How to Live an Interesting Life
When Barbara Bylenga helped a young Rwandan woman get into a U.S. college, she didn’t know it would change her own life
Barbara Bylenga was running her own market research company in San Francisco and mentoring female entrepreneurs in Rwanda when a young woman there asked for help getting into a US college. Working with that one student back in 2009 led her to establish a thriving organization called SHE-CAN (Supporting Her Education Changes a Nation). Fifty-six scholars from post-conflict countries (Cambodia, Rwanda, and soon, Liberia) now attend 25 US colleges on full scholarships and 220 American women work in teams of five to mentor each girl.
Bylenga spends much of her time on the road these days, recruiting scholars abroad and building her network of schools, mentors, and supporters. Here she talks with TheCovey about the twisting path that led to the “interesting life” she craved.
Peggy Northrop: As I recall, you didn’t really have a plan when you began this venture. It almost started as an accident. Is that fair?
Barbara Bylenga: I think I was looking to do something like this without admitting it to myself. I’d had a career in advertising and then I ran my own market research company for 14 years, and it was going, you know, fine. But in my head, I was ready for something else.
When the crash of 2008-09 hit, the lease was up on our office in San Francisco and we decided to close it. I still had some projects, but gradually my employees found other things to do. And I just knew I wasn’t going to grow old as a trend researcher.
The crash, in retrospect, was my ticket out. I picked up that card and thought, this is my chance. I need to find out, what’s my next thing? I sold my house in 2009. I wanted to be free. I took a break and went and lived in Paris for three months.
Saying Yes to Everything
Peggy Northrop: You’d been volunteering in Rwanda for some time when the crash happened. How did that experience help you start SHE-CAN?
Barbara Bylenga: I had been to Rwanda several times with an organization called BPeace. The first time I just went to teach the mentees how to do a response card for their business — basic marketing. Then my mentee wanted to do a beauty school for genocide orphans and I was asked to spearhead that. I remember sitting there thinking, “You know what, just say yes. Say yes to everything.” And that’s what I did.
I was having a ton of fun with the beauty school, but that never got funded, because after the crash who was going to fund a beauty school in Rwanda? But then the daughter of the woman I was mentoring asked me to help her get into a US school and I said yes again.
I came home thinking I was just going to talk to her. But some friends got really excited and said, “Let’s get her into Wellesley. Let’s get her into Bucknell.” She ended up going to Bucknell. She would come and visit me on Christmas and at spring break, and my friends thought it was really fun. So the light bulb went off: I knew all these women with good connections and passion. And then there were all these amazing young women and schools are looking for amazing girls.
That was the beginning of the model for SHE-CAN.
If I were asked to list one of my lessons, that’s what it would be: Just say yes. Don’t overthink it. I think the universe brings you these things and if nothing else you’re going to learn from them. But they open up other doors.
Refusing to be Deterred by False Starts
Peggy Northrop: I’m always curious about the ideas left behind on the cutting room floor, because most people experiment with, or at least think about, a few different things before they launch something new. Was SHE-CAN the only idea you tossed around? What did you reject?
Barbara Bylenga: After I sold my house, I stayed with two of my friends, one of whom was an architect and the other a decorator. We called it Girl Camp. They’d helped me build a cabin in Tahoe, and I have a passion for cleaned-up junk antiques. It was when all of those furniture sites were launching, like One Kings Lane, so I wanted to do something like that.
We’d sit around at dinner and I’d say, “We have to talk about this idea, we’ve got to do this.” But you know when people are not all in. I don’t know if it could have worked, but in talking through the idea, it made me realize that I was serious.
I started to realize what I might be able to do in Rwanda (to get more young women scholarships at US colleges). I had a lot of expertise in hard-to-find people for market research so I knew how to find the girls. And I had this whole network in Rwanda because of the beauty school. I asked friends in Rwanda for feedback on my idea and they said, “Come!”
I decided that if there were enough frequent flyer miles in my account to get to Rwanda, I’d go. I didn’t have any money. I wasn’t working and I wasn’t going to spend my savings. And I looked, and there were enough miles to get me there.
I went back to the same people that we’d been to for the beauty school. They loved the idea, connected us with some local organizations and then we were rocking and rolling. We picked seven women; I found somebody to teach them the SAT and I came home and found mentors for them.
Peggy Northrop: Did you always have the idea of a group of mentors for each girl? Speaking as a SHE-CAN mentor myself, giving women a way to work together on a project like this is a big part of the appeal.
Barbara Bylenga: No, in the beginning, it was just one. Then somebody said, “This was really fun, but I wish I’d had my friends helping me.”
Peggy Northrop: What has surprised you about building this organization?
Barbara Bylenga: What surprises me is that there are a lot of senior women who are interested in us. It struck a nerve. Melanne Verveer (the first US Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, now at Georgetown University) spoke at our gala in 2017. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia met with us. When I reach out to the executive director of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, she writes me back immediately and introduces me to anyone I want to know.
I feel like there’s energy at a high level. That’s what I’m on fire about now.
“Sometimes people think you should know how to do it all, and you don’t. You can’t.”
– Barbara Bylenga
Experiencing the Roughness of a Startup — But Never Turning Back
Peggy Northrop: You’re becoming a role model for women who want to start international organizations. I met someone at an event recently who said, “I’ve got to talk to Barb Bylenga and figure out how she grew her organization so fast.” What can you pass on to other women who might be interested in following in your footsteps?
Barbara Bylenga: I had no idea how to run a nonprofit, so I hired a consultant in the nonprofit world. I could not have done it without her. She worked with me for three hours a week for seven years and really helped me figure it out. I think sometimes people think you should know how to do it all and you don’t. You can’t.
I’m sure I asked a lot of really stupid questions. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. For instance, in the beginning, all the girls applied to school regular decision. And do you know why? Because I’d never heard of early decision. I just kept meeting with people and eventually figured it out.
The other thing that really impacted me was being a part of BPeace. BPeace was only three years old when I started as a volunteer, so I knew all the key women, and I watched everything. I saw them make mistakes, I saw them start and stop; I experienced the roughness of starting something. And I look back now and realize, they kept on going, they didn’t let it hold them back, which helped me say, “I can do this. I don’t have to do it perfectly.”
Peggy Northrop: What do you want people to know about getting involved as a mentor with SHE-CAN?
Barbara Bylenga: Often people tell me that it helps them feel more like global citizens — not just them as individuals, but their family and networks too. When [the opposition party was banned in the recent Cambodian election], we were all riveted by the news, when before Cambodia wouldn’t have been on our radar. The same with Rwanda. When your scholar comes, and your kids or your neighbors meet them, then they’re paying attention too. I believe that when people are connected personally, when they care personally, then change can happen.
Plus, one of our mentors who has four children always says, “Christmas is just better once your scholar is in your life. Everyone is on their best behavior!”
Peggy Northrop: Back in 2009 when you sold your house and started trying to figure out your next thing, could you have imagined this? Is this what you wanted it to be?
Barbara Bylenga: This is exactly what I want. I didn’t envision what the model would be. But I knew I wanted a more interesting life. I wanted to know interesting people, I wanted friends that made me grow.
I’m traveling all the time and people say, How can you stand being gone so much? But I’m going to conferences and schools and meeting passionate people, and it is exactly what I wanted. Every day I say, Wow, I got it.