I spent eight months during college working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, and one of the many things I learned from her was the power of the simple, in everything from clothing to international development. Don't try to change people or change their lives, she said. Poor people aren't looking for pity, and they don't need your judgments. Just offer respect and love, even if only a smile.
A woman in control of her own reproductive health is a woman with dignity and a new future.
I first heard this naïve-sounding advice as a six-year old, middle-class Indian growing up in Canada. I'd written to the saintly woman my mother had told me about, asking how I could help the homeless people who often went through our trash. For months afterward, my mother said, I would just go up to them and smile.
But Mother Teresa didn't stop with a smile, of course. From her first small hospice for the dying in 1948 to the million-person charitable operation involving billions of dollars in 100 countries that she oversaw until her death in 1997, this tiny Albanian nun applied other guiding principles that I later turned into a book, Mother Teresa, CEO. Besides keeping things simple, her method included being consistent; being disciplined; paying attention to everyone involved, from the janitor on up; and using doubt as a prod to introspection and personal growth.
These are management principles I have tried to apply in each business I've started in an effort to touch the lives of the underserved – janitorial services, where health insurance, profit-sharing and English classes helped my employees feel valued and involved in the company community; affordable fair-trade cosmetics, because every woman wants to be attractive; floor care, because even the poorest people have floors; and homeopathic medicines, to make my family's Eastern health and wellness approach affordable for everyone. I believe these same principles of simplicity and fairness also apply to groups working for women's universal access to reproductive health care.
That is one simple way to transform the lives of the 222 million women worldwide who want and do not have access to modern family planning. A woman in control of her own reproductive health is a woman with dignity and a new future. Investment in reproductive health care is also cost-effective, returning $4 in social cost savings for every $1 invested. A woman's earning capacity rises and her opportunities increase.
I had seen early that girls and boys are not equal in opportunity. When I actually went to India to meet my heroine, Mother Teresa had me work at a school for underprivileged youngsters. We offered free food to entice poor families into sending their children, but only little boys came. The girls were kept home to do chores and await marriage dowry offers that would take them off their parents' hands. In effect they were sold, often at age 12 or 13, like nearly 14 million girls under 18 who become child brides around the world every year. It broke my heart. I would come home crying because I could not make the parents see why it was worthwhile to educate their daughters.
That undervaluation of girls and women creates huge discrimination and suffering, and it is harder to combat than problems of structure or distribution, such as lack of school toilets for girls. But Mother Teresa told me not to try to tell people what to do, and she was right – that doesn't work. Just honor the women, she said. How? Keep it simple.
So now I work at the intersection of entrepreneurship and philanthropy, helping create businesses that do well by doing good, as the saying goes – motivating small purchases to help solve big problems. Violence against women is a global outrage, especially in conflict zones, so I support Peter Thum's Fonderie 47, which turned 32,000 AK-47 rifles confiscated in Africa into beautiful jewelry. His Liberty United is doing the same with handguns in the United States. I'm on the board of the Girl Scouts, where young girls often ask me anxious questions about sex and boys and reproductive health care for their changing bodies. I know the pattern: my parents didn't talk to me about these things either.
We can promote those conversations. Biology classes teach facts and mechanics but not values, and the value of girls is too great to leave those lessons to the streets. Mother Teresa said to model compassionate action and use the three languages that everyone speaks: sports, entertainment and love. So we can create video games that model powerful girls and women, and films and songs about non-traditional loving families to combat sexism and racism. Novels and soap operas can dramatize the impacts of discrimination and early marriage and lack of education.
The techniques can differ in every country, but Mother Teresa's management advice applies here: keep it simple, she said. Honor the women. All our efforts should model treating girls and women as human beings. Until we do that, this issue isn't going to be solved.
Ruma Bose is a consultant, serial entrepreneur, investor, philanthropist and author. She co-authored the international bestselling book, "Mother Teresa, CEO", to leverage the management and leadership principles of Mother Teresa into a set of guiding principles for successful leaders.