This post was submitted by MPA student and FMS alumna Nicole Manapol
Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign,but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Danger of a Single Story (TED)
Stories are transformative – whether it’s the “official” story of a despotic regime, a beloved myth or the self-destructive narratives we sometimes play in our heads.
No one understands this better than FMS Partner Ayla Schlosser, Founder and Executive Director of Resonate – a startup teaching leadership skills to women and girls through a training course rooted in storytelling. Launched just over a year ago and based in Rwanda, Resonate was founded on the principle that stories matter. Through her background in community organizing and communications consulting, Ayla saw firsthand the importance of storytelling as a tool for affecting change and building leadership capacity. As Ayla often remarks – a compelling story can mean the difference between having an idea about how to fix a problem and actually leading the charge for community-based solutions.
Seeing the potential of narrative-based leadership training in other contexts outside the US, Ayla began looking for organizations where she could use her expertise to catalyze work already being done with women internationally. When no such organization materialized, Ayla (in true entrepreneurial fashion) decided to start her own company…in a country (Rwanda) she had never visited. When asked about the risk of traveling halfway across the world to test a market in which she had no prior experience – Ayla responded – you’re never going to have all the information – at some point you’ve just got to dive in and see what happens…
In October 2013 Ayla was off to Rwanda.
Why Rwanda? Although Ayla had no prior experience in Rwanda, there were a lot of reasons that made it an ideal place to pilot Resonate’s training. Over the past 20 years Rwanda has been working hard to rebuild its economy. Women’s economic empowerment has been a central feature of the government’s recovery strategy, creating a favorable environment for women’s leadership initiatives. Rwanda also has a strong tradition of oral leadership making the training a good cultural fit.
But perhaps the most compelling reason to launch in Rwanda was a strong partner – the Akilah Intitute for Women, an East African women’s college. As a graduate of Smith College, an all women’s school in the US, Ayla felt a natural affinity with Akilah. Her first training at the college with a group of female journalists still counts as one of her best moments since launching Resonate. Prior to conducting the training, Ayla worried about how participants would receive it – would it make sense? Would it fit the culture? The outcome is something Ayla still proudly recalls. The women got it…but not only did they get it – they were transformed by it. For most of the women at Akilah and also at subsequent trainings that was the first time they had ever told their story, felt how their personal narratives could resonate with others – how they could affect and inspire change. One of the women in a Resonate training later related to Ayla that she keeps the video clip of herself telling her story on her phone to remind herself of that moment – the moment she truly recognized her own strength and what she had to offer others.
With less than a year since launching programs on the ground in Rwanda – Resonate is poised to expand into Kenya and potentially other countries in the Region. Ayla attributes much of her success to her staff on the ground –in particular lead trainer Solange Impanoyimana who came to the project with a strong background in community development, storytelling and radio and who has already taken ownership of the enterprise. Friends, family and professional networks were also incredibly helpful to Ayla as she sought points of contact within Rwanda, developed marketing and communications strategies, fundraised or just simply needed advice.
Ayla recognizes programs like Frontier Market Scouts, which provided her with the talent and human resources to support operations. As a busy entrepreneur, traveling between Rwanda and the US and trying to launch a business, having the time to recruit and screen candidates is a major challenge. The benefit of working with FMS is having the program vet top candidates for you. Through this process Resonate was able to hire Donna Sinar, an MPA candidate at the Monterey Institute of International Studies with significant management experience in the non-profit sector. As a startup, priorities are constantly changing. What Ayla likes best about Donna and her FMS preparation is her ability to be flexible and respond to whatever new priority may arise on a daily basis.
Moving forward Ayla is considering different business models to generate revenue to sustain Resonate, including crowdfunding and a one-for-one training model with corporate CSR programs. There is a lot of interest and demand for Resonate’s Storytelling for Leadership training. The challenge now she says is being strategic about what she pursues given the size and capacity of her team. Other challenges involve fundraising – as many entrepreneurs know you need a history of funding to get funding.
But Ayla is undeterred – my approach is collaborative, I don’t want to re-invent the wheel. This is an exciting time for Resonate – particularly for anyone interested in Resonate’s work. As a startup we are constantly evolving. People who get involved with us now have the unique opportunity to shape what Resonate will be…
Interested in Resonate’s work? Learn how you can get involved: www.resonateworkshops.org
Interested in becoming an FMS Partner? Apply here