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In Rwanda, a package of sanitary pads costs about a day’s wages for most local women. This lack of access to affordable sanitary supplies means millions of women and girls in this and other underprivileged regions are missing up to 50 days of work and school every year. Since women reinvest 80 cents of every dollar earned back into their families and communities – as opposed to just 30 cents per dollar by men – the economic impact of this disparity on women, their families, and their communities is staggering.

Enter Elizabeth Scharpf, a healthcare start-up veteran who’s worked with the Clinton Foundation and the World Bank in South America, Asia, and East Africa. She's CEO of SHE (Sustainable Health Enterprises), holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, an MPA in international development from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and a BA from the University of Notre Dame. Scharpf spoke to us on her way to catch a flight to Rwanda, where SHE’s award-winning initiative SHE28 is helping local women start their own sustainable, community based businesses crafting sanitary supplies from locally-sourced, eco-friendly banana fibers. The new pads cost 65 percent less than the big brand alternatives – “a sustainable, market-based solution, PERIOD.”

Is social entrepreneurship very different from starting up a for-profit enterprise?

It’s similar, actually. You have to do the same thing every entrepreneur does, which is to try and make some magic happen with very limited resources. You have to believe in something more than anyone else does. You have to be able to weather the questions and the funny stares that you get from your loved ones, the looks from your family and friends that say Are you crazy?  Motivations are also similar: you want to do something different, you want to have flexibility in your life, you want to do something that no one else has done. The only big difference would be your motivation to make social profit versus financial profit.

How do you balance the business’s bottom line with your social profit goals?

In that sense, the social profit space can be a lot more challenging than a strictly for-profit model. First of all, I encourage everyone interested in social profit enterprises to absolutely include a income-generating revenue stream in their model. You do have to make money, and you have to make social profit. Whenever we have a decision to make, I have to ask myself, “Will this take us closer to our social profit mission?” If it doesn’t, you have to prioritize, and maybe decide to go down a different path. That’s how I try to negotiate all the different factors going on: through prioritization.

Were there any mentors who helped you early in your career?

Skill set wise, I had a mentor in my first business job: Gordon Perry. He’s a phenomenal thinker and problem solver. On the social profit side, even though I didn’t know her very well, my grandmother. She was from Ireland, and like many immigrants she had to make magic with very few resources. Look to your family and the people who are close to you and you might be surprised how inspiring they’ve been in your life, whether you know it or not.

Do you think being a woman in the business world has afforded you a unique outlook?

The majority of start-up entrepreneurs are men, and yet the most untapped asset in the world is, arguably, girls and women. In order to catalyze those groups of people, it’s helpful that I can put myself in their shoes more easily – although I think an African woman would be even better suited, which is why I have a fantastic COO, Julian Kayibanda. I also think it’s very important to have different perspectives in general. Better decisions are made with diverse perspectives. Our board includes a man, we have men on our technical team as well as community health workers.

What advice do you have for students and new grads looking to start their own projects?

If you don’t feel like you want to jump up out of bed every day to do this, then maybe it’s not the right time for you to do it. I really encourage young folks to learn tangible skills. Project management, decision making, prioritization, managing people, raising capital, project implementation. Setting out and developing some tangible skills early on is really, really important; tangible, transferable skills. Things that you know, that you can apply now and later. jp
You can learn more about SHE28 and other projects at