In Conversation: Living a Life of Kindness—To Yourself, To Others
Above Photo: Zainab Salbi in a village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Zainab Salbi, a humanitarian, author, journalist, and ICON 2022 keynote speaker, has worked tirelessly for women around the world. Her work has earned her a spot on both People Magazine and Foreign Policy Magazine as one of their “100 Top Global Thinkers.” At 23 years old, she founded Women for Women International, an organization that has since worked with over 530,000 of the most marginalized women in eight conflict zones to rebuild their lives and their futures.
Most recently, after almost 20 years, she stepped down as the organization’s CEO. Since then, she has gone through a re-awakening to discover her latest passion and where she would like to focus her time and energy. In this interview with Advancing Philanthropy magazine, she discusses how her recovery from a major health crisis helped redefine her work and ignite her passion for helping women on the frontlines of climate change, which led to her co-founding Daughters for Earth.
(Michael Nilsen) You decided to leave Women for Women International, an organization you founded in your early twenties. Can you talk a little bit about what led to that decision and also discuss some of the things you did afterward?
(Zainab Salbi) Someone recently asked me, “What message would you send to your younger self when you were starting your career?” I said, “The message I would send is not to my younger self at the beginning of my career; it’s the message I would send to myself at the height of my career at Women for Women.” Because that is when I lost perspective.
In the beginning, you’re an excited young person, working and committed. Then all of a sudden you see yourself at the peak of success, and you’re going from one place to the other, and you become robotic—you are just operating because you don’t know how to pull the trigger and say “stop.” You feel guilty about it. I see it with leaders now that I deal with in different things. There’s constantly a feeling of guilt, so you keep on putting the mission and your job as your priority over everything else.
I would say there were three reasons why I left Women for Women, and some of them were emotional, but some of them were very practical. I made a decision to leave Women for Women when I started the organization. I vowed that I would leave when it was 20 years old. The reason I did that is because I was studying “founder’s syndrome” at that time in college. The women I worshipped as the leaders of women’s groups, I would see over time that the longer they stayed in their leadership position, the organization would become less and less and less relevant.
I started Women for Women when I was in college, and I vowed to myself at that time that I would not let that happen. I knew I would leave before I became a dated leader and bring the organization down with me. Plus, I also grew up in a dictatorship, so I knew firsthand what it means not to let go of power. And I am a very ideologically driven person. I was like, “How can we criticize dictators for not letting go of their power if we do not understand what letting go of power means?”
And sure enough, I held true to my word—I resigned as CEO after 18 years and as a board member after 20 years. But outside of staying true to the promise I made to myself earlier, and even though the organization was very successful at the time, there was no joy in my life. And that was important because it wasn’t even about me. I was meeting with women, and I was there to support and help them, yet I felt very “blah,” and frankly, I was not present in the moment. I was tired.
When your light and excitement dims, either you have to do something to light it or leave before you break down the organization. I have friends who founded organizations, and they got to the same state I did, but instead of leaving they decided to change their organization’s mission. Unfortunately, it became the demise of them and the organization. I didn’t want to do that. I needed to step back because my heart was exhausted all the time.
Also, you interviewed me back in 2018, and after that, I almost died a few months later. I went from a very typical busy day to an ambulance, emergency room, operating room and then a week in the intensive care unit. And in that last intimate moment when you say this is it, the question I asked myself was not, “Did I accomplish enough?” Not at all. I asked myself, “Did I live my life in kindness to myself and others?” It took me a year and a half to heal afterward, and then COVID-19 hit.
I realized that I had lived my life in kindness to others, but not to myself. I lived in love to others, but not to myself. And the others were the distant others—the women I was working for, but not to myself and not to the people who were close to me. When a leader is exhausted, you do the same thing to your staff and those closest to you. So, this all took me on a new trajectory where I now have my seven rules for a happy and successful day as opposed to accomplishments. I measure what keeps me in kindness and in love to myself because once I know that, I can accomplish all the other things much faster.
You talk about finding your joy and being kind to yourself. And there’s so much joy there in talking with people and learning about them and from them. Was that something that happened by chance when you were trying to find yourself after Women for Women or did it click all of a sudden?
