While the world often seems like a rather daunting place, there are some truly amazing, inspiring people out there doing tremendous good and making an enormous impact on such critical issues as fighting poverty, climate change, educational opportunity, and improving the lives of women and girls. Over the years of running my blog, I’ve met some of these changemakers and have been impressed to learn that many of them are women (like Elisabetta Colabianchi, Founder of Kurandza) helping other women and girls around the world.
To be a woman or girl in the some parts of the world is a lot more challenging than a man or a boy: Most girls give birth well before 18, are married young, are not able to attend school, live in poverty and have less financial opportunities than men. However, when you invest in a woman or girl, the opportunity to make a difference and impact change is immense and creates a ripple impact throughout the entire community. That is why investing in girls and women is not only the right thing to do but also very smart.
This new series, Inspiring Women, is all about the courageous women who are taking a leap of faith and making a huge impact in the world. These women are not getting enough attention in the mainstream press so my goal is to honor them and shed light on their inspiring work.
Meet Elisabetta Colabianchi, Founder of Kurandza
Tell me about your childhood. Where did you grow up? What were your hobbies and passions?
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in California. My mom always tells me about how I was a “peacemaker” at a very early age—on the playground at school, I would always try to break up fights and help everyone get along. My teachers would always tell my mom this same thing about me.
Did you travel as a child? Where was the first place you went that inspired you? When was the first time you left the country?
I traveled a bit as a child. When I was about 5 or 6, I took my first trip down to Ensenada, Mexico. I remember being curious about the culture and the way people live. When I was 8-years-old, I spent a summer at my aunt’s and uncle’s home outside of Rome, Italy. I loved this trip and I remember telling everyone that I’m Italian, not American. My dad was born in Italy and my mom’s side is Italian, too, so I always felt like I had a strong Italian culture.
Where did you go to college and what did you study? Why did you chose this area?
I went to college at the University of San Diego. I double majored and studied Biology and foreign languages, with a minor in Peace and Justice Studies. I chose Biology as one of my majors because I thought I would be a doctor or veterinarian, and because I also loved learning about health, nutrition, and environmental studies. I studied foreign languages (Spanish, Italian, and Arabic) because ever since I was young, I’ve been fascinated by languages and LOVE learning new ones! It’s so fun and relatively easy for me, so I took these more for my own personal enjoyment and curiosity and less to follow a career path. Peace and Justice Studies was a minor that I added my senior year after studying abroad for a year in Milan, Italy and realizing that I wanted to pursue a career in international development instead of medicine.
What inspired you to join the Peace Corps? Tell me about the highs and lows of your experience. What did you learn and how did it change your life?
After college, I moved to New York City with the dream of working for the United Nations. I quickly got a job working for a local non-profit during the day and another job working at an Italian restaurant at night (only way to make it in NYC is to hustle!). I also enrolled in a Global Affairs program at NYU to increase my knowledge of international relations. Through this program, I studied abroad at the UN in Geneva—it was a dream come true, but like many things that aren’t as they seem from afar, I realized that working for the UN wasn’t for me. Instead, I wanted to work one-on-one with the communities I’m serving, and listen to them and their needs to collaboratively come up with solutions. That’s when I decided to apply for the Peace Corps.
There were so many highs and lows in the Peace Corps. I’ll start with some of the lows: corruption, cultural differences, and communication difficulties were some of the daily struggles. Then there was the 2013 flood. There was no warning and the water was up to my roof—almost everything in my home was ruined, and for days I didn’t know if my fellow community members were alive or not. It was a very traumatic time. Ok so now let’s talk about the highs ☺ : building relationships with some of the most special people in the world, naming two little girls and becoming their namesakes, which is one of the biggest honors of my life, creating sustainable projects that are actually making a difference, teaching HIV+ mothers how to prevent the transmission of HIV to their babies and seeing that their babies are born negative and free of HIV because of what I taught their mothers, learning how to be hospitable, generous, and patient no matter what your circumstances, and the list goes on and on! And to circle back about the flood… if it weren’t for the flood, I wouldn’t have extended for a third year and moved to the village where Percina lived to become her neighbor and start the sewing cooperative that laid the foundation for what Kurandza is today.
What did you do after the Peace Corps?
After the Peace Corps I traveled back to the US to spend time with family and friends and that’s when I decided to start Kurandza as a way to continue working with and supporting the community that I had worked with for 3 years!
Tell me more about Kurandza: How it started, how it has evolved and what the mission is today.
Kurandza has changed so much in the last 3.5 years! When we first started, we were only selling the handcrafted products that the women in our sewing cooperative were making. This was a way to 1) support our women artisans in becoming economically self-sufficient, 2) use profits to support local social programs. In 2016 during the hunger crisis in Mozambique, we diverted all of our energy into helping with humanitarian assistance and started a nutrition program. Then in 2017 we decided to shift our focus to education. We saw that the women in our sewing cooperative were able to send their kids to school and that it was making a huge difference in their lives. Because we wanted to help even more kids, we launched our first #IStandForGirls campaign and raised scholarships for over 100 girls to go to school. Our mission is to use education to empower women and girls to become leaders in their communities!
What has been some of the biggest challenges of being a social entrepreneur? What have been some of the greatest rewards?
Some of the challenges have been compassion fatigue and burnout, as well as dealing with so many external factors like civil unrest, corruption, theft, and famine. The greatest reward for me working at Kurandza is that I get to work with my best friend, Percina! Together, we get to use our knowledge of the community needs to create sustainable programs that make a difference—and it’s so fulfilling when we hear stories from the women and girls about how these programs are changing their lives for the better.
How has your work been received in the community? Has it been tough being a young woman from America doing this kind of work?
I think that if I hadn’t lived in the village we serve in the same conditions as community members (no running water, no electricity, hitchhiking everywhere, etc) then it would have been much harder. The community got to know me and even though I am American, not Mozambican, many think of me as a fellow member of the community. Learning the local Changana language in addition to the national Portuguese language is what helped me earn respect and gain trust. And working alongside my Mozambican counterpart, Percina, has also helped our work continue ahead.
How do you face obstacles and tough times?
When I face tough times, I turn to prayer and meditation. I also take a good look at what my lifestyle is like—am I eating nourishing food? Drinking enough water? Getting enough sleep? Yoga, walking in nature, and being social (visiting with neighbors or taking a stroll downtown) helps lift my mood. And playing with children and spending time with my namesakes always helps, too!
What words of wisdom and advice do you offer other people who would like to become a social entrepreneur?
I would ask yourself, why do I want to be a social entrepreneur? If you want to be a social entrepreneur for the title, then it’s not worth it. But if you have a deeper why, something that drives you to continue everyday even when you’re faced with immense challenges, then go for it! And know that there WILL inevitably be tough times, but if you remember why you started and why you’re doing this work in the first place, then you will be able to continue on despite the struggles and setbacks.
How can people support your work with Kurandza?
There are so many ways to support Kurandza! If you’re a business owner and want to add a giveback component to your business, you can become one of our Giveback Partners. If you want to join the work we’re doing on the ground and come visit Mozambique, you can apply for our Empowerment Trip. If you care about education for girls, you can join the #IStandForGirls campaign and either help by spreading the word on social media, or you can sponsor a girl for $20/month.
Kurandza is a non-profit social enterprise that invests in the future of women and girls in Mozambique. Through education, entrepreneurship, and sustainable development programs, women learn to become leaders in their villages, sharing their skills and knowledge with the rest of their community, and creating an opportunity for thousands of people. Kurandza means “to love” in Changana, the local language of the people we work with in Mozambique. www.kurandza.org