Laskhmi Venkata, a widow who has inherited her husband's property, can now support her sons. Photo: Deborah Esposito

Laskhmi Venkata, a widow who has inherited her husband’s property, can now support her sons. Photo: Deborah Esposito

Q&A with Betsy Teutsch

Betsy Teutsch is the author of the new book 100 Under $100: One Hundred Tools for Empowering Global Women. An artist and community activist, she lives in Philadelphia.

Q: You write, “My goal is to raise awareness of the wide range of successful efforts to help women achieve healthier, more productive lives.” How did you get involved in this field, and how did you compile information on the various efforts that are going on?

A: As the internet developed, I began to tap into global initiatives in ways that had eluded me as a self-employed artist and busy mom.

A few months before my 50th birthday, I volunteered at the 2002 Microfinance Summit and was wowed by the international crowd and microfinance’s potential. As an entrepreneur running my own art business, I loved the idea of helping support women in running their own micro-enterprises.

As discretionary time expanded (children grow up!), I started blogging about eco-sustainable lifestyles and initiatives. This led to taking a part-time job as communications director for a start-up, GreenMicrofinance.

Their vision—utilizing microfinance to allow people to purchase poverty-alleviating green tech like solar panels and improved cookstoves—was thoroughly compelling. What could be better than combating climate change by helping people out of poverty?

I noticed that women, while the end-users of many of these eco-smart products, were mostly missing in action in the design and distribution process.

Through becoming active with Dining For Women, a wonderful organization that funds grass-roots women’s empowerment initiatives around the world, I learned much more about global women’s empowerment initiatives.

Few women’s groups, though, focused on accessing the power of the plug: electricity. They toil without electricity like my great-grandmothers in the late 19th century. Bridging the women’s empowerment sector and humanitarian technology sector struck me as a useful place for me to focus.

I quickly learned of amazing, smart, affordable products designed by female humanitarian tech stars and social entrepreneurs, bringing low cost/high impact tools to the market.

To organize all the links and images, I created a Pinterest board featuring women working on solutions to poverty; it grew so quickly I subdivided it by topics.

Between the compelling beauty of the images and their upbeat, hopeful stories, I quickly realized this needed to be a book. (My blogging experience emboldened me to jump into this project, but I now know that blogging and book-writing are only very loosely related!)

I started [compiling information] with Google, simply searching for keywords; I pinned each find on my Pinterest boards. I had already collected about 75 before I decided to do the book; 100 seemed realistic.

I already knew about some of the initiatives from books on humanitarian technology like Design for the Other 90%, based on the Cooper-Hewitt exhibit by that name and The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, both of which I loved. There are many design contests and awards; I scoured them for useful tools to include.

I jumped into Twitter; Twitter recommends accounts similar to the ones you follow, and this feature was super helpful in locating more social businesses.  Over time, Facebook overtook websites as a direct way to communicate and fact check with initiatives in the book. A few of the initiatives were suggested by people I interviewed.

I also worked backwards. In addition to finding visible initiatives, I thought of gaps and looked to see what solutions were available. This is how I discovered that no one pays any attention to diapering solutions for low resource regions. And that no one pays much attention to designing kitchen tools to save women time; compare that to Bed Bath and Beyond!

Q: The book ranges over a wide variety of topics. How did you select the specific areas on which to focus in the book?

I expanded the definition of tool beyond manual tools. Financial tools like micro-insurance and mobile money (sending cash by text) are über important for helping people access what they need to climb out of poverty.A: My sections correspond to conventional categories of international global development, but since I am focused on women, I modified them. I split public health into “General Health”, non-gender specific, and “Women’s Health.” Women, who often see both a general practitioner and a gynecologist, will intuitively understand this.

I learned about some straightforward legal tools that are hugely impactful, as simple as making sure babies’ births are registered. But as I learned more, the legal section expanded. It became a crash course on human rights, especially when I decided I simply had to address ugly realities like sex trafficking and gender-based violence.

I truly had not understood the extent to which women’s impoverishment is tied not just to sexism but to actively discriminatory legal systems in so many countries.

A: My friend, author Ellen Frankel, describes it as a mash-up of The Family of Man [sic] and The Whole Earth Catalog. You need to be a baby boomer for this to resonate, but it does convey that the book is very beautiful, with truly compelling photographs of a huge variety of women around the world flexing their muscles and supporting themselves and their families. And at the same time, each of the hundred entries is a recipe—how to solve a specific poverty trap.Q: What has been the response to the book so far?

Another family tells me they will use 100 Under $100 as a guide to supporting global charities. They plan to go through the book, making a monthly donation; they figure it will take eight years.

The YOU icon in the entries, highlighting ways the reader can get involved, have gotten people responding creatively. One friend just used the book as a guide to planning a mother-daughter trip to Guatemala, visiting many of the projects they learned of through 100 Under $100. She posted on my Facebook page: “Your book was an amazing guide and support. I could not imagine a more genuine and empowering trip for me and my 13-year-old daughter.”

One very touching response is a reviewer who shared she leaves the book on her coffee table and reads one entry a day. It has become a moment of hope, an antidote to the constant barrage of bad news.

I can’t wait to hear more stories! These amaze me.

Q:  You also are an artist, and your book is beautifully designed. How did your art background contribute to this book, and how do art and writing complement each other for you?

A: My art background made it very easy for me to spot great photos. For every photo featured, I scrolled through a few thousand duds. I developed a strong curatorial sense and loved the photo search and editing. When it came time to create the layout, I based it on a blog page.

I was fortunate to work with She Writes Press’ extremely talented book designer Tabitha Lahr. Typically authors and book designers don’t work together, but Tabitha kindly made an exception and welcomed my suggestions. I think she knocked it out of the park.

The book’s writing is very spare. There was so much information to communicate, without killing the story!

Q:  What are you working on now?

A: I am writing and speaking about 100 Under $100 in a wide variety of venues—on blogs, at schools, service clubs, churches, bookstores, and corporate women’s leadership events. So many people want to help and make a difference; my work will now be connecting people to the initiatives in the book.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: One person, working hard and smart, can make an incredible difference. This book is full of such people.

Perhaps the most heartening conclusion I came to is we can help women get themselves and their families out of poverty while contracting global carbon footprints. This trifecta of benefits is not that expensive to do. Let’s get going!

–Interview with Deborah Kalb

Posted by Deborah Kalb at 7:21 AM