In partnership with the Social Innovation Summit, we'll be running a weekly series called 5x5x5 -- 5 Leaders, 5 Sectors, 5 Questions. Five guests from a variety of sectors will answer questions on how technology and innovation can be used for social good.
Our first installment features actress and activist Maria Bello in conversation with Brian Sirgutz, Senior Vice President - Social Impact at the Huffington Post. We asked Bello about her activism, her love for Oprah and her newest project -- a network called We Advance University that allows local women's groups in Haiti to connect and access educational and informational tools.
Brian: Maria, you've been a woman's rights activist since you were 18, working at the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia. You were headed toward becoming a lawyer but became an actor instead. And this week, you were named the Goodwill Ambassador for Women in Haiti.
So you're like an activist who is using her day job to inform and inspire people around the issues of basic human rights. Why do you think you're one of the only celebrities who has managed to be both?
Maria: My professor and mentor at Villanova University, Father Ray Jackson (who my son is named after), gave me the best advice when I told him that I was thinking of becoming an actor instead of a women's rights lawyer: "You serve best by doing the thing you love most." I realized that I didn't have to give up one to do the other, but I could leverage my "day job" and still work to empower women throughout the world.
Brian: You were in Haiti before the earthquake and have stayed since. Talk to me about We Advance and how that started.
Maria: I started We Advance with a group of Haitian and American women after the earthquake in Haiti in January, 2010. Basically, we were pissed off. Pissed off that all of these big and well-meaning NGOs were getting a lot of money to do projects based on what their donors were comfortable with and what THEY decided would help the people of Haiti. How about this? Ask the local people what they want. Haitians know what Haitians need.
The idea was to bring a voice to the more than 350 local women's organizations throughout the country. Women, who despite having nothing, are already running their communities. And we've made huge strides this year! Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe said as much in his speech at CGI yesterday -- after we convened 350 focus groups throughout the country, a woman's platform was born. Now the Haitian government has committed to a $10 million fund to support the platform. Not because it's nice, but because it's good business.
Brian: I have known you for a while now and when we met, you weren't involved with technology or social media. Today, you are very active on social media and have been using technology to empower women around the world.
What is We Advance University? How did it start and what has it evolved into?
Maria: We Advance University is a natural extension of our motto: "We are stronger together than we are alone." Access to information and services for local communities were big problems after the earthquake. We Advance University is an online and offline program that will connect women's groups all over the country and tell them how and where to access services in their region.
Brian: Can you talk about how Oprah influenced and inspired you? Can you also tell us about your partner, Barbara Guillaume? How did she become the face of the Haitian women's movement?
As a child, so much was going on in my near and extended family. A lot of stuff that I could not comprehend and that no one ever spoke about -- alcoholism and drug addiction, mental illness, abuse etc. And then, suddenly, this beautiful woman (Oprah) came on TV and started speaking about all of these things and much more. She inspired a whole nation -- particularly women -- to get on the path to awareness and self-improvement.
The co-founder of We Advance, Barbara Guillaume, is a dynamic women's rights activist and a famous folk singer. Everyone says she is the Oprah of Haiti.
Can you talk about how the technology partners for We Advance University -- Digicel and SocMe -- are helping bring the idea to life?
Our site is endorsed by the American Ambassador to Haiti. We partnered with Digicel, NYU and SocMe Academy to build it. We all agree that once the template is built, this model can easily be used throughout the world. Of course, we need more resources, input, expertise and partners. So for any of you techno-geeks out there -- join this new-to-the-game pseudo techno geek and help us create a "revelation revolution"!
The video lessons will be taught by Barbara and powered by SocMe Academy technology. They will allow us to talk to women about everything -- from maternal health and feminine hygiene, to makeup and hair tricks! I dont care where you are in the world but women love to look beautiful!
Follow Maria Bello: @maria_bello
Follow Brian Sirgutz: @sirgutz