Ep 70: Empowering Girls Across the Globe

with Jessica Posner Odede

April 13, 2022


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Jessica Posner Odede
CEO, Girl Effect; Co-founder and Board Member, Shining Hope for Communities

Jessica joined Girl Effect as CEO in 2019 and is an internationally recognised social entrepreneur and thought-leader. In 2009 she co-founded Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO). Based in Kenya, SHOFCO catalyses large-scale transformation in urban slums by providing critical services, community advocacy platforms, education and leadership development for girls and women. In August 2018, SHOFCO received the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize – the world’s largest annual humanitarian award presented to non-profit organisations judged to have made extraordinary contributions toward alleviating human suffering.

Jessica is a New York Times best selling author and has been featured in The New York Times, Vogue Magazine, on CNN, and by TED. She was awarded the prestigious David Rockefeller Bridging Leadership Award in May 2016.


Now, people recognize adolescent girls are the solution or a solution. But there aren't resources going towards them at scale.



[00:00:18] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: Hello, and welcome to Her Story. Today, I’m absolutely thrilled to have with us Jessica Posner Odede, who’s going to talk with us about her career, her important work for girls and for sustainable development, and I think most importantly, the inner workings of what makes a small idea in a girl who grew up in Colorado evolve into something of global proportions that is truly changing the world. So Jessica is the CEO of the Girl Effect, which is a wonderful entrepreneurial social innovation organization doing important work in various parts of the world. She’s also the co-founder of an organization called SHOFCO, which she’ll tell you more about in a minute. She’s a best-selling author and she’s just a charming, creative, and I think optimistic person that I know you’re going to want to have many opportunities to interact with. So without further ado, I’m going to say, hello, Jessica, thanks for joining us. And I’m going to jump right into our conversation and ask you, what is Girl Effect and what are you doing as the CEO of that organization?

[00:01:36] Jessica Posner Odede: Great. Well, hi, Julie. It’s so fantastic to be here and to have this conversation today. So Girl Effect is an organization that uses the power of media and technology to speak to adolescent girls around the world, to talk to them at this pivotal moment in their life, the period of adolescence, where there are so many trap doors for a girl to fall through. And what we do is we talk to her about her aspirations, what’s possible. But also, we shift the internalized gender norms that are still incredibly persistent and pervasive that she may have internalized and may prevent her from making good choices. You know, for example, we talked to 20 million young people around the world and we speak to a girl who may live 10 minutes from a health clinic, but she’s never walking through those front doors because she doesn’t see that clinic as being for her. She doesn’t see those services as being accessible. She doesn’t see herself as the type of girl who takes care of her sexual reproductive health or her body. And so that’s where we come in, is we’re really a bridge between girls on one side and the services and opportunities that exist for them, like education, like economic empowerment opportunities, like taking care of their health on another. But we really help her overcome those internalized gender norms that prevent her from making the choices that change her life. But we also don’t believe that this is just a girl problem. So we talk to those around her too, her parents, her brothers, her boyfriend, her husband, because those also may be the barriers in front of her that prevent her from acting on those choices. So we do this through content, through engaging product experiences. We reach girls where they already are. So that might be through TV, through radio, through TikTok, through WhatsApp, through SMS technology and IBR lines. So it really depends on the media landscape of where she is. But we speak to her where she already is, and we captivate her imagination and ultimately envision a world where girls are able to take control of their bodies, their house, and their livelihoods.

[00:03:55] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: You said capture imagination and you certainly have captured my imagination. When I was reading a little bit about you and your work, I really had to wonder, how did you go from Colorado to Kenya? I know part of your story is that, somewhere along the line, the seed of an interest in issues in global health was planted and grew. And I heard you say that you actually initiated your engagement in Africa by sending an email to a man named Kennedy. So tell us how you got from Colorado to the slums of Nairobi.

