So, her primary challenge was to re-convene women with matters that are important to them, while overcoming the bigger challenge of their making the time to be part of a community.

With that objective in mind, Cheryl thought about what women shared in terms of a story, irrespective of how much money they made. Not poor vs. rich but what they commonly struggled – a work/life balance. First, she started with aligning a community on how we support each other and then as a community to champion for common causes, in terms of social justice. A lot of the new initiatives, setting the table for social change, dress for success, women leading change etc. were tied to that initiative.

Challenges and Lessons learnt

Cheryl considers that what she is doing now is based on lessons learnt and experiences from her work at YWCA. The biggest challenge, she faces in her work, is bringing a sense of community back.

One of the lessons that Cheryl learnt from her experience is when she raised the question about who else cares about women’s empowerment, she found that men surprisingly rose to the top. The initial assumption she had was that women should deal with their own empowerment but women tend to put themselves last. Whereas she found that men were clear about the reasons why women and men needed to invest in women and causes they believe in. It was interesting to come to that conclusion. So, she felt that it was good to have men at the discussion table, partaking in the conversation, and share in the leadership of the YWCA’s mission. The challenge was how to engage men and women as equal partners.

An example that strove to address this challenge was the LifeInc project – national school programme which was modified and brought to Hawai’i. The unique addition was that YWCA had approached businesses and asked for young adult volunteers, in their twenties, who would go into schools and volunteer as mentors. It was a team approach and there was a five member team so that at least one would show up for each class but usually all five turned up. Both male and female youth were included as volunteers – the volunteers practiced leadership skills and community service which was good for their businesses and the students learnt a lot from their mentors.

The Leader Project

Cheryl left YWCA around a year and a half ago and started her own company called The Leader Project. Cheryl had known what she had wanted to do but initially, she had wanted to work in an organization. However, she didn’t find anyone who was doing what she did and so she decided to start her own company. Her company focuses on leadership, from a Hawaiian worldview and a western worldview. Her leadership models are based from her experiences in studying leadership, leading at the YWCA and in community, and also providing leadership programmes for women in Hawai’i. She strongly felt that leadership models that we are familiar with are from a western perspective and that as a Hawai’ian woman and somebody who is here in Hawaii, Cheryl had felt that the leadership wisdom that the Hawaiian culture brought was being missed out. Particularly as she believed that we should honour what different cultural worldviews with respect to leadership means as there is no one way of leading.

Cheryl particularly wanted to blend her two worlds. Born and raised in a very western environment outside of Washington D.C. and ethnically, being a Hawaiian, Chinese, German, Italian, French and English, Cheryl has lived in Hawaii for longer than anywhere else and felt very rooted and at home in Hawaii. Her key question to herself had been “I am a businesswoman. How do I bring these different worlds together that of a Hawaiian businesswoman instead of being Hawaiian in one place and a businesswoman in another place?” She had felt that she was living dual lives for a while and felt the need to integrate both lives. Her company provided the space for her to bring her two worlds together and operate from that intersection and find others who would value this type of leadership development, not only value the perspective of the Hawaiian indigenous culture. Cheryl feels that she doesn’t train in the traditional sense. She named her company ‘The Leader Project’ because she likes doing projects and because she believes that “when we create projects as leaders and go through that together, we put into practice leading then that further develops us as leaders. That process is taking all that theoretical concepts and putting into practice and that is when it becomes really embedded – when you are actually doing it.” Cheryl particularly likes doing group process and projects where there is a start and an end and the outcome and results can also be quantified. She considers it a different way to enter the leadership conversation and that the journey so far has been good and that she has been able to make a business out of the idea as well as continue her volunteer work.

The Leader Project is a social enterprise. It was set up as a for-profit business and at its core, a social mission. Cheryl felt that she wanted to keep her enterprise simple and didn’t want a board of directors, staff and a lot of administrative work. She wanted to create a sustainable revenue source. She wanted the work to be valued by a western sense. She feels that a lot of the native programmes are funded through Government funding which can perpetuate a “poor and needy” conversation – “it is a story of a lower social income rung on the ladder, the statistics only look at economic measures of success – that is true, those are facts but I want to talk about strengths and other measures of success. Our people. Our place – Hawaii. About abundance and strength. For people to value it because it is really a gift. We pay a lot of money for western leadership, why wouldn’t we pay for other cultural leaderships? It is kind of a test to see whether it could stand as a business. To make it a profitable, a viable business that does social good work is a lot harder.”

Being a social entrepreneur

Some of the challenges Cheryl has faced while building her social enterprise is that she can only take on limited projects as she is the only one involved but at the same time, she has to build a pipeline so that there is income coming in. The challenge is particularly so if there is a very profitable project but the people or organization does not really value the Hawaiian culture. That is where Cheryl feels she has to be careful about – “even if it is profitable but if their actions do not value your core beliefs of valuing Hawaiian culture, then it is better to walk away. To believe that there are enough other people who walk the talk.” Another challenge that Cheryl faces is that she finds it hurts when people in Hawai’i do not really value Hawaiian culture. She sometimes feels that people outside of Hawai’i value Hawaiian culture more than some people here.  “This is the only Hawaii we have in the world. I do not care if they don’t hire me or value me but that is crazy if they do not have some value for the root culture.” It is in those moments that she sometimes feels she wants to give up and when she sometimes questions herself about the practicality of having a steady job and stable paycheck. She continues to face these moments but it’s been a year and a half since she set up her company and she feels she is now stronger and less tipped over or knocked off-center. Especially because she has seen the impact that her work does and she has decided to stick to it. Cheryl initially had decided that she would give it a year and see if it worked and has found that she enjoys her work a lot and has decided to continue. “Right now, I am in a good point and I would like to continue for some time to come.”

One of Cheryl’s key realizations is that she can contribute in a meaningful way, not because of her title or position, and not in isolation but with people. She feels that she gets to bring something unique to a larger   conversation and be part teacher/ part student and that she can really enjoy work everyday and the people she works with. The challenge she felt is getting used to not having a title and a reputation and being just herself. She suddenly felt that she was not anybody and she realized that much of her identity had been tied to a position. It was a vulnerable situation to be in as wherever she went, she went as herself. “It is not like here is my position, here is my other life. Everything is here – right on the table. It was difficult.”  Once she crossed the hurdle, for the most part, the joy/ great moments are just doing good work with people and having caring relationships in her work. The common goal that they are working together to make a meaningful difference whether it is in education, social services or youth, and particularly that she is just one piece.

Appreciating life’s blessings 

Growing up in the east coast, Cheryl felt that it was very much achievement oriented. It was always about getting an A in a paper, going to college, there were very much these benchmarks that she was taught that you do and you keep climbing up that ladder. It was great but she realized that she was missing a lot along the way.  She felt that the singular, individual mindset was kind of selfish and she credits her husband for being the first person to wake her up. She feels that he has been a gift – good at reminding her of what is important – “This is achieving a goal. This is living. It was a lifelong lesson to shift my mind to what really is important. Particularly in this results-oriented world. Nobody gives you a bonus for stopping and looking at a beautiful sunset. It is a priceless gift. It is nice to live that kind of life– that does not miss out. I feel I had missed out as I was so internal focused.”

She strongly feels that work is not separate than life. “You are who you are, wherever you show up. Compartmentalizing yourself is not fully living. It was not until I realized that this is everything. I bring all of this whether I show up at a board meeting, project meeting or my husband’s meeting or whatever it  is. I am fully all there. That was a hard lesson. It is part of every day. So, “being here is getting there” is just appreciating that this given moment, this time together, what it offers, beyond even just the beautiful sunset – the opportunities.”