Gretchen Ki Steidle

Founder and President, Global Grassroots

At Tuck I discovered social entrepreneurship, which spoke to my fascination with new ideas and innovation and entrepreneurship, but from the perspective that you could also have a social impact.

Seeing poverty at close quarters when her Navy family was billeted in the Philippines, Gretchen Steidle T’01 always felt she would spend her career working toward greater justice and equality. She just wasn’t sure how.

She started her career working for a boutique international investment and banking firm. The experience honed her business skills and reinforced her interest in the social impacts of the infrastructure projects she worked to fund. That spark took fire when she came to Tuck.

“At Tuck I discovered social entrepreneurship, which spoke to my fascination with new ideas and innovation and entrepreneurship, but from the perspective that you could also have a social impact,” says Steidle. She spent the summer between her first and second years at Tuck writing a strategic plan for a social engagement initiative at Tuck. It became the James M. Allwin Initiative for Corporate Citizenship, the precursor to Tuck’s Center for Business, Government & Society.

While at Tuck Steidle also organized a consultancy with a handful of classmates who then went to India to help an entrepreneur develop an eco-tourism company in the Western Ghats rainforest. “We stayed in art villages and caves beside waterfalls and completely immersed ourselves in their work, while using our business background to create a global marketing strategy,” she recalls. “I was absolutely hooked.”

After Tuck, she went to South Africa to learn how social entrepreneurs were combating the HIV/AIDS crisis, then spent time among Darfur refugees in Chad, and with impoverished genocide survivors in Rwanda and Uganda. (Steidle produced the Emmy-nominated documentary The Devil Came on Horseback, about her brother’s experience as an unarmed military observer during the ethnic cleansing campaign in Darfur; she also co-authored his book about the experience.)

“In all of these places I found that there was exquisite grassroots wisdom, and it was very often among women,” says Steidle, who in 2004 founded Global Grassroots, a nonprofit dedicated to giving women the tools to empower themselves. “Women are this extraordinary untapped reservoir of very relevant ideas, huge courage and vested interest. ... But it starts with getting to know them. It starts with listening.”

Listening is key to the practice of mindfulness, which underpins all of Steidle’s work. She calls it “a form of noticing whatever is happening, with non-judgment and curiosity,” and says that over time it can change the way we view and respond to the world. Her book on the subject, Leading From Within: Conscious Social Change, Mindfulness for Social Innovation, comes out in October.

Ten years ago in rural Rwanda, Steidle sat listening to a group of women who came to her with a problem and a plan. In many parts of east Africa, the need to collect water each day doesn’t just keep women from other economic pursuits; it leaves them vulnerable to sexual exploitation. “One of our ventures discovered that 80 percent of their community had had to trade sex for water at least once, and everyone knew at least one person who had contracted HIV doing so,” Steidle says.

The women designed a simple solution: install gutters on the village church to collect rainwater to purify and sell. The proceeds would allow them to provide free water to those among them who were being sexually exploited. Global Grassroots provided coaching and $2,600 to launch the program.
“They started out serving 100 households,” Steidle says. “Then they had enough money for orphan school fees and women’s health insurance, and then they had enough money to create a micro-credit revolving loan fund among themselves.”

The program has since expanded to serve more than 9,000 people with clean water. It is run by 19 women, only seven of whom can read and, Steidle says, it couldn’t possibly be in better hands. “This process enables women to come to a place of agency, strength and empowerment. They know that their ideas have value, that they did this on their own, and that they can do it again.”

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