[00:04:34] Jessica Posner Odede: It’s a long way away, but I have now lived in Nairobi for 15 years with my husband Kennedy who’s now my husband, the man I emailed. So I was a student. I grew up in Denver, Colorado, went to Wesleyan University. And at Wesleyan, just honestly had never traveled growing up. Really hadn’t been exposed to a bigger world. Grew up in Denver in a very kind of social justice oriented Jewish family. And I think kind of Jewish values in some ways influenced that sense, but never had the exposure. So when I went to Wesleyan, I realized the world was so much bigger than what I had ever seen. And so wanted to go somewhere just very different and had a friend who had been to this program in Kenya, loved it. And just through a series of small world connections, heard about this incredible community organizer who lived in Kibera, which is the largest slum in Nairobi and probably in Kenya, maybe even beyond, and who at 15, had bought a software with 20 cents and starting a movement bringing young people together with this vision that he knew the problems. He lived and experienced them. So he was best placed to solve them. So I really said, hey, I want to work with someone like that. So I sent him an email and said, hi, you know, I’d love to come work with you. Can I help you? And he wrote back and said, you know, we don’t take random white people to come and help us. We don’t need your help. And so I said, okay, that’s interesting. And I had some really interesting thoughts about my own positionality and how, and so we started that email conversation, to which he eventually said, send me your CV. I was 21. I didn’t have a CV, so I frantically made up a CV and I sent it to him and eventually he said, okay, I think you can come and learn from us, not the other way around. And so we worked together for 12 years, really building his vision of a community led movement for change across the urban slums of Kenya. And I really learned so much from seeing his life and his experience. And today we’ve been married actually almost 10 years this month and have three little kids three and under, so have a lot going on in our world very far away, far away from Denver.

[00:06:51] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: That is a long journey, but one that obviously took some courage and amazing spirit of really being willing to take a risk and try something different. Amazing. I think you took it a step further and actually lived in Kibera, if I’m not mistaken, maybe as the first white person to actually live in that community.

[00:07:14] Jessica Posner Odede: For a long period of time, yes. Sorry. That’s my son downstairs. It’s Dinner time at our house in Nairobi. So there might be a little background noise. So I lived with Kennedy and his family, and just really felt that it was challenging, once he said I could come learn from them, to come into Kibera during the day, and at night to go back to a comfortable hotel or comfortable homestead. You know, I had no delusions that, you know, my choices were so different. Anytime I wanted to leave, I could, whereas that wasn’t a possibility for anyone around me. That felt like I really wanted to understand and be part of this world. And so, became an outsider to live in Kibera and have an audience from morning till night of kids watching me wake up and brush my teeth and do everything. But really also through that, became a part of Kennedy’s world and of his community and learned, you know, more than I could’ve imagined about the challenges, but also the incredible resilience of the human spirit.

[00:08:18] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: What was the hardest part, because when I think about putting myself in that kind of situation, you know, a short term peek and shriek visit is one thing, but to really live in the community of a culture that’s very unfamiliar and obviously under stress of what the economic circumstances are, the health circumstances, and so forth. How did you cope with the anxiety or the fears that you must’ve experienced?

[00:08:48] Jessica Posner Odede: That’s a great question. I think in some ways, I was so young that, you know, I think about it now, and I don’t know how I would do that again, but there’s something incredible about youth. I think also part of what I felt every day is this is temporary for me, but for everyone around me, this was their entire life. And that’s something that I think honestly was the most difficult part was to walk around Kibera, to see just such innovation and such brilliance and to say, wow, who is the undiscovered Einstein here? Who is the person who could develop the next vaccine? Who’s the next best musician? There truly is just, there’s a kind of ceiling above the incredible human potential that exists. And that I think was so challenging for Kennedy and he was able to really, through just so many series of luck, get out and rise to kind of a different reality. But, you know, if you think about his story, and there’s so many twists and turns, so many moments where he almost died, where it almost didn’t happen again and again and again. So I think one of the most challenging thing was that it just, it shouldn’t be like winning the lottery, your odds at just living up to your full human potential. So I think that was really, still, is really hard to contend with.

