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Elsa Soderberg | New York, NY

What is the most impactful investment you have made thus far through your gender lens philanthropic giving? Why did this gift resonate with you in particular?

A year ago, I would not have called myself a philanthropist. Even today, I have to clarify by saying I am a very ‘green’ philanthropist. I know my story is just getting started; this may very well be the prelude. Today, the primary vehicle by which I enact gender lens philanthropy is through my role as Philanthropy Director of my grandparent’s foundation. I have had the rare privilege of learning directly from both of them about their philosophy, reasons for giving, and vision for the future. My grandmother, the matriarch of the family, is a fierce advocate for women’s sexual and reproductive health. A woman’s ability to choose when, and if, to have a child is paramount, and too often the lack of awareness/access to contraception and harmful gender norms stifle women’s power and agency.

Supporting and uplifting women and girls is a common thread throughout much of our work at the foundation. However, if I had to highlight one investment, it is our work with young adolescents in Jordan. Building on their work in Ethiopia, we provided seed funding to Pathfinder International to adapt and pilot their Act With Her program in Jordan, reaching both young girls and boys ages 10-14, as well as their parents and caregivers. While Jordan has shown remarkable support as a host country to a substantial refugee community, it has tested the country’s resilience over time. Irrespective of their nationality, young individuals residing in Jordan, particularly adolescent girls, encounter various obstacles hindering their access to essential health, education, economic, and social services necessary for a fulfilling, healthy, and productive adulthood. Restrictive gender and social norms often curtail their voice, agency, and choices, resulting in more limited opportunities compared to boys. This is a tale as old as time.

Using a panoramic approach, Act With Her aims to catalyze positive shifts in gender and social norms related to adolescent girls through engaging their male peers and caregivers in a series of transformative group discussions and activities to build a foundation of support during one of the most crucial life stages – puberty – reaching them before or during some of the most common disruptors of their future well-being, such as forced marriage, teenage pregnancy, school dropout, or violence. The results have been something to behold, and I cannot wait to see the outcomes of our expansion phase, which will include older adolescents ages 15-19.

What is your process for identifying and supporting grantee partners who are aligned with your values and who you believe will move the needle on advancing gender equality?

Our approach stems from an alignment of values and vision. We firmly believe that to move the needle, it often takes a bold funder with an appetite for risk to lead the charge – and hopefully bring others along with us. We do not shy away from new, untested, innovative solutions and often seek out partners that are equally as bold in their ambitions. We are not afraid of failure, and, in fact, we welcome it, so long as our partner is well-positioned to learn from it and adapt. As my grandfather often reminds me, we learn more from our failures than our successes. In our pursuit of a more gender equal world, we are going to slip up, but it is how we carry on that will define our future.

What does it mean to you to be part of a community that shares your values and vision for a gender equal world? How do you apply the idea of community to your broader work?

It means a strong network of support and unparalleled opportunity to learn from some of the brightest and most motivated women in philanthropy. While we all share the same vision of a more just and gender equal world, we are all navigating our own paths to achieve that shared vision. I’ve learned so much from the experiences and stories of the women I’ve connected with through WMM and am most excited to continue to lean on them as I navigate my own philanthropic journey. When you are part of a community, you are safe to challenge each other, question deeply, and celebrate your successes together. The urge to find community and belonging is intrinsic in all of us, and to have a community centered around making the world a better place is irreplaceable.

What opportunities do you see for impact in the wider philanthropic landscape and what advice would you give to others considering a bold investment in women and girls?

I remember very clearly the first time I saw the world through a gender lens; it was a t-shirt that read ‘run like a girl.’ My mom bought it for me at the local DICK’s Sporting Goods, and I wore it with pride, excitingly exclaiming that it was my favorite article of clothing. At some point, that excitement and pride began to fade. I have a hunch that many girls can identify a similar shift, made to feel smaller. When I left a stable job in finance to pursue a career in philanthropy, my friends and colleagues were bewildered. I even received cynical criticism from some used-to-be friends: “you’ll never change the world.” I am under no illusion that I will change the world; however, I will do everything in my power to make it better. I see more and more people thinking this way, particularly women, and I see great opportunity for this change in narrative to flip the philanthropic script. The old ways of doing philanthropy are out; gender lens philanthropic giving is in. I would encourage women and girls to listen to what their heart is telling them and get curious about it.

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