Interview by Charlotte Chedeville, WIL Forum’s Project Manager
Naseba Global WIL Economic Forum places a particular emphasis on social impact, promoting collective action to build a more sustainable future. In addition to name famous headline speakers, the agenda features many social entrepreneurs, change-makers and game changers.
Leading up to the forum, we will be publishing personal interviews to help you get to know some of our speakers – and understand how they fit into the broader agenda. A former UN Peacekeeper, HRH Princess Tessy de Luxembourg has also worked as an ambassador for UNAIDS (Global Advocate for Young Women and Adolescent Girls) and has been appointed patron to UNA-UK.
We sat with Her Royal Highness to learn from Her experience and hear more abour Her commitment to providing equal access to education.
You used to work as a UN peacekeeper – a sometimes harsh and largely male-dominated environment. What has this experience taught you most?
I was deployed in 2004 for five months and this is still, by far, the most enriching experience of my professional life. It taught me that everything is possible. Of course, as as the only female member of my draft, it was sometimes hard to work in this very male-led environment. However, I saw the potential of this opportunity and knew that, if I embraced the challenge and worked as hard as I could, I would be able to succeed – and I did. I learned that communication between men and women is a critical component to a successful mission.
In your piece for The Telegraph, you explained that the core of your job was of a very different nature – that, to you, it was the opportunity to support women and girls in conflict zones. What do you believe is the role of women in supporting and encouraging other women?
I strongly believe that women should stand strong with each other in all circumstances – good and bad. Men surely do the same. My experience as a peacekeeper laid the foundation for my present and future ambitions to make this world a better place for all. As a peacekeeper, I was exposed for the first time in my life (that was the first time I was away from home ever at the age of 18) to the harsh reality that men and women in conflict zones endure on a daily basis. It was a wake-up call for me. I realised that the sheltered and safe environment I was blessed to enjoy at home was not the norm for everyone. While in Kosovo, I met incredibly strong local women who talked to me about their lives, their fears and their hopes for the future. Over the 5 months that I spent in deployment, I became a point of contact for these wonderful and incredible women. They spoke to me about the abuse they suffered, the loss of their homes and family members, the history of their conflict. I heard first-hand how they were living it, rather than the media telling their story for them. It was eye-opening. I knew that I needed to grow up even faster and invest my time in the empowerment of women, young girls and adolescent women. That is where I see I can add value as a woman: I was able to connect with these women at that time in a way that no man could have. This strong biological bond between women needs to be cherished and reinforced wherever possible.
You are the mother of two boys. Much is being said about the need to shift mindsets and challenge the stereotypes that surround masculinity as well. How do you approach gender bias with them – is this something you talk about?
I recognise the strength of men and women, each in their own right. It is important to align both genders in a balanced and constructive way. Both complement each other beautifully. I teach my boys to treat each and every person they meet with respect and interest. Each one of us has his or her strengths, weaknesses and unique skill set. This is the beauty of diversity and it is needed for our societies to grow constructively in these modern and vibrant times. I believe that we need to support and amplify the voices of each one of us, especially the ones that are being silenced due to radical ideology. This work has to start with our young generations. They are our future. Respect is earned through our individual actions – irrespective of gender, and everyone deserves to live with dignity. Let’s work together in order to make the future a future for all.
You are the co-founder of Professors Without Borders, a non-for-profit dedicated to providing higher-education opportunities in the developing world. What inspired you to start this venture?
I think education is a gift that should be enjoyed and spread around the world, and I believe in equal opportunities. When it comes to quality education, no one should be left behind because of their background, social status or simply because of their place of birth. My aspiration is to expand and work with young people around the world to help them find their own calling through education and skill based training- one person at the time.
Prowibo focuses on summer schools. Many would argue these are too short to really have an impact – what is the business case for these short-term courses?
If short courses did not add value, many corporate trainers and even the executive MBA courses would go out of business. The advantage of a short course is that you are able to channel students’ attention and energy constructively – because you both know the course is of short duration, there is maximum interest to get the most out of it.
Short courses do not suffer from student (and teacher) fatigue the way long drawn-out courses do. We have been delighted by the results and progress our students have made growing in confidence and developing their professional and academic skills over our two-week courses.
This summer, Prowibo successfully delivered summer schools in Sierra Leone, Thailand and Uganda. Can you tell us about one person, group or story that particularly touched you since you started?
Our first year in Sierra Leone, we were teaching at an all-boys school, but had invited some women to join the course. At the beginning, we noted that the boys would not listen to their female counterparts and would speak over them. Our lecturers, including two women and one man, changed this culture by explaining to the students why they had to listen and value every person’s contribution. By the end of the course, students would be quiet and listen to each other. Imagine bringing this change back into each student’s home!
You are still a relatively young enterprise but interestingly already have a global team. Managing people with different backgrounds and scattered geographically is something many struggle with. How do you ensure a strong cohesion within the team and inculcate the same values remotely?
The goodwill, energy and support our volunteers have shown to our organisation has been truly humbling. With a shared vision and belief in the power of education, cultural differences seem to mostly melt away. We are driven by a common desire to make a difference, and while everyone has their ideas and perspectives, we have space to listen to each other, test out new approaches, and ultimately make decisions with the support of the team.
Many individuals and organisations want to give back, but many feel they don’t have much to offer. There is that idea that, in order to be impactful, you need a lot of capital or have free time to be on the ground. What advice would you give to those who wish to have a positive impact on society?
Funnily enough, I get asked this question very often. My answer to this is always the same: “Look out of the window”. You’re probably wondering, what is she talking about? Let me explain: when one person looks out of the window, they see many causes that need support such as the environment, human rights, infrastructure development, education, healthcare, etc. One or a few of these issues will speak to you. That’s how it starts. The most important advice I would give is: Only get involved in causes that really speak to you.
Then, the amount of time or money you put into this calling is entirely up to you. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have millions to donate or hours every day to put aside for it, it matters that you care and that you trying to make a difference. Impact has many ways to work through you. One way could be a conversation with a friend who, in turn, will talk to their friend… you see where I am going… then, moneywise, one will always find a way to collect a few coins here and there. Little by little, in adds up. Time, it is true, is your most valuable commodity. The minute you spend reading this interview of mine is a minute you will never get back (I hope you find it interesting). Therefore, invest your time in causes, people (don’t exclude yourself) and things you really care about and ‘impact’ while occur naturally. There are many layers to how far one can go with ‘impact’. You will feel when you’re ready to give more, do more, and when you have the right network to support you.
You will be speaking at the Global WIL Economic Forum this October. What do you look forward to the most?
I am honored to be speaking at the WIL Forum. It is a platform that helps me amplify my voice in the domains of women empowerment, education and human rights. Moreover, it is a great place to re-connect with old friends and fellow advocates for change such as Dr. Obama. I am sure it will be a wonderful experience.