[00:10:10] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: I remember visiting the CDC organization in Ethiopia a while back. And I was speaking with some of the employees, which included a local Ethiopian man. And he was very quiet in the back of the room. But when I asked him, why are you here and what is motivating you about your work, he told me the story of sitting in the pasture, tending the goats one day and feeling so despondent because his family couldn’t afford his school fees. And so then he was destined to be a goat herd for the rest of his life. And then a 747 flew overhead leaving its trail. And he described the feeling of, why is it that some people in the world can fly over us in the best technology in the world and some of us are still living the way our ancestors lived hundreds of years ago. How can the world be so unbalanced? That’s always stuck with me because it really resonates with that sense of the privilege that we have and the gratitude that we should enjoy from that privilege, but also the tremendous engagement and responsibility that we have to strive for a more equitable world. And that’s certainly what you and Kennedy have been doing. But before I come back to some of your work, I do have to ask you about something that I just thought was hilarious. Most of us in the audience have had partners and some of us have had spouses and so forth. And for those who are formerly married, usually there is a proposal before there’s a wedding. But tell us about what happened to you in the context of your marriage to Kennedy.

[00:11:53] Jessica Posner Odede: So Kennedy had gotten a full scholarship to Wesleyan through this series of just incredible events and was about to leave Kenya to come to Connecticut, which I don’t think either of us could really imagine what that transition would really be like. And so we went back to Kennedy’s village, his ancestral home in Western Kenya. And he said that there’s just something we have to do. It’s a tradition before I leave so I don’t seem like someone who’s forgotten my home, my culture, my community. So I have to build this house. And I didn’t really understand why, what’s the story of this house. But he was just completely insistent. And so I said, okay, I’ll come with you. So we’re there and we’re building this house and there’s all these cultures and traditions that we’re following. And at one point somebody is conducting what looks like the ceremony and she’s speaking Luhya, which is a language I don’t speak. But I’ll tell you, I think a wedding looks the same pretty much in any language. So I whispered to Kennedy at one point, I said, is this a wedding? And he said, just smile, we’ll talk about it later. And so we were very young. And so we kind of decided that what happens in the village stays in the village. But we’ve had three weddings since then and, three kids later, and we’ve been together almost 15 years.

[00:13:13] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: Well, you’re quite a pair and, you know, the work that’s going on still in Nairobi and beyond is one set of important contributions that you’re making. But then there’s Girl Effect, which is, you know, an even broader and perhaps even further reaching effort. You know, I share your belief that girls are the solution to many of the problems in the world. And if we could harness the energy, the utapped energy of the girls, And the women they become, we would be living in a vastly different world. And yet we have so far to go. So as you kind of embarked on your work in Girl Effect, how did you get people to come together and support this? And you have a very large list of impressive prestigious supporters now who are hopefully contributing in meaningful ways. But how did you entice them or explain the value and then the importance of what you were doing?

[00:14:22] Jessica Posner Odede: Well Girl Effect has been, we’re almost 15 years old, but have been an independent organization for five years. So we were started by Nike and by the Nike Foundation. And really it was a stroke of brilliance on the part of Nike, and this all precedes my time. But our founder had this vision that adolescent girls were the solution. And if you could invest in the power of adolescent girls, you could increase GDP. You could change, you know, not only that girl’s life, but her country, her community, her family. That’s our name, the Girl Effect. And so we, almost 13, 14 years ago, embarked on some of the formative research with the world thing with other partners to really prove the efficacy of the Girl Effect. And then, once that case was made, was saying, first, let’s prove that this is the solution. And you know, today I think there’s things that aren’t being talked about enough, like the case for climate change and how investing in adolescent girls and her education and her ability to access family planning. There was a recent study that came out by the Brookings Institute that said you would have to spend $4 on solar energy for if you spend $1 on an adolescent girl and her health, you would get a greater reduction in carbon emissions. So it’s an incredibly powerful proposition. And so first it was really, get that on the global agenda. And then there was a second problem, was, great, now people recognize adolescent girls are the solution or a solution, but there aren’t resources going towards them at scale. And I do think that is still a challenge that, even today, while people have come on board and we’re so fortunate to have incredible partners and supporters, including Mikey, who is still, you know, a key part of our work and other key partners, I still think the world as a whole, adolescent girls are still an under-tapped or an underutilized area of powerful change. And so I think that there is more to do in that space, especially as we grapple with new challenges, like the fallout from COVID-19 and what that means for communities around the world and girls who continue to be at the back of the line.

