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Q+A with Director of Operations Ali Sassoon

Our Operations Director Ali Sassoon has been a huge force behind RISE's birth and evolution.

Last year she pitched the initial idea of a female innovation fund to our board of directors. Over the next few months she brought in external consultants and subject matter experts to work with our board and staff, making this vision of an innovation fund become a reality in what can only be described as a challenging time and environment.

We spent a few minutes catching up with Ali to hear how the last few months have been, working behind the scenes at RISE.

Why did you want to create RISE? What was the impetus behind the shift?

Sundara’s RISE program was built out of the desire to shift the focus to women at a community level across the globe.

It became alarmingly clear that in many of the countries where we Sundara worked, there was a dire lack of financial resources for many women who had inspiring and innovative ideas to make their communities healthier.

Our program strives to close the access gap to entrepreneurs with high-impact ideas in the water, sanitation, health and hygiene spaces. We distribute critical seed funding of $5,000 to early stage entrepreneurs, who have income-generating business plans to improve access to water, sanitation or hygiene in their communities. Additionally, we provide mentorship, monitoring and evaluation, and additional fundraising opportunities for our fellows to ensure they are building their hard and soft skill sets to become successful and impactful leaders that the world needs - and that their communities deserve.

What led you to focus specifically on female entrepreneurs, as well as male entrepreneurs committed to serving women with their innovations?

As a fully female-run organization, Sundara has always gone by the saying: ‘For Women, By Women.’ This led us to design our programming solely support female entrepreneurs. Then the applications came in. Although we had planned to originally only support women, we received so many applications from strong, co-ed teams of social impact leaders and engineers who were designing WASH solutions to improve the safety and health for women and girls in their communities.

It was a tough decision but in the end we wanted to invite male entrepreneurs into the discussion and the work, given that so many of them were also committed to tackling gender disparities in access to water and hygiene.

Our primary focus has shifted now to not just female, but co-ed teams who have strong proposals and performance indicators aligned with the direct benefit of female beneficiaries.

How do you measure the success and impact of the venture that you invest in?

RISE’s initiatives are delivering critical services and products to populations lacking essential health benefits, so the measurement of social benefits and improvement of quality of life is essential in measuring success of the venture.

RISE’s human-centered design approach has enabled us to interact directly with the customers within each entrepreneur’s market, so we can best understand what matters to them, and what is (and is not) making a significant impact.

Working closely with our entrepreneurs, we work to collect, analyze, and synthesize data to better understand the impact of these WASH initiatives and how they are improving the lives on people in the targeted communities. Our goal is not only to create an effective reporting structure, but to also help our fellows understand areas of improvement in their operations, allowing them to improve their overall businesses and expand the reach of their product or service.

Additionally, in order to best measure impact, we work with entrepreneurs to design KPIs that are customized and aligned with their business plan. While these vary from project to project, we may assign a KPI in the first 6 months along the lines of: “how many toilets have you produced in Q1?” for a solar latrine project, or, “how much additional funding has been raised?” after the first year of the venture to measure their ability to continue to raise capital and expand their project.

Tell us more about new donor partnerships you've formed with RISE.

Since RISE is an entirely new program we have been given the opportunity to expand our partnership platforms and create new and meaningful connections. Our most recent partnership with Johnson & Johnson’s CaringCrowd, a crowdfunding platform that leverages smaller donations for water, sanitation and hygiene projects and doubles the impact, has allowed us to market our program through more channels than ever before.

Since we have shifted our focus from our traditional programming to innovation, it has enabled us to create partnerships with larger companies and individuals that we formerly would never have been able to work with.

Anything else you'd like to add?

The RISE team has been amazed by the number of talented applicants that have applied to our program. So far, we have received 305 applications from 46 countries! A particularly inspiring fellow that we currently work with is Obichi Obiajunwa, who leads a team of innovation and WASH experts in Nigeria - a country that leads the world with open defecation, as 1 in 4 people are without access to proper toilets. His project, Alterfold, is a solar powered toilet that creates biofuel for communities. The toilet, made of recycled material, will not only tackle the issue of open defecation and contaminated water sources, but it will also be a safe hygienic space for women and girls to utilize, while also decreasing the chances of sexual assault and rape.

As someone who worked in Nigeria and saw first hand how open defecation impacts women in slums and informal settlements around the country, this project feels particularly meaningful to me and I am thrilled to be able to help contribute to Obichi's success.

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