Nearly one decade ago, I sat in a packed, pristine building in Cambridge, Massachusetts as my view of the world expanded more rapidly than popcorn in a microwave.
Liya Kebede, an Ethiopian-born model, designer and maternal health advocate, commanded the crowd of Harvard elite, and me, with her presence.
I sat, shaken and transfixed, as she painted a picture of a reality I didn’t know — that, every minute, a woman dies in childbirth. As Liya spoke, I learned a term that, regrettably, has not left the lexicon of human tragedy to this day: maternal mortality.
I was a high schooler at an all-boys prep school in New Jersey, so it goes without saying that “maternal mortality” was an utterance far removed from our juvenile day-to-day banter over taylor ham, egg and cheeses in the cafeteria and even from the stories I’d written for the school newspaper. Liya’s narrative began to write my own understanding of maternal mortality, an issue which takes the lives of approximately 830 women each day, with 99% of occurrences in developing countries, according to the WHO.
Liya’s experience as an Ethiopian woman stood in stark contrast to that of a simple New Jersey school boy. And still, her words struck me profoundly. It wasn’t just that I was exposed to the problem; that can feel heartbreaking and disempowering at times. As she stood before us that day, Liya put her social entrepreneurship journey into words, emboldening us with hope.
In one breath, she spoke about maternal mortality though, in the next, she championed social entrepreneurship. She held up social enterprise as fertile ground to harvest energy, interest, creativity and business savvy for impact.
As a 17 year old occupying a seat in that room, I didn’t make a peep. Inside, my mind popped, loudly resounding with the possibilities coming into focus.
Imagine: There we were faced with death; Liya was telling us that our own solutions could enable life.
That weekend, I was introduced to many big problems I couldn’t fully grasp. Even more, I left with an acute understanding of the power that we had to relegate problems to the past and forever change the course of history.
Almost ten years later, I write this on the eve of the 20th annual Harvard Social Enterprise Conference where I am preparing my own panel. I came up with the title “Innovators Everywhere”, because it speaks to a reality the other panelists and I have observed: to change the world, it’s an all-hands-on-deck effort.
I think of Liya Kebede and the other speakers who left an indelible mark on me, one that has flourished into, well, this.
Sometimes I wonder where my passion for storytelling comes from. In reflecting on my first SECON, I would imagine that this passion, in part, was born out of the reaction I had to Liya’s words. I know firsthand that what one person says has the power to influence what another thinks and does.
I try not to take myself too seriously. And yet, I can’t take the reach of my words and the words of all of the speakers lightly. In coming together, we have the power to seed the spark that ignites a revolution, to blow the winds of change where that gust is needed most… whether we know it now or find out a decade later when a school boy from New Jersey chooses to reflect on how he came to be.