04 Sep 2018

Member Spotlight: Elizabeth Scharpf

Yes SHE Can

Interview with Elizabeth Scharpf, Founder & CEO of Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), by Jenna Tico

“It’s not like a three-cent Maxi Pad is my passion,” Elizabeth Scharpf smiles, smoothing her hands across the table between us. “Or like menstruation is my passion. But it’s a gateway to very large conversations about important issues: contraception, family planning, domestic violence. And they need to happen.”

It’s 9:30 on a Wednesday morning, and I’m waiting for the right moment to tell Scharpf that—while I may have arrived with nonchalance—I am rapidly becoming the flag-bearing, Maxi Pad-waving fanatic that she is not. Because, after all, of all she IS: entrepreneur, humanitarian, inquisitor, mother, partner, and innovator. Because of the fact that, within minutes of our interview, Scharpf has revealed the tie between her organization—SHE, or Sustainable Health Enterprises—and international guidelines on menstruation that have enabled countless women to attend school, remain viable members of the workforce, and instigate life-saving conversations that, like Scharpf says, need to happen. In making safe, sustainable, and locally-powered menstrual supplies accessible to families in Rwanda, SHE has empowered a new generation of women to stand up for their bodies—being, as they are, microcosms of community wellbeing—and for healthier dynamics across the board. And while she might be the last one to have a pad on hand (“I’m THAT person,” she shares, laughing), she is one of the first to talk about their role in building a safer, more equitable world; and, luckily for us, is helping others do the same.

 

Over her life, Scharpf has lived and worked in Rwanda, Mozambique, Brasil, and Austria; but like any good American kid, grew up in a city that sounds as much like a dive bar as it does a destination. Colts Neck, New Jersey. And she wasn’t the only future boss in town. “My claim to fame is that I went to Bruce Springsteen’s high school,” she laughs. After high school and undergrad, Scharpf moved to Cambridge to attend Harvard University, where she pursued both a business degree and MA in International Development from the John F. Kennedy School of Government. “It was an interesting juxtaposition,” she shares. “At the business school, I was known to be this bleeding heart. And at the Kennedy School, I was thought to be this huge capitalist.” She shrugs. Clearly both, clearly neither; clearly not interested in being oversimplified in order to become more palatable for the very limiting, binary-riddled systems that her work seeks to topple. “I have to say, I wear both of those hats every day.”

And it’s a good thing she does: after college, Scharpf was named one of 20 fellows to receive the prestigious NYC-based Echoing Green Fellowship, which selects social entrepreneurs for their “big, bold ideas” that aim to change the world. Scharpf’s idea? Sustainable menstrual pads for women in Rwanda, a whopping 18% of whom miss out on school and work because of lack of access to hygienic, affordable supplies. And what would 2018, Santa Barbara-dwelling Elizabeth Scharpf name as her inspiration? “That something that affects half the world could be so overlooked… and prevented [so many people] from going to school or work, or to have good health.” Having gained experience in the commercialization of health products, and committed to moving from a lens of equity—“I believe the definition of business should include social justice. I’m [always] thinking about how you can use a market-based approach to solving problems”—Scharpf formed SHE: an international organization that manufactures menstrual pads from banana fibers in Rwanda. In creating pads, SHE is also creating jobs, awareness, and an international level supply chain (really) around the extraction of banana fiber: far from throwing a band-aid—or in this case, Maxi Pad—over the issue. Scharpf’s experience in the field taught her that, to get to the root of an issue, one must take a multifaceted approach: one as concerned with social dialogues as with concrete, keep-in-your-bathroom solutions. Namely, she needed to wear both of her hats.

“It’s a privileged place to sit,” Scharpf reflects, on the coupling of her humanitarian and entrepreneurial skills. “I wish there were more bridges between those worlds.”

Far from sitting and wishing, Scharpf is actively building bridges every day; and like a true leader, knows she cannot do it alone. “I have always, as a social entrepreneur, recognized the power of community,” she says. Already familiar with the Impact Hub brand, Scharpf was glad to join our branch upon moving to Santa Barbara: weaving into a group of movers and shakers who, like herself, are operating through a lens of social justice. Who aren’t afraid to bounce ideas off one another. “I like to hot desk,” she laughs; revealing relief that, while she is quickly getting to know more local members, is still in the sweet pocket of socialization where she can “actually get work done.”

“But I’m looking forward to discovering more gems in the hallways!”

In Echoing Green, Scharpf got a strong education in the power of multiple perspectives. “I came up with something pretty boring,” she shares, recalling the process of forming the mission statement for SHE. “And [my colleague] was like: ‘No, no… it’s not just about health and dignity. It’s the subject matter. It IS taboo. And you, as a person, like to take on taboo things because you feel like you might be a good advocate for those who are too embarrassed to talk about it.’”

Not only to talk, but to ask why: WHY, in a world where one might sooner name the bikini-clad heiress eating a cheeseburger than the stages of her own menstrual cycle, do we label certain things as taboo? Taboo. Off-limits. According to Merriam Webster, “Banned on the grounds of morality and taste.” Scharpf’s work invites us to reconsider what makes us uncomfortable, and also to engage with it—and then use it to make the world safer and healthier for all. It’s what SHE does, and it’s what Scharpf does: even upon graduating from business school, she interviewed for two jobs… both involving the commercialization of the female condom. “[My friend] pointed out, ‘that’s not something that everyone interviews for. And I was like,‘really’?” She laughs.

“She said, ‘No—that kind of role needs someone to hold a torch, and to light it, and go forward.’”

Santa Barbara is lucky—and so is the Hub—to have someone like Elizabeth Scharpf bearing a torch of truth, taboo, and transformation. “There’s something about movement-making that is in my cloth of being,” she shares, a glint in her eye. On land so recently scorched by fire—where even the slightest spark can lead to panic—it is remarkable to be reminded of what flame can really do: ignite, cleanse, regenerate the soil, and change the landscape. Leaving us all a little different, but somehow braver, in its wake.


Addendum:

Feed the fire! It’s an exciting moment for SHE: their work will be featured in the Smithsonian’s brand-new exhibit, which opens at the Gates Foundation on September 13. They are also  launching a new initiative called SHELabs, which will focus on developing products and services to address domestic health inequities that girls and women face. They are seeking 1-2 interns to help them with this endeavor; for more information, contact supportshe@sheinnovates.com.

 

Written by Jenna Tico