[00:16:33] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: Yeah. I know you have three kids and it’s delightful to hear them in the background. Are any girls?

[00:16:42] Jessica Posner Odede: I have a daughter. So I have three-year-old twins, boy, girl twins. And yes, my daughter is an incredible powerhouse and I just look at her and I hope that the world’s she grows up in, one, has a different position towards women and women in leadership, which I think is still a challenging space to be in, but also towards girls and gender equality as a whole. I think that you know, it could take us over a hundred years to achieve true gender equity and we just don’t have that time.

[00:17:16] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: Yeah, we don’t have time. The world desperately needs an accelerated pathway, when thinking about how we could develop COVID vaccines, antivirals, and diagnostics in absolutely unprecedented time. When you looking at the work you’re doing, where do you see the biggest barriers to success? What’s the hardest part about what you’re trying to accomplish?

[00:17:44] Jessica Posner Odede: I think one of the challenges that we’ve seen is that there has been an increase in investment in services, that target young people and adolescent girls. Still not perfect, still not enough, but that ecosystem exists more than it ever has. But I think part of what we see is nobody’s thinking about these opportunities from the perspective of that girl. What is her experience of going to a health clinic, of enrolling in a vocational training program, and getting an HPV vaccine? And so I think that, you know, in the private sector, we think so much about demand generation and the consumer and what their experience and journey is. I think there’s a real shortfall in the public and social sector where we’re just not thinking about the challenges from her perspective. So billions of dollars are invested on the service side without thinking about that demand gap. So that’s really where we come in, but I think that part of what prevents her from taking those actions are how she sees herself, what she believes is possible for a girl. So a lot of our work actually on driving the demand comes back to tackling the gender norms that she’s absorbed people say around her and that those really limit her aspirations. And we all know that you can’t do and become what you don’t see and what you don’t imagine is possible. And so there’s that kind of powerful part of providing role models, examples, but also really undoing it. When we use behavior change science to do this, the way she sees herself, or doesn’t, that prevent her from acting on the choices in her life.

[00:19:34] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: If only we lived in a world where you were the primary source of supporting the social context in which these ideas, these images, these aspirations emerge, but girls are subjected to lots of counter-veiling points of view and perspectives, including misinformation from peers or other influencers. And sometimes even disinformation where people intentionally put out falsehoods, you know, social control mechanisms or political agendas, et cetera. How do you deal with the quality of the information that these girls are coming in contact with and how do you help them sort of curate or edit their sources of trusted information?

[00:20:23] Jessica Posner Odede: So how we do this is we use, we create youth brands. And why we do this is we think that that brand, that container, provides the platform that she trusts. So it shows up differently in different places where we work. So in India, it’s called Chhaa Jaa. In Ethiopia, it’s called Yegna. It has a different kind of local context everywhere we work. It’s called Springster online. It’s a chat bot called Big Sis. In India, translated into Hindi, Bol Behen. But what that really does is it creates an ecosystem that she says, I trust Chhaa Jaa. I trust Yegna. I trust Tujibebe, our brand in Tanzania. And why we use a brand is it’s really that kind of wrapper that says, this is good messaging. So first I think we build that trust. So we’re that place where she says I love, and it’s not just boring content. It’s fun. It’s engaging. It speaks to her in ways that she wants to talk. She wants to talk about, you know, love, sex and relationships, not about health services. So how do we bring it to her in a way that she resonates with, and that’s really through the power of a brand and, you know, companies have been doing this for a long time. And part of what we also realize is that we’re talking to a generation of young people who are getting digital access potentially for the very first time. So they have very limited time online. They don’t have time to sift through, you know, what’s true, what’s not true, what’s good information, what’s not good information. So we’re really kind of curating those experiences, providing that trusted source of information because part of what we know is girls don’t trust what their friends say. They don’t think that they necessarily have good information. They often don’t know where to get information, but our belief is also doesn’t stop at just information. Once she has that powerful information, then you have to tackle her motivation, her ability, her negotiating skills. So it’s not just, does she know it, but is she actually empowered to act on that information?