It was a process, and I’ll tell you two stories in order to address it. One happened when I was in Congo doing research. This is before we expanded Women for Women in that area. As a founder, you like to go and do the fieldwork. And as you grow, you hire people to do it for you, even though it’s your favorite job. But these were the days when I did it, and I would always get excited. So, I was sitting with this village and the whole community sat around me in a circle and I asked them questions about their realities and their needs. I took an hour or two of their time, and at the end, I said, “Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. I can’t promise that I will do anything. This is basically a research study, and if I do anything, I can’t promise it will come to your village because there will be a new set of criteria for how we work. But I really want to thank you for taking the time to talk to me.” I’ve always had one rule: never mess with people’s hope. When people are in crisis, they have a level of hope. It’s an important element of keeping people’s spirits alive, so that’s why I said I can’t make any promises.
However, in meeting, I remember the elders of the community told me, “No, we want to thank you. Your smile and optimism gave us hope.” I was really taken back because up until that moment, I never valued the role of being a “smiley” person. I didn’t know that being optimistic gave others hope.
The other story is during a speech I gave. I was giving a speech and I was simply exhausted. I traveled from one war to another, and I came back and I gave a speech about what’s happening to women. I was depleted—depressed even. I remember that speech did not do well because what people remembered most was my sadness. It dragged on and on because I was sad.
These are the two opposite stories. In the first, I am optimistic and hopeful—energizing the Congolese people who are the most oppressed. When I was depressed and dragging—I made my audience, my funders—depressed as well.
These stories really stayed with me. They didn’t automatically make me say “I am going to be on a mission to bring my joy back,” but it was part of the process. When I talked earlier about my seven rules for a happy day—they are silly rules, but they help. Things like drink a lot of water, exercise, be in nature, doing something with art. They’re very simple rules. But that joy that I have, when I land on it, and I have it now, I really am so grateful for everything in life. Once I have that, I promise you, the work just flows because I’m excited and I’m energized. When I’m dragging, I’m dragging everyone else around me. You need to become the change you’re advocating for.
Up until then, my change was not personal or individual, it was much more economical and political—big changes. Those things are important and necessary, especially on the economic side, but now the change is more holistic. I need to become what I am asking for the world to do for women. I can’t advocate for what I don’t have. If I’m not happy, how can I ask for other women’s happiness. If I’m not free, how can I ask for other women’s freedom?
You talked about being holistic and I know you’re involved with Daughters for Earth, which we will talk about, but you also work with FindCenter as the chief awareness officer. How did you get involved with this organization and why was that important to you to be involved with this particular group?
It took me a year and a half to get my health back. Everything in life was taken away from me; not only my health, but also my ability to think and communicate. I was stripped of all my tools to survive. What I could do was meditate, spend time in nature, or focus on art activities, like painting or relearning the piano. And I came out of it with utter joy.
I was like, “Oh my God! If I can have such joyful connection to my heart and to nature, I want to do anything and everything possible to help other people connect to their heart and nature in a divine and new way.” I came to learn that my heart has a language—all hearts have a language—and what I needed was time to learn that language.
I can’t advocate for what I don’t have. If I’m not happy, how can I ask for other women’s happiness. If I’m not free, how can I ask for other women’s freedom?
You might be wondering that means. It means that I allow myself time to meditate before anything that I do. I have a podcast, for example, and I do interviews all the time. I always meditate first. Not only to center me, but also to see what comes out in that space of silence. Questions come out. I might have an epiphany. Solutions come out. Sometimes I get answers to major questions—whether work or personal. It’s just allowing that space to not think because that’s when you get answers. And it was like a miracle happening in my life because I got two calls. The first was from Jody Allen, who is my co-founder at Daughters for Earth, saying, “We need to do something to mobilize women in climate change.”
From there, I connected with Justin Winters and One Earth, and then we founded Daughters for Earth, which works to mobilize women for climate change and put more money in the hands of women who work climate change. The second call was from my friend, Neal Goldman, who is a technologist and founder of Relationship Science. He said, “I want to do something to contribute and help people navigate their personal development in a free and accessible way.” From there, I started my work with FindCenter. It’s a resource center focused on making information and wisdom of all kinds easily accessible to anyone who is interested in self-development. It’s something you can do in the privacy of your own space and time without shame or embarrassment.
You’ve interviewed a lot of interesting people on your podcast. Have you learned anything interesting about talking with people in general? Is there anything particularly challenging that you were surprised by in trying to reach people, and talking with them?
