Empowering Girls and Women with Sara Suri

On this episode we talk with Sara Surani proud Rotarian and the co-founder of She is the Universe.

In this inspiring conversation we talk about empowerment, steminism and hope.

Learn more about Sara and She is the Universe here:



Peter Tonge 0:20
Welcome to this episode of Talking Rotary. I’m Peter Tonge, and I’m a member of the Rotary Club of Winnipeg Charleswood.

Mandy Kwasnica 0:26
And I am Mandy Kwasnica Past President and also a member of the Rotary Club of Winnipeg, Charleswood. We are so happy you have joined us here and I are so excited for the new podcast and thankful to our many listeners. Let’s start talking Rotary.

Peter Tonge 1:07
Hi, everyone, I’m Peter Tonge, and welcome to another episode of Talking Rotary. I’m here with Sara Suranu and Sara is in Corpus Christi, Texas. Sarah, how are you?

Sara Surani 1:18
I’m great. Hi, Peter. Nice to meet you.

Peter Tonge 1:20
Nice to meet you, too. Now for listeners around the world. Can you explain to them where Corpus Christi Texas is?

Sara Surani 1:27
Yes, Corpus Christi is right down in South Texas in the United States, close to the Mexico and US border.

Peter Tonge 1:35
Okay, but that’s not where you spend all of your time. Currently, you’re doing some work at a Boston right?

Sara Surani 1:41
Yes, yes, I am mostly based in Boston. At the moment. I’m teaching a course helping teach a course on storytelling and community mobilization.

Peter Tonge 1:51
Oh, cool. And you went to school in Boston to write you went to Harvard?

Sara Surani 1:55
Yes, yes, I went to Harvard. So I’ll be back at Harvard in the fall, helping them the teaching team with this course.

Peter Tonge 2:00
Oh, that’s fantastic. I don’t spend a lot of time on Boston. But I’m a Big Red Sox fan. So when I get to Boston, I’ve been to Fenway a couple of times. So that’s my connection to Boston, that and I