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“I was the establishment”- Global Innovators Share Insights From Their Leadership Journeys

by Johnny McNulty

Three founders of pioneering social organizations discussed how they found their mission, overcame resistance, and what lessons they have for leaders setting out on their own journey of impact.

At the Action Forum in Aspen, the three 2023 McNulty Prize Winners joined moderator Stace Lindsay for a discussion of their leadership journeys. Aimée Eubanks Davis founded the college-to-career accelerator Braven in the US; after serving in national government, Mirei Endara de Heras launched Marea Verde (Green Wave) to address plastic pollution in Panama; and Zimbabwean psychiatrist Dixon Chibanda started Friendship Bench to train and empower grandmothers as therapists in communities.

All three leaders had engaged in their fields for quite some time before founding their current organizations. They understood and had played a role in the various “solutions” their fields had to offer. So with all of that experience, what made each of them say, “this is the solution I’m going to put my weight behind”?

Aimée Eubanks Davis served for years as Teach For America’s head of talent, but it was keeping tabs on the middle schoolers she had taught as a TFA teacher in New Orleans in the 1990s that led her to found Braven. These were students who had “done all the right things,” and yet, later on, all too often their careers didn’t seem to match their impressive educational accomplishments. Aimée realized there was an invisible gap between first-gen and low-income students and their high-income peers when it came to the skills and networks needed to obtain a good first job - and that once the job quality gap opens after college, it’s almost impossible to close. Braven was born to bridge that gap before it opens, with remarkable success—75% of Braven graduates out-earn their parents, compared with 50% of students nationwide.

For Mirei Endara de Heras, she felt she ended her second term in government (as Panama’s first Environment Minister) facing the same issues she had been fighting 20 years earlier. On the verge of giving up, Mirei turned her sights close to home, on Panama’s omnipresent trash problem. By cleaning up the Juan Diaz river, one of Panama’s most populated and polluted, through a coalition of community, education, and technology, Mirei and Marea Verde have demonstrated that tackling the dirty, complex problem of plastic pollution is possible.

For Dr. Dixon Chibanda, the trauma of losing his patient Erica—who could not come to see him for lack of $15 bus fare—created a sense of failure which drove him to seek new ways to bring mental health services to communities like Erica’s. This led to a pilot program with 14 grandmothers in one Zimbabwean village, and together they found a model, the Friendship Bench, with the potential to make mental health care accessible to all. Working with the grandmothers to develop the program also provided the space for Dixon's own healing from Erica's loss.

It was through that process of trying to find myself, trying to heal myself from the trauma, that I started Friendship Bench.

Dixon Chibanda

After finding the internal impetus to act, one inevitably finds resistance to change from the external world. Where did each leader face the most resistance?

“We really didn’t realize there was a problem,” said Aimée, referring to the education community when it came to the post-college employment challenges for graduates from low-income and first-generation families. It was her unique position of head of talent at Teach For America, which enabled her to see that the very same kids TFA was serving were returning a few years later to apply for TFA jobs, but with surprisingly weak applications. The academics were there, but the resume, workplace, and interview skills and confidence lagged. The second thing Aimée realized was that the solution had to be built to work with and inside of existing higher education institutions, rather than asking them to change from outside — without taxing those overburdened institutions, which meant bringing employers on to provide the talent to teach job skills to students.

For Dixon, the resistance came from himself—more specifically, from Dr. Chibanda, wearing his “psychiatrist’s hat,” and to find a new way forward with the grandmothers to free his knowledge from the constraints of the DSM V (the “bible” of psychiatry which contains the formal definitions and methods of diagnosing officially recognized conditions). As he told Stace, “I realized that I was the establishment.” The model of Friendship Bench was developed directly by and in conjunction with the grandmothers—much of it from them convincing him to unlearn rigid or Western approaches. Formal diagnoses, they insisted, should be replaced with local idioms (most notably, kufungisisa, or “thinking too much”), and instead of merely interviewing people about symptoms, Dixon and the grandmothers practiced hearing their stories. Practicing this required him to open up to the grandmothers about Erica, making him in many ways the Bench’s first visitor.

Despite her sterling credentials as Panama’s first Environment Minister, “what I mostly got was a lot of dismissal” when it came to her idea to tackle the trash issue and river plastic directly, said Mirei. The lack of pre-existing optimism meant selecting a team of believers who could keep the faith in a skeptical world was twice as important. That persistence enabled them to overcome obstacles like having to relocate on the Juan Diaz river due to wealthy NIMBYs. They had to be evangelicals as well, compiling the data needed to convert those on the sidelines into allies in communities, companies and government.

Dr. Dixon Chibanda pictured with Anne Welsh McNulty

Mirei Endara de Heras shares her bold vision for Marea Verde

In closing, each individual shared insights for other entrepreneurs and leaders who are tackling issues in their communities.

The advice included some always-vital lessons, like the importance of deep community involvement and buy-in, but also more personal themes, like the importance of openness and vulnerability, and the need to go with others on your journey.

Trust really takes time,” said Braven founder Aimée Eubanks Davis. As the saying goes, “to go far, go together,” but also “you need to go slow to go fast.” For Braven, that means taking the time to truly understand your partners, in this case institutions of higher education and employers, and what it would take to get them fully onboard and to take ownership of the work they do together.

For Dixon, his lessons were even simpler. “The single most important lesson that I’ve learned through this journey is actually from the grandmothers, and that is being comfortable with being vulnerable.

Mirei emphasized the need to “show up with conviction” and that it’s “okay to not get it right” right away, echoing Dixon about the power of being vulnerable and letting people see you try and fail—with persistence and authenticity, you can build the trust to deliver when conditions are right.

Watch the full plenary here:

The 2023 McNulty Prize Winners in conversation with Stace Lindsay

Since 2008, the McNulty Prize has recognized over 50 breakthrough leaders for their moral courage, bold vision, and deep, lasting impact. Now comprising 53 laureates, the work of this society has touched millions of lives in dozens of countries, from VisionSpring, to the B Corporation movement, Ashesi University in Ghana, RARE’s Fish Forever project, and more. Read more about the Prize here, as well as all the past laureates.

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