The William D. Reimert Lecture

Reimert Lecture: Social Entrepreneur Shares Her Story

As an institution that is actively focused on community service—and whose mission includes teaching leadership for the workplace, at home and in life—Cedar Crest College could not have chosen a more appropriate speaker to deliver the 2011 William D. Reimert Lecture than Maya Ajmera.

Ajmera delivered the lecture to a captive audience of more than 200 from the local and college communities on Nov. 10, and spent time the following day with students in Cedar Crest’s First-Year Experience program, helping them consider and plan their own social entrepreneurship endeavors.

At age 25, Ajmera founded The Global Fund for Children (GFC), an international, non-profit organization that invests in innovative, community-based organizations working with some of the world’s most vulnerable children and youth. To date, these efforts have helped more than 1.5 million children.

Ajmera told the lecture audience how the seed was planted for the GFC while she was traveling through Asia as part of a post-bachelor’s degree fellowship given to her by the Rotary Club—a journey she almost didn’t make.

“My parents wanted me to be a doctor. I was going to go to Australia and study something in the area of science, but then I thought, ‘When am I ever going to get to go to Asia and backpack and meet family?’” said Ajmera, who is of Indian descent. “I had some wonderful professors who told me, ‘If you want to get to know people and their aspirations and their dreams, then grab a backpack and go (to Asia) for a year.’ I began to see local innovation happening in people’s own backyards.”

Ajmera’s self-described “moment of obligation” occurred during this study abroad experience at a bustling train platform in Bhubaneswar, India, where she encountered 40 children sitting in a circle, being taught how to read and write. She watched as the teacher held up flashcards and engaged the children through simple exercises.

After the lesson, Ajmera approached the teacher and inquired about the cost of operating a school on this model—one that brought the school to the children because the children were unable to come to the school. She was deeply touched by the realization that the train platform school operated on approximately $400 per year, supporting 50 children and two teachers. The school not only taught the children but also fed and clothed them and, perhaps most importantly, instilled in them a sense of worth.

Upon her return to the United States, and with the support of her professors and mentors, she decided to forego medical school and pursue a graduate degree in public policy, where she developed a business plan for the GFC. She obtained a four-year, $100,000 seed grant from Echoing Green, a social entrepreneurship venture capital fund, and the rest is history.

To date, GFC has awarded more than $24 million in primarily modest grants to grassroots organizations in 80 countries. The organization has project officers throughout the world seeking low-investment, high-reward projects with good odds for success.

Ajmera is proud that the GFC has supplied funding to help a woman educate 700 girls in Afghanistan at a time when it was outlawed by the Taliban; to aid an architect who created a solar-powered boat school for poor children in out-of-the-way areas of Bangladesh to establish 80 more; to enable a woman to open the first night time care shelter for children in the red light districts of India to shield them from the human trafficking going on around them; and for hundreds of other worthwhile ventures.

The need for young women around the world to get an education hits very close to home for Ajmera. Growing up in a poor section of India, her own mother had a sixth grade education when she wed Ajmera’s father through an arranged marriage as a teenager. She went on to become educated and a successful businesswoman, but this may not have happened if her in-laws weren’t progressive about women getting an education.

“I told my mother that she was lucky and she said, ‘no girls should ever have to count on luck for an education. It’s a human right,’” said Ajmera. “I think we all have points in our lives where we have to act. What I want to tell all the young women here tonight is that if you have a dream, make it happen and learn from things that work and things that don’t work.”

GFC has a dynamic media program focused on children’s books, films, digital media, and documentary photography. Ajmera is an award-winning author of children’s books including Children from Australia to Zimbabwe, Faith, and To Be a Kid with millions of readers worldwide.

“We never really had books about kids growing up in other countries, and which show the connections that we all share,” she said. “The image you see is often the child with the pot belly and flies around the face, but there’s more to children than suffering. All kids go to school, they all dance, act, sing—but they all do it differently. Children are resilient and they can make fun with very little. I wanted to show that to young people everywhere.”

The organization supports documentary filmmakers that portray the resilience of young people, raise awareness of the issues confronting them, and provide a connection to grassroots organizations that directly address the challenges identified in the films, as well as literacy programs for at-risk children.

GFC has done a great deal but there’s always more to do—both abroad and right here in the United States. Ajmera said she recently learned that half of the world’s one billion children are “invisible.” Approximately 80 million receive no formal education; 3 million are involved in human trafficking; and 250 million are child laborers.

“We (adults) do not do a great job of supporting our youngest people. We (GFC) have a lot more organizations that need to be supported and we have a moral obligation to do more,” she said. “We know we have a model that works and it’s something governments and large social service agencies need to look at. There are so many young people interested in doing this work and that is gratifying.”

Cedar Crest College officials were thrilled to have Ajmera deliver this year’s Reimert Lecture.

“We want our students to think big when it comes to civic engagement, and it really doesn’t get much more impressive than tonight’s Reimert lecturer,” said President Carmen Twillie Ambar. “Maya has proven to be one of the great social entrepreneurs of our day—forming relationships with grass-roots social service agencies around the world, as well as lecturing and writing award-winning children’s books in support of The Global Fund for Children’s mission.”

Ajmera is a recipient of numerous leadership awards including the 2011 Henry Crown Fellowship at the Aspen Institute, and she is sought after nationally and internationally to address audiences on local and global philanthropy, global children’s rights, international development, and social entrepreneurship. Her work and life story have been profiled by such media outlets as CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Financial Times, NPR, and many others.

Ajmera serves on the board of visitors of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. She is vice chairman of the board of Echoing Green, a trustee of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, and a board member of New Global Citizens. She serves on numerous advisory boards including the Center for Advanced Social Entrepreneurship (CASE) at Duke University, Washington Area Women’s Foundation, American India Foundation, and many others.

She received a master’s degree in public policy from the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and a bachelor’s degree in biology from Bryn Mawr College. She credits her women’s college education as an undergraduate with providing her with the foundation for success.

“I got an incredible grounding and a fantastic liberal arts education. I’m a big proponent of a women’s college education and I think Bryn Mawr and Cedar Crest and Wellesley and Sweet Briar (colleges)…there are only a handful of women’s colleges left. To be able to give this lecture and meet women who are aspirational and inspirational is a great honor for me,” said Ajmera.