[00:22:30] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: You have the opportunity, and I’m sure you have had the opportunity, to speak to large numbers of girls. What’s the most important message that you hope you can get across to them?

[00:22:41] Jessica Posner Odede: I think that girls are powerful, but also that girls have choices. And I think that often girls live in constrained ecosystems, where the degree of their choice may be limited. But finding those ways that she does have power to exercise agency, to exercise choice. And I think part of what we also believe is the Girl Effect means that when one girl starts to do something differently, then other girls around her do. And then ultimately that becomes what is the new normal for girls.

[00:23:15] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: I love thinking about this new normal instead of the new normal that many people are talking about in the context of COVID. But I do have to ask you, what has been the impact of the pandemic on girls and the work that you’re doing because I can’t believe it’s neutral.

[00:23:34] Jessica Posner Odede: Unfortunately, we’re further back than we’ve ever been. There are 20 million girls who are out of school because of the pandemic. Many of those will never go back. We’re seeing a huge surge in unintended and unplanned pregnancies as a result of girls being out of school during the pandemic and the shadow pandemic, which is the gender based violence surge that is happening all over the world because of the difficult conditions that people have been through with COVID-19. Not to mention, you know, lost progress when it comes to vaccinations, when it comes to routine health services. So I think there are many losses really across the board, but I think, you know, for us, we’re very concerned about the further constraints that girls are living under, given the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

[00:24:23] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: And how do we catch up? I mean, it’s almost, you know, three years really. We have now created a lost generation of adolescent girls who are missing the opportunity. So your work is really important. And I feel like this interview has sped by because we have so much more we can touch on or cover. But I want to say to our listeners and our viewers that the Girl Effect is an amazing organization and I encourage you to go to the website and read about the work, but also think about how each of us can be part of this effort, wherever we are in the world. There is something that we can do just by virtue of who we are and where we are, that we’re role models. We’re storytellers. We’re people who also can help shape a brand, empower girls, and really help them realize that their universe of choices is much bigger than they might have otherwise imagined. Whether that’s a young girl in Denver, Colorado, or someone who’s living in the slum of Nairobi, there’s so much that each of us can contribute and I hope that people are as inspired by this conversation as I am. So before I sign off, Jessica, is there any last message you’d like to deliver to our audience?

[00:25:39] Jessica Posner Odede: Thank you Julie. Well, I think it can be daunting to think about where we are, all the challenges, the backsliding that’s happened during COVID. But I do think that part of what inspires me and what helps me just keep going every morning is just doing the little things that we can each do every day to make a difference and chipping away at that problem, but doing it with creativity as well. And that’s part of what I love about Girl Effect’s workbecause we really use the power of media, of technology, of creativity to tap into the potential of a generation of young people. And I think, you know, we can’t do that alone, so it’s great to share our story with others and I hope others that are inspired to join and believe and support the Girl Effect.

[00:26:22] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: Well, I’m sure they will be and I just thank you for your time. You’re a busy mom, a busy CEO, and a busy many other things. So thank you for your time today, and good luck with everything that you’re doing. And I thank our listeners and viewers for joining us, and please stay tuned for more of Her Story. You’ve heard an amazing one today and there are more to come. Thank you.

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