The journey’s we take that lead us to what we love: Karen Sherman’s story

In honor of International Day of Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda, we share the story of Karen Sherman, a change leader who works to promote women’s education and economic empowerment throughout Rwanda and across Africa. April 7th marks the start of a 100 day period of national mourning for the 1994 genocide; it begins on today with Kwibuka (Remembrance), the national commemoration, and concludes on July 4th with Liberation Day.

Karen Sherman embodies the persona of a “women changemaker.” For the past 30 years, she has combined her expertise, passion, and transformative leadership skills to effect lasting change in conflict-affected countries and those in transition. In her current role as President of Akilah Institute as well as in her past executive leadership roles  at Women for Women International, she has achieved considerable success in helping organizations grow their capacity, impact, and financial and organizational sustainability. However, in what she calls “winning ugly,” she shares how the journey for women global change leaders is never easy, requiring a constant re-assessment of “tradeoffs between family, career, and life.”

Her journey, as many do, started by a chance encounter. In 1985, during a DC internship post-college graduation, she had the opportunity to attend the Geneva Summit Talks where she met General Secretary Gorbachev. Interested in understanding the changing dynamics in the former Soviet Union and broader region, these conversations propelled her to pursue a Master’s in Russian and East European studies. This fascination blossomed from an interest to a business and then a development career, where over the course of 15 years she worked to support women entrepreneurs through business incubators, microcredit programs, and civil society organizations across Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Jumping continents, she continued this women’s empowerment work first as the Chief Operating Officer and then Executive Director for Global Programs at Women for Women International (WfWI)–an organization that supports women survivors of war; for the next decade, she expanded the number of women they served threefold and grew revenue from $5 million to over $20 million. When WfWi gave her an opportunity to take a more in-person role in Rwanda, she made a big decision, jumping to another continent with her three sons, fourteen-year-old twins and an 11-year-old.

As she reflects back on this decision, she highlights that it was not easy. As she notes, most of the women she knows who do international development work are kidless, empty nesters, or divorced. However, she strongly believes while there may be difficult tradeoffs involved there are tradeoffs that come with any choice that one would make. In her forthcoming book, Brick by Brick: Building Hope and Opportunity for Women Survivors Everywhere she unpacks some of these tradeoffs, with a hope to inspire individuals, and in particular women, wives, and/or mothers who might be considering a new journey.

Karen with the women of Akilah!

For over a decade, the Akilah institute–an all women’s college in Rwanda–has been offering two-year diplomas in information systems, hospitality management, entrepreneurship, and business management. Recently, they announced exciting plans to expand their offerings to include bachelor’s degrees in these majors as well as in additional areas of study based on the fastest growing sectors of the East African economy. Karen has been integral in driving this growth as well as their plans to scale globally alongside Akilah’s CEO Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes (to learn more about Elizabeth and Akilah see here).

As Karen and her husband joke, making tough choices is all about determining if you can “live with the whole ‘winning ugly’ piece,” a reference from Brad Gilbert’s book about becoming a tennis legend. For now, she says, this journey has allowed her to do what she loves and she is extremely grateful and looking forward to what comes next.

Learning from the experiences of women leaders such as Karen is critical, as the global development space is still heavily dominated by men and lacks diversity–greatly shaping the work and whose voices shape policy in the NGO sector. With only 32% of female CEOs and only 3% black, Asian, and minority ethnic backgrounds (Root, 2019), there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. Karen, not only through her own experiences but also in her current position as President of Akilah Institute, is working to change the conversation as to what it means to be a woman, a mother, and a professional working to empower other women leaders across the world.

In future blogs, we will be sharing more about how women like Karen, strive to #BalanceforBetter, taking into consideration the tradeoffs of family, career, and life in pursuit of what they love. Keep up the incredible work Karen, we look forward to following you along this next leg of your journey!

In our hearts and memory, we also ask that you take a moment to reflect and learn more about the International Day of Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda, as well as share this information with your networks to promote awareness and remembrance for all those whose lives were lost.

Thanks for reading!

Maxie & Paula

Contact Karen: