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Selene Biffi is a social entrepreneur and UN consultant. Thanks to her determination, the first Afghan school for storytellers was borne and the Youth Action for Change was set up for the defence of human rights and sustainable development.
You are a social entrepreneur. Could you clue us in on why this up-and-coming sector seems to be especially interesting for women?
What I’ve seen in the past few years is that there are more and more women deciding to take on this challenge because they believe social entrepreneurship really makes the most of their skills and is often linked to what women are mostly good at. So, it’s not just about being an entrepreneur. It’s about empathy, it’s about listening skills, and it’s about trying to proceed in a process in which anyone can benefit. So, these are not hard skills. These are soft skills and this is what, according to many studies, women are really good at. So social entrepreneurship really gives them a chance to shine and it gives them a chance to bring out whatever skills they have that in many other sectors may not be fundamental or appreciated. So social entrepreneurship is a great opportunity for everyone who believes they have something to contribute to the greater good by starting with themselves.
On the other side of the coin, how can social entrepreneurship help women? Maybe you could give us an example from your own enterprise work in Afghanistan.
Bibak is the organization, the social enterprise, which basically builds sensors for landmine detection and works with communities to clear the land and to build agricultural microenterprises and basically to leverage technology to close the gap in post-conflict societies. We see that 80% of those who actually grow and pick saffron on these cleared lands are women. They don’t get paid very much but they are receiving the opportunities and skills to improve their communities. So, we work with communities and we work with men and women but we tend to give women more opportunities because we think they are the key to unlock the potential of their communities. Generally when you pay a man for the job, and this is UN data, 80% of the money will be spent on things that are not related to providing for their families, while a woman will invest everything she earns to buy food, clothing and to pay for her children’s education. So I think social entrepreneurship is a good way for women to do something that can benefit themselves economically, but can also have an impact on their immediate family or community and society at large. And, at the same time, because many social enterprises are run by women and are also meant for women, it creates a very holistic approach that allows those who are normally at the fringes of society in many places around the world to actually speak up for themselves, build a different future for themselves and give their families and communities a different opportunity to thrive.
During Women’s Weeks you were invited to speak at The Aspen Forum at Expo during a panel discussion “Investing in innovation: women and technologies”. Could you tell us how innovation is linked to empowering women?
In my case, what I’m really passionate about and what I really love doing is finding new ways, new products, and new services to basically tackle old problems. There’s a very nice phrase by Albert Einstein that says that problems cannot be addressed by the same old mentality that created them so you need to be innovative to find a solution to something that you experience every single day that is not great. Empowerment and innovation go hand in hand. You may be an entrepreneur, you may be innovative, your ideas may be great but then you really need to feel empowered in order to act on them. When I started, the thing that most people pointed out was the fact that I was very young. So, I was being told over and over again that I was just a little girl with bizarre ideas and that bizarre ideas would take me nowhere. Of course nobody likes being told that they are something that they are not, or even if they are that something, they don’t like to hear it. However, I don’t believe you need someone to give you a pat on the back and to tell you how great you. I do believe that you need to take ownership of your own ideas and most women are not doing this. Taking ownership means empowering yourself because unfortunately you will not find other people who, in many cases, can empower you. I did not find it. I had to create my own opportunities in order to see my own ideas come to life. I believe that innovation can come from all sorts of places or people, but then I believe that you have to empower yourself and understand yourself and believe in your dream to make sure that that innovation becomes a reality.
At The Aspen Forum at Expo you gave a very important message for young women which was inspired by the words of Rumi. Could you share that with us again?
Rumi is considered to be the initiator of the Sufi movement and he is also a great poet. This particular piece of poetry, which is very short, goes something like this: And don’t be satisfied with the stories that you hear and with how things have gone for others. Unfold your own legend. To me it really means that we all keep listening to different things and we hope to be inspired, and sometimes we are and that is good. But that’s just the very beginning. That’s just how things unfolded for others. That is what their destiny is and that is good but what is really important is that we get to understand that we also can do something and we also have a role to play. And at the end of the day, their stories matter as much as ours so we might as well start doing something and create the kind of stories we would like to live ourselves.
WE-Women for Expo has created a Women’s Alliance on the theme of empowering women in agriculture and reducing food waste to fight hunger. It is made up of female leaders from various sectors from around the world. Do you think this type of network can help empower women and help them unfold their own legends?
I think a network such as this can be extremely powerful for women and extremely powerful for young women because sometimes you may have ideas, you may have projects, but you don’t really know where to start and you don’t have people to turn to for advice. I was in this type of situation. I had an idea, I was young, and I needed a lot of support in just understanding how to turn a vision into reality. But, there was nobody there for me so I had to learn the hard way. I think a network, especially a women-led one, or one that is mainly meant for women, is actually a good starting point for those who may want to do something but who still feel kind of isolated.
You may have heard that the leaders of WE would like to make Women for Expo a permanent fixture of all universal expositions in the future. Do you think this is an idea that, if it becomes a reality, could impact women’s lives?
I think it’s a very interesting idea and I think it’s an idea whose time has come. It’s a traveling exposition and the themes may be different, the places may be different but the main issues that are experienced by women from all over the world all boil down to the same final idea: being a woman is tough. It’s difficult; it’s not something for the faint of heart because as a woman you are confronted with all sorts of issues. You need a job, you have to raise a family, you may be in a place where human rights are not something people hold in high regard, you may live in a place where your freedom is limited by social norms. So, having a mission such as this one, that reaches out to women from different backgrounds in different countries where expos are being organized, is a good starting point to give such women a chance to see themselves in a different role.