Guest Contributor: Liza Thomas
This month I got to sit down with one of the most inspirational women I’ve ever had the pleasure of interviewing. From working with refugees in Sudan to private finance in Australia, Dana Plair is a passionate woman who has a wealth of experience changing people’s lives through social enterprise. As we are closing off Women’s History Month I got to talk to her about what it means to be a woman and what it looks like to be brave and I’m excited to share that conversation with you.
Liza: You said that International Women's Day means a lot to you because of the women who have paved a path before you. How has that helped you develop your own strength and identity as a woman?
Dana: When I was growing up, I was blessed to have a mother that always was very gracious and giving. When my parents first tried to have kids they had several miscarriages, their doctor said that they couldn't have children, but my mom with her strong faith, she just believed God and she just stood by the word that said she's going to have children one day, and she did!! Six kids later, she made a choice to stay home with us. She chose to look after us and invest into us and it's really taught me a lot about sacrifice for family and sacrifice for the next generation.
I think part of becoming a strong woman is by asking – What is your legacy? For mom, it was her children. Whatever our passions were, mom and dad would stop at nothing to get us an opportunity. They made sacrifices to make sure we all went to college, so all six of us graduated from college and two of us have our master’s degrees. Because of what they sacrificed I've been able to go get my degrees and travel to 29-30 countries. So I think being a woman is sacrifice and love.
Liza: What inspired you to work in finance?
Dana: When I finished college, I got a job fundraising for the United Nations Refugee Agency. I did that for a while and then decided to go into the corporate world.
My passion for refugees never went away and I ended up volunteering with a hospital in South Sudan. When I was there our goal was to help the local women start their own businesses to enable them to get out of poverty. These women were refugees who had survived the genocide in Sudan, and they had this eagerness to use business to help their families and bring peace to their land. All they wanted was peace. So I met with these women and that trip really opened my eyes to the power that entrepreneurship has. When you teach someone how to fish, they fish for a lifetime. I wanted to be the kind of person that did that.
So, I went to business school and after, I got accepted to a job at the UN again. But then life got in the way, and you think about just finishing business school, student loans, the cost of living in New York, and I think I got a little burnt out with the nonprofit space. Nonprofits, they really do mean well, they really do want to do a lot of good but I found in non-profits you see a lot of turnover and politics.
So after that, I went to work in finance. I did kind of feel in the beginning that I was selling out and I was losing a bit of my passion because it became about the profit and not the people. But then I saw a different way when I saw a company called Guggenheim Partners. They showed me how they did social investment by having a competition for nonprofits. They gave away (I think it was $100,000) to an NGO that helped with HIV/AIDS in Africa and they would help with their financials and with their board helping to see the organization thrive. That's when I realized, “wow, you can be in the financial industry and make a difference!”
Liza: Because you come from a place of having the resources!
Dana: Yes, and that is key. It's not one or the other, it's a hybrid. And I think that’s one thing I learned in business school called the circular society and corporate social responsibility, where we use the resources of a pool of an organization that’s already financially strong so they can move from a position of strength. CSR: Corporate social responsibility is at the forefront of seeing societal changes with social business and impact investing and that opened my eyes to being in this industry and making a difference.
From there, I had a chance to go to Australia to work with Dyson. At Dyson, they train up young minds that have an engineering mindset or want to learn about innovation or design thinking and they have these educational workshops, using that talent in a different way to reach the community as well as giving back. So I find that social business doesn't have to be one thing or the other. It doesn't have to just be resources and finances. It can be time; it can be talent; it can be intellectual capital.
Liza: What would you say to women here in America who want to do something like this, but don't know where to start?
Dana: I think the first thing is to know yourself and know what is it you care about? What are you passionate about? What's your WHY? I think initially for me it was “Refugees.” That's what led me to New York, that’s what led me to the UN and social business. Maybe for you, it could be human trafficking, maybe it could be environmentally friendly products or health education.
I think once you find out what your why is, what your passionate about, what keeps you up at night - find people around you that might have similar interests, whether it be a meetup group, a website, or an organization. Start to volunteer because volunteering can open doors to opportunities as well. If you can, get a job in that field. But, you don't have to have the education. You don't have to all the connections to make some difference in the world. It’s you starting with where you are. There's always a place where you can give your time. There are always organizations online. I love companies like Kiva (kiva.org). You can go online and you can go give a $50, $100, or more loan to a woman's small business that she's starting, around the world.
Write your vision down. I think it all starts with writing it out. Even if you don't know what it is just yet write down things that you love. Or write, how you feel when you do the things that love. If you're out at the park and you love being in nature. Let's say you love volunteering at soup kitchens. Maybe you love going to the store and buying all natural products. Find out what your passion is and then find ways to engage with it. Those are a few ways of doing it and getting involved in the cause.
Liza: Your whole life is a story of bravery going from one journey to the next but was there a moment that you really remember having to be brave?
Dana: I mean, I think I'm still living it out. I'm in a season now where I've just come back to the US and I've been away for two years. My parents are like, “come settle down, just build a family, start something here,” but my heart burns for the nations and I still feel called abroad. I’m pioneering startups. I think that's the bravest thing I've ever done because I've done a lot of things with a lot of established organizations. But now I'm going out on my own. With the whole goal of one day being able to run venture capitalist consultancy for social businesses, whatever it may be. I'm getting research, I'm going to 16 countries in seven months and there's no path. It's just me doing research, doing the design thinking model. I have no answers. I have no itinerary. I'm literally just going to listen, sit, and learn, so that is kind of a nerve-wracking but hopefully brave.
Liza: Absolutely! My last question is, what inspires you and continues to inspire you?
Dana: I remember that I went to this juvenile detention center, and there was this young girl there, about 14 years old. She had her head down and she had this long sweater and long sleeves, which she would keep over her face and she would just sit there. I went directly to her and we just struck up a conversation. She would keep her eyes downcast, but then after a while I was talking with her and just reminding her who she is, how loved she is, and I remember she looked up and I saw this light in her eyes and I thought, “Oh my gosh, maybe she's starting to believe it.” I think what inspires me is seeing others walk out their potential, to believe in themselves, and I think it inspires me to see others when the lights go on for them. I really want to be able to help other women know their worth, their value, their core, and from there, from that place of strength, change the world.
And I want to see more of that but I think sometimes women can be backbiting in the media and you see all these things that are just so nasty, but why does it have to be that way? You can change the status quo. I come from a family with a lot of women. I have four sisters and I've learned how to work with all kinds of women because all my students are different and we champion each other and when someone wins, we all win; that way there's no competition. There's only supporting and sharing. I just want to see us champion women for the strength that they have and not be bullied for being too strong or too confident, but to really show them: you have what it takes and you are beautiful, you are worth it.
Liza: Yes, it's important that we know that we are not loved for what we do or what we produce but that we are loved for who we are.
Dana: That's it. That's exactly it. All of us want to be fully known and fully loved.
We hope that this interview has inspired you to be brave and to take risks! Are you pursuing what you're passionate about? Have you found your why? Share your stories with us on Facebook and Instagram @tahmina.international