Leader Spotlight: Barbara Bylenga

Q: What is the name of your organization?

A: SHE-CAN.

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Q: Tell us about your career path leading up to where you are today.

A: I have a feeling that my entire career was somehow pre-designed to prepare me to lead SHE-CAN - even though I didn’t know it at the time. I started working in the 80’s as an advertising research executive at a few of the big ad agencies. That instilled an unwavering sense of the importance of branding and marketing in shaping an organization. In the 90’s I started and ran my own market research consultancy. That made the idea of starting an NGO not so scary. We were called Outlaw Consulting and we took on the hardest ethnographic projects we could find, like finding and studying the coolest hip hop kids in NYC and trendsetters in LA. So when I decided to start SHE-CAN and the first step was finding the smartest female students in Kigali, Rwanda, I was like -- bring it on! I just inherently knew what to do. Also, I joined Bpeace as a volunteer during their early years around 2005. They do similar work --- engage US professionals to support small business owners in developing nations. I watched the founders very closely. They inspired me and made me realize that my idea was completely within my reach. Clearly my career and volunteer choices paved the way to where SHE-CAN is today, whether it was a path that was meant to be, I don’t know :-)

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Q: Tell us about your organization.

A: SHE-CAN (Supporting Her Education Changes A Nation) exists to build global women’s leadership through equipping young women with the skills needed to change their nations and the world. We identify high-achieving, low-income women from Cambodia, Liberia, Rwanda, and soon Guatemala, and we connect them with scholarships to top U.S. colleges like Dartmouth, Wellesley, and Georgetown. Each SHE-CAN scholar participates in leadership training and is supported emotionally and academically by a team of 4 - 6 loving mentors. To date, we have helped 74 young women earn over $19 million in scholarships and they are supported by 376 mentors.

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Q: What inspired you to start/or lead your organization and who has helped you along the way?

A: In many ways, I consider SHE-CAN a child of Bpeace. In addition to learning a lot from the founding members, I was on a Bpeace trip when a Rwandan woman asked me to help her daughter apply to college in the U.S., and while it would take me a few years to formally create SHE-CAN, helping her daughter attend Bucknell University was the catalyst for the organization’s existence. Along the way, I was very lucky to have been connected with amazing people who taught me valuable lessons on what my advertising and market research career didn’t provide: how to fundraise, throw a gala, manage a board, nurture a community, and more. Among my most influential mentors would be Julie Abrams, Anne Deveruex-Mills, Mary Jane Luck, Nancy Murphy, Kathryn Johnson and many more. I am fortunate to have had, and still have, such great role models.

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Who is the greatest female influence in your life?

A: I couldn’t possibly choose just one! I have been consistently inspired and influenced by the actions of some of our generations’ great female leaders including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Wangari Maathai, Melinda Gates, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to name a few.

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What do you feel is your greatest achievement?

A: My greatest achievement is founding SHE-CAN - I am so proud that we’ve been able to help 74 young women come to college in the U.S. and be set on a path to reach their full leadership potential. Many are already influential leaders at home and I can’t wait to see how they transform their nations and possibly the world.

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How can WorldWideWomen readers get involved in what you are doing?

A: We are looking for volunteers excited to apply their unique gifts, talents, and networks to advance the personal, educational, and professional development of young women leaders. If that’s you, there are two easy ways to get involved! The first is through mentoring, which is when you are matched with a scholar and support her emotionally, academically, and professionally during her five years as a SHE-CAN scholar. The other way is to join our Power To Fly Volunteer Corps, where members select short-term volunteer projects, many of them virtual, that fit with their schedule and leverage their expertise and unique gifts. You can learn more by visiting the Become a Mentor page and the Power to Fly page.

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Please share with us something that you want other women around the world to hear.

A: I believe that together, women have the power to end the centuries-old, globally debilitating problem of low representation of women in leadership. I am convinced that the number of global women leaders can grow exponentially and women’s leadership will become even more powerful when each of us starts to enact a “mass power pull-up.” By that I mean each and every one of us needs to be reaching back and pulling up women who lack opportunities. This can be fighting for hiring and promoting women professionally, sponsoring and mentoring, connecting women to valuable opportunities, or it can be something specific to your skills & experience like tutoring, sharing your wisdom in webinars and articles or blogs, or just taking a woman under your wing and inspiring her. Everyone, regardless of what position we hold, has the power to pull other women up. We just have to look around and see it. Find what you can do for another woman, and then go do it.

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Connect with Barbara through her organization's Facebook page and website!

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