A few years ago, I met Maria Russo, founder of the award-wining online media platform for travel and social good, The Culture-ist and Executive Director of Humanity Unified, a nonprofit organization that invests in education, food security projects and economic development programs to empower people to rise above poverty. I was instantly inspired by her incredible work to improve the lives of women and communities in Rwanda and have followed her work ever since. I had the opportunity to catch up with Maria and learn more about her life and what it is like to lead Humanity Unified. Here is what she has to say.
Tell me about your childhood. Where did you grow up? What were your hobbies and passions? Do you have any siblings?
I grew up with my parents, younger sister and maternal grandmother in a quaint little town in NJ called Berkeley Heights. Our house was always full and family time was everything – most weekends were spent visiting cousins, aunts and uncles and home cooked meals were always at the center of the celebration. As a child I was drawn to history, dance and nature. I could spend hours exploring rocks, worms, flowers and trees. I think my passion for humanitarian work was sparked by my involvement with the Girl Scouts of America. The service projects helped me to see beyond my own needs and focus on the needs of others at a very young age.
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?
Most of my travels as a child were within the U.S, with a few trips to the Caribbean peppered in between. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I traveled across continents to Italy and shortly after to South Africa. These trips, particularly my time in South Africa, sparked an unquenchable desire to see the world that lead me to over 35 countries over the following 10 years.
Where did you go to college and what did you study? Why did you choose this area?
I went to American University in Washington DC. where I studied journalism and international studies. Throughout high school I became increasingly interested in politics and international affairs. I think it was the realization that a vast, complex, dynamic world existed far beyond the world I had known growing up. I became avidly involved in the Junior Statesman of America and traveled to D.C. three times a year for student conferences. It was through my involvement with the organization that I became infatuated with the history and culture of D.C., so the decision to attend college there seemed intuitive. My time at AU deepened my interest in journalism and helped me realize how I could marry it with my love of global affairs.
What inspired you to launch The Culture-ist and when did you start it? Tell me more about the mission behind it and how it is run. What did you learn from this line of work?
My husband and I launched The Culture-ist in 2011 as a passion project that allowed us to engage in and develop our passions – for me that was writing about things I cared most about such as travel, global affairs, sustainable development, women’s issues, entrepreneurship and humanitarian work. The Culture-ist was also a really powerful channel of connection for us. I was constantly interviewing people, working with other writers and collaborating with media organizations and brands…it was truly a gift to meet so many interesting individuals who were contributing to the world in unique and inspiring ways. So far I’ve learned that no matter the line of work you’re in, kindness and openness is key to building a business that is grounded in integrity. I’ve also learned that while it’s important to be flexible, sacrificing your vision to ‘keep up’ with fads and trends will have you chasing something that will steer you far off track only to force you to back pedal to your original intention.
What inspired you to launch Humanity Unified?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be involved in humanitarian work. To me, a life spent trying to make the world more equitable for all just seemed to make sense. It also creates a deep sense of purpose and gratitude for the life I have now. For years I waited for the right time to launch a nonprofit and an opening finally came in 2014. Right around that time Anthony and I traveled to Rwanda where we explored program possibilities. We knew that we were interested in investing in education, food security and economic development and serendipitously found a local Rwandan NGO that aligned with our vision and mission for Humanity Unified. After almost two years of developing our programming and completing the 501(c)(3) application process we launched our first project.
How has Humanity Unified evolved over the years and what is the mission is today?
In the early stages of developing Humanity Unified, we thought we would adopt a for-profit/nonprofit hybrid model, which can be a bit more sustainable in the long-term given that there are two streams of revenue sources to fund projects. After receiving our 501(c)(3) we decided to go with the nonprofit model to keep things simple. Our mission has always been dedicated to empowering communities to rise above poverty through education, food security projects and economic opportunities. Over the past two years our programs have provided a community of women farmers in Rwanda with business and vocational skills trainings, health and human rights education and social support programs such as domestic violence mediation. We also invest in creating an elevated standard of health and well being for orphaned and vulnerable children by providing healthful, high caloric meals…AND we are hoping to launch an exciting new initiative in 2019!
What has been some of the biggest challenges of running a non-profit in another country? What have been some of the greatest rewards?
We’ve been incredibly lucky to find a local Rwandan NGO partner to oversee our operations on the ground. They are a seasoned team that knows how to navigate daily challenges while always putting the best interest of the community first. I think the biggest challenge for me lies in not being able to sit down with our team in Rwanda on a daily basis. Email is a wonderful tool, but it doesn’t make up for personal interaction. The rewards of this work are endless. I think so far, seeing the women we’ve been working with over the past two years collaborate in such a way that fosters a strong support system, so that every woman in the cooperative thrives both personally and financially is, in my option, the ultimate success.
How has your work been received in the community and what have you learned about Rwandans since you began Humanity Unified?
We are fortunate to have developed a very special bond with the communities we work with. Rwandans are the hardest working people I’ve ever met and they take pride and are diligent in their work. Each project is a collaborative effort and thankfully everyone involved deeply values the partnership. I’ll go as far to say that when we visit each community after many months of being away it feels as though we are being welcomed back by family. It is important to me to focus on the humanness in all that we do. So often in American society we get caught up in “the work” and we sometimes forget that we are cooperating with our HUMAN brothers and sisters. That in itself should demand kindness, compassion and respect for others at all times. I make it a priority to live with this ethos and foster it in all that we do through Humanity Unified.
On a personal level, how do you face obstacles and tough times? Do you have any secrets?
Ha! Oh goodness, lots and lots of prayer and silence. I learned how to take time for myself and find that juicy space in the silence that helps clear out all the stress, anxiety and assaults from simply living in this entropic world. I’ve also found that a few hours spent laughing with good friends can change my mindset almost immediately. Laughter is indeed medicine for the soul.
What words of wisdom and advice do you offer other people who would like to launch their own non-profit or social enterprise?
My number one piece of advice would be: don’t go at it alone. Find a few partners or seek out a small organization and try to get involved on their team. Having a support system is everything and it can truly be the thing that determines whether you will thrive or sink. You also have to be real with yourself about how long you can operate without earning a salary. Specifically for nonprofits, you’ll need to bring in a significant amount of funding before any salaries can be paid. It’s very different from a typical for-profit model and requires an incredible amount of work to be sustainable…BUT, as I said earlier, it’s incredibly rewarding work and it will enrich and fill you with a sense of meaning and purpose.
Want to learn more?
Visit www.humanityunified.org. Read my previous posts “The Story of US: How Humanity Unified is Supporting Women farmers in Rwanda“.
Want to help? Join the Humanity Unified Tribe of Changemakers
About Inspiring Women series
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. The first post in this series features Elisabetta Colabianchi, Founder of Kurandza. Do you personally know any inspiring women whose work should be covered? If so, please let me know.