March 24, 2022

In honor of Women’s History Month, Meena Sonea, Aspire Institute’s Executive Director, and three finalists from the class of 2021 had a virtual conversation about their experiences as women and how the Aspire Leaders Program, replacing the Crossroads Emerging Leaders program, affected them as individuals and young leaders.

They shared examples of leadership and Meena shared with them that if you continue to be passionate and find places supportive of your drive and dreams, you will succeed.

Meena: [The Aspire Leaders Program] is a unique opportunity. What shifted for you when you enrolled and then went through its various stages?

Jessica Reis De Souza (Brazil): As a woman, particularly in Brazil, you are always challenged about careers or intellectual development. Aspire came as an opportunity to expand my view. After participating, my capacities were confirmed. I can see that my gender doesn’t limit my possibilities.

Ghina Elsharif (Lebanon): I have many new visions of this world. We were like a mini, worldwide family that was pushing everyone. It was very heartwarming.

Jennifer Akaade (Ghana): I got used to engaging with diverse backgrounds. It really taught me that I can achieve anything that I put my mind to, regardless of how difficult it is [and] of my gender.

Even though I am on the other side, the program raised my curiosity about the world. I grew up in India and lived there most of my life, and then I came to the U.S. I am learning so much about different parts of the world [from] these conversations with students—how different we are but also how similar. In the similarities, there is an opportunity for us to work together.

How do you think the filter through which you look at your community [changed] after this program?

Jessica: I tend to look with more empathy at people next to me. It is clear everyone is struggling with their own difficulties.

Ghina: I was able to see different views in the world. I am trying to bring what I learned at Aspire to my country.

Jennifer: I realized that I have been exposed to a lot of opportunities that not everyone in the community has gotten access to. I started engaging with youth like myself and telling them about the program and some of the experiences I gained, especially self-confidence, to help my community to grow. Change starts with little things like this.

Did you experience any resistance from your community when introducing any sort of change?

Jessica: I always try to [tell my sisters] to have a dream and go after it. My middle sister is smart but gets nervous. I was encouraging her and showing her some examples of what I was doing–without pushing her. I just gave the time that she needs and tried to be an example, showing that I also have those fears and insecurities.

Ghina: I had friends that were saying the country is already in a bad condition, there is no hope. I was telling them [if] there is no hope, then who will have the hope? Each one of us has this butterfly effect. We can start with this mini seed and let it grow and count on others to come and feed it.

You all are superb leaders. I can feel the energy and it gives me goosebumps to hear you all speak. I am so blown away.

Jennifer: [In my community,] there is this notion that girls are not supposed to get into education. I realized that if I need to make a change, I need to lead by example. Now I understand that leading by example is also not enough. You must make them believe that they can do the things they think they cannot do.

When you do something and first face resistance, someone will see that this is something special and will join you. Through that, you can start a movement. You are already starting to see the power you have.

When you first do something, you’re tentative, but then someone else joins you because they believe in what you are doing. We spun out of Harvard and started our own non-profit. It was just professors Khanna and Lakhani and me, then we hired Jenna,Erika, and Yilun, now we are building a movement through Aspire.

You are already in this global network. What has that experience been for you?

Jessica: I thought there would be more cultural differences and it would make it difficult to connect. I have seen that when you talk to people and are willing to respect them, [they] will respect you.

Ghina: We noticed that we all have these dreams, which is delightful and eye-opening. We are so different [yet] so similar. It was motivating to know that you are not alone.

Jennifer: I realized that we all had one aim and that is what made things easier. It exposed me to other parts of the country.

I would never imagine that I would be sitting in a virtual room talking to someone from Lebanon, Brazil, and Ghana. Now I know that I can reach out to you and learn about what is happening on a street level. This program has made [this] possible.

I am so excited and so impressed by you all. We could never have designed [the Aspire Leaders Program] to get the results we are getting. Keep your mind open when you are setting out to do something or make any type of change, because so many good ideas happen when you start to do and share. I am so happy to have had this opportunity. Thank you!


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