Q&A Series #6: When Women Do Better, Countries Do Better
See how this CEO is working to test the most effective ways to reduce poverty, and then scale those innovations to help even more people
Women entrepreneurs have come up with extraordinary innovations that are transforming millions of lives around the world. In this series of blogs, we introduce you to some of the women whose ideas USAID has supported. They are having an outsized impact in the developing world — and beyond — proving that when women do better, countries do better.
Sixth in the series is Kanika Bahl, the CEO of Evidence Action, which helps reduce the burdens of poverty by scaling up initiatives that show success.
How did you come up with your innovation and how did you turn it into a business?
When we started out, we found we could treat children who are ill with intestinal worms with a very simple deworming treatment. Studies show it can really make a difference — the tablets just cost pennies, yet can help increase school participation and lifelong earnings. The challenge was how to take this to scale. Over a period of years, we have had enormous success growing our impact and partnering closely with governments. Today we help reach over 200 million children in India and Africa with deworming treatment. With Dispensers for Safe Water, we similarly took an innovation and worked to scale it up. Many millions of children and families in rural Africa don’t have access to clean water, yet there is evidence that shows that if you just add a few drops of chlorine in drinking water, it will make it safe for the household. What we do is put a chlorine dispenser right next to the public water source in rural villages, so that it’s only a matter of turning a spigot to deliver chlorine. By the time they’re a villager walks home, the that water is clean and safe to drink. It reminds me of the iPhone — it’s so easy that it’s hard not to use it. Today we have about a 55 percent adoption level, more than five times what you would have if you sold that chlorine off the shelf.
What struggles have you faced as a female entrepreneur?
I’m a deeply mission-driven person, which means I really love my job. However there is this drive to continuously work and to do more — because you know that almost every hour of work results in more impact in the world and more lives saved. This is both a challenge and what I love most about my job, but requires a real balancing act to successfully manage family (including a young child) and work. I have to be really creative in how I use technology — when in-person meetings and hence international travel is needed versus when video conference or phone can do the job. I think a lot about how to try to stretch more hours from the day.
What advice would you give to girls who dream of becoming entrepreneurs when they grow up?
I would say a few different things. One is differentiate. By that I mean figure out where there are really critical gaps in the field, or the problem you want to solve, and how to make yourself uniquely able to tackle that. For me this meant pursuing an MBA at Stanford when I noted how valuable business and management skills were to nonprofits. The second thing I would say is find a sponsor as you move into your professional life. People often use the term mentor, but it is more than someone who will share advice. Find senior people who are invested in you and will go to bat for you internally. I try to do that with a lot of people, both women and men that I work with. More broadly, being a successful entrepreneur is about following your passion and being willing to embrace the less safe option and see it as an opportunity. For me that meant moving to Kenya when my then-fledgling organization (Clinton Health Access Initiative) had no established office, presence, or relationships there to launch our Africa presence — for you it will mean something else entirely!
What’s been the most gratifying part of this work for you personally?
The first is just knowing the work that you’re doing is having such an outsized impact on people’s lives. I feel really privileged to wake up every morning and say the work I’m doing, that the work my organization is doing, is measurably improving the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
What advice would you give institutions like USAID that want to help entrepreneurs like you succeed?
I think USAID needs to be willing to take risks. There may be a core set of organizations that they give to. They need to be really proactive in how they reach out to other organizations that aren’t part of the usual set, really going above and beyond their usual process to invite new or younger organizations into the process.