According to the UN, women globally could increase their income by up to 76 percent and an approximate global value of $17 trillion would be added to the economy if the employment participation gap and the wage gap between women and men were closed. Even in a place like Rwanda, where 64 percent of Parliament members are female and there are excellent public and private sector interventions to increase women’s education, financial literacy, and vocational training, those gaps still exist because women lack the confidence in their own skills and abilities to turn opportunity into action.
Armed with this knowledge and a skillset for community organizing, Ayla Schlosser moved to Rwanda in 2013 with a concept for an organization that would use leadership training to unlock the potential of women and girls in East Africa and close wage and employment gaps. Within two months of her move, Schlosser met her co-founder Solange Impanoyimana, and the two have been developing their organization, Resonate, ever since.
Resonate’s training program works with women to recognize and build confidence in the skills and resources they possess to make decisions for themselves, speak up, and take on leadership roles to spark change, growth, and development. Since 2013, it has partnered with more than 30 organizations — such as Women for Women International and Kate Spade’s On Purpose factory — and has trained more than 1,000 women. Companies in Rwanda have noticed the training’s benefits and have been hiring Resonate to train their own team members. Schlosser spoke to us about her innovative program and the power of storytelling to unlock potential.
How did Resonate start? Where did you get the inspiration for this?
Ayla Schlosser: Unlike other classic founding stories, Resonate wasn’t the result of a single “aha” moment. Rather, it was the natural coming together of a set of skills and interests that lled a gap. While living and working in Washington, DC, as a community organizer, I became fascinated with the very powerful and uniquely accessible tools used to build leadership in communities, yet I was frustrated at how narrowly they were being applied. I’ve always been someone who likes to think about how I can maximize my personal impact on the world, and I realized that these leadership tools could be making an even bigger difference in international development by unleashing the latent leadership potential of women and girls. When I realized these tools weren’t being used in that way yet, I knew I had to try it out.
I chose Rwanda as a place to pilot because of the unique situation of women there. Rwanda has more female parliamentarians than any country in the world — 64 percent! — and yet, on a community level, there is still much to be done in terms of advancing gender equality. If we were to close the gender-related employment gap in Rwanda alone, it would result in an $82 million increase in GDP.
You design systems and curricula for women “to reframe what they believe to be possible, build on their strengths, and create change in their lives and communities.” How? What did the design process look like for you and your team?
AS: The basis for our model — leveraging your personal story as a tool for leadership — is rooted in years of US social movements and was formalized by one of our advisors, Harvard Professor Marshall Ganz. Over the past two years, Solange Impanoyimana and I have taken Ganz’s Public Narrative framework and adapted and adjusted it to fit the specific context. It started as a lot of trial and error — learning from each new training that we did and iterating. We have just recently worked with a curriculum consultant to take more than two years’ worth of learning and solidify it into a formal, standard curriculum. In addition to our written curriculum, we also worked with an amazing designer to distill our content into a series of five images that serve as a graphic curriculum when working with low-literacy populations.
We have found that belief is an incredibly powerful thing. Our training seeks to shine a light on the skills and strengths that women already have. We ask them to reframe challenges they’ve faced in their lives as obstacles successfully overcome, and think about pivotal moments in their lives with respect to the choices they made. Most of them already have dreams for the future. We give them the tools to turn dreams into future goals.
What is the most important thing for people to know about women in order to empower them?
AS: What they are capable of achieving! After our training, we have seen women interview for jobs, start businesses, report household violence, run for and get elected to their village councils, buy land, put children back in school, and re-orient the trajectories of their lives toward safety and prosperity. All we do is give women hope for the future, a sense of self-confidence in their abilities, some tools for leadership and decision making, and then get out of the way — they do the rest.
What are the common misconceptions that you face regarding the women that you work with?
AS: That they will be resistant to change — but we have found quite the opposite. Because our training works with women to set their own goals, we find them to be enthusiastic and self-motivated to achieve the changes that they want for themselves, their families, and their communities. And similarly, we often have people wondering how others react to women coming into their leadership. We already know that at a household level, when you invest in a woman, she reinvests 90 percent of that into her family. We have begun to see that by investing in a woman leading her community, her own goals often have a larger community benefit.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from doing this work?
AS: I’m consistently blown away by human potential and resilience. Real change doesn’t come from a willingness to try — it comes from a willingness to try again.
What’s your vision for Resonate’s future?
AS: At Resonate, we envision a world where women are leaders in creating communities where all people are respected and valued. That means investing in women’s leadership at all levels; not just bolstering those who have already self-selected and succeeded, but unlocking potential in those who may never have thought of themselves as leaders otherwise. By employing Resonate’s model at scale through strategic partnerships, we can close employment and wage gaps, create a safe environment for women and girls, and see women driving economic and social development internationally.