I have my personal style and it works for me. My philosophy in getting people to talk is something I learned in fundraising. During my first meeting with a foundation, the director shared her personal story with me. I was surprised because usually they want to hear about how we help the beneficiaries, but she said, “my biggest act of respect to you right now is to tell you my story because you always share your story with everyone.” It was a wow moment, and it was a beautiful moment because it allowed for a friendship and a deeper connection in that first meeting.
I never really thought my story was worthy of being told. It never felt radical when you compare it to others—because that’s what we do, compare our story to other peoples. But storytelling doesn’t have to be radical or dramatic—it only needs to be heartfelt and personal. It’s about human emotion.
So, first, I remind myself that all stories are important to share. And second, share stories as a gift for others. Some people may reciprocate that gift and share their own, some people may not. But over time I learned when I say “this is my offering to you,” more often than not, they will share their story to give back the gift I gave to them.
I get people to speak because I show up and I don’t hide. The other thing that I’ve learned is that when you are doing something that is your purpose and your passion, you consistently arrive at the concept of bliss. When you are in bliss, you don’t get tired and you are shining. When you do something you are excited about, it gives you enough light that you stay in that bliss. This is when you accomplish the most. All of these things help me when trying to reach people on a deeper level and talk to them.
I think about your work with Women for Women International and what’s happening in Ukraine, with women being displaced. I know Women for Women is working there. What is the organization focusing on right now?
I am still involved with Women for Women. I’m like the grandmother, so I am still present for whatever the organization needs. During the Afghanistan crisis, I worked very closely with Women for Women to evacuate Afghan women who were in danger.
The point of the story is that women need to come together, daughters need to come together, and unite and hold each other’s hands.
As it relates to Ukraine, Women for Women is working with women on the ground and getting them cash immediately. There are different needs, like the immediate need for food and shelter. But from a woman’s perspective, what we are also trying to address are issues like trafficking against women, which always increases during war and has happened in Ukraine very quickly.
There are also a lot of immigrant women in Ukraine. And while there is a lot of focus on aid, we also have to think about visas for entry into Poland and different countries for Ukrainians. However, if you’re an immigrant in Ukraine of African or Asian descent, they’re not letting you in. So, there’s racism and discrimination on top of the trafficking and rape of women and children. You don’t hear that on mainstream media, but these are the things that women’s organizations are trying to address immediately.
Let’s talk about Daughters for Earth. Why is the environment so important to you? What in particular, if anything, drew you to this kind of project and idea?
I am not a climate change expert, but I am a woman’s expert. I try to live my life in consistency to my values. I have an electric car. I do composting. I have a small plot of land that I preserve and protect, but I am not a climate expert. However, different people who do not know each other reached out to me and asked me, “How can we mobilize women working in climate change?” I would always remind them that I was not a climate change expert. But then I got sick and I felt that nature was my cheerleader. It helped me survived.
I was a city woman all my life. I would look at a tree and say, “Whatever. Thank you.” But in my most vulnerable moment, it was nature that truly saved me. So, I started doing research to figure out what was going on with women in climate change. What I learned that women are predicted to be impacted the most by the climate crisis in terms of displacement and food security. Women are doing a lot on the front lines on the grassroots level. They’re essential in protecting and preserving earth around the world, from the Amazon River in Ecuador to land in Namibia or Zimbabwe, and most definitely in America. They are doing work in regenerative agriculture and renewable energy. There are women working on environmental interventions, yet they are only getting two cents out of every dollar that goes to environmental justice. As someone with a development background, I saw the story repeating itself. That’s when I said “OK, we’ll do something about it.” We started asking women to contribute $10 once a month or once a year—or $10 million if they could afford it.
The point of the story is that women need to come together, daughters need to come together, and unite and hold each other’s hands. And my core belief is philanthropy as a concept should not be an issue of the rich. Philanthropy should be an issue for every citizen. We are all philanthropists. We need to democratize that process and make it accessible for everyone to be a philanthropist.
That was the defining philosophy we had behind building Daughters for Earth, which is also what I did with Women for Women. At Women for Women we received $20 million from a large funder, but before that (and even after) we raised more than $100 million from women who gave us $30 a month. So, yes, we are thankful for the big gifts, but the women who were giving us $30 a month are equally important. I want to make it accessible for everyone to put more money into the hands of women, to raise public awareness that women are actual climate warriors, and to engage every woman to be part of the solution.
Michael Nilsen is AFP’s vice president of communications and public policy.