Q&A Series #4: When Women Do Better, Countries Do Better

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We Care Solar founder Laura Stachel with the solar suitcase.
We Care Solar founder Laura Stachel with the solar suitcase. (Courtesy of Laura Stachel)

Q&A Series #4: When Women Do Better, Countries Do Better

Women entrepreneurs have come up with extraordinary innovations that are transforming millions of lives around the world. In this series of blogs, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) introduces you to some of the women whose ideas they have supported. These women are having an outsized impact in the developing world — and beyond — proving that when women do better, countries do better.

Fourth in the series is Laura Stachel, co-founder of We Care Solar, which designs portable “solar suitcases” that power lighting and medical devices in low-resource areas without reliable electricity.

How did you come up with your innovation and how did you turn it into a nonprofit organization?

After working as an obstetrician for years in private practice, I began studying public health. As a public health researcher studying ways to lower maternal mortality, I went to observe care in a Nigerian hospital in 2008. I was shocked that the hospital had sporadic power, and had no lights or power for 12 hours a day. My husband designed a solar electric system for the hospital and mortality rates decreased. Many clinics began asking for solar power and we created a suitcase-sized solution that could be transported to any clinic in need of reliable electricity. We started as volunteers and eventually created a non-profit business to allow our solar solution to scale.

What struggles have you faced being a female entrepreneur?

I don’t believe I have ever been held back because of being female. My challenges were more related to being inexperienced in business, including non-profits. I was passionate about improving maternal health care, and wanting to ensure that developing world health centers have reliable sources of power, but I had no experience in manufacturing, supply chains, logistics, international programming and management. I needed to seek mentors who could provide support and create a team that could complement my skills in public health.

Laura Stachel in Malawi with the solar suitcase. / Courtesy of Laura Stachel

Laura Stachel in Malawi with the solar suitcase. (Courtesy of Laura Stachel)

What advice would you give to girls who dream of becoming entrepreneurs when they grow up?

Follow your dream! There are so many exciting ways to develop your skills and make a meaningful contribution to the world. If you can identify a solution to one of the problems in the world, find a team of people who can help you fulfill your dreams. You don’t need to have all the answers at the start or come up with a master plan. You just need to find something that you can feel passionate about. If you can solve one tiny part of a problem, it will start you on a path and allow you to face new challenges you can solve. Solving problems is deeply satisfying and with lot of persistence and hard work, you can have one of the most gratifying jobs in the world.

What has been the most gratifying part of this work for you personally?

I have loved meeting health providers in diverse communities in the world, learning about their lives and finding ways to support the work they are doing. I am so inspired by the courageous people I have met: midwives working in the most remote villages of the world who show up night after night to provide skilled care to mothers and newborns, even when they don’t have something as fundamental as lighting and electricity. They tell me that their health centers are transformed when we provide solar lighting and power. I feel an important bond with these health providers. This work has enabled us to catalyze an international movement around sustainable energy for health care. There are hundreds of thousands of health facilities in need of reliable electricity, and I am grateful to be a part of a coalition that is working to address this global problem.

Shocked by the lack of reliable electricity in some rural health care centers, Laura Stachel worked alongside her husband to design a portable solar electric system — the solar suitcase — to power clinics and reduce mortality. / Courtesy of Laura Stachel

Shocked by the lack of reliable electricity in some rural health care centers, Laura Stachel worked alongside her husband to design a portable solar electric system — the solar suitcase — to power clinics and reduce mortality. (Courtesy of Laura Stachel)

What advice would you give institutions like USAID that want to help entrepreneurs like you succeed?

USAID can help support entrepreneurs by continuing to support opportunities for skills development, funding and ongoing mentorship. Social entrepreneurship accelerators are an incredible resource for new entrepreneurs, such as the SEAD program at Duke. New entrepreneurs need to understand how to create a business model, where to go for funding and how to build sustainable programs. Capacity-building grants for social entrepreneurs would also be very helpful in this sector.

Follow USAID on Twitter and Facebook as we head to the 2017 Global Entrepreneurship Summit Nov. 28–30 in Hyderabad, India, where women entrepreneurs and their role in fostering economic growth will take center stage.

Editor's Note: This entry originally appeared in USAID's 2030: Ending Extreme Poverty in This Generation publication on Medium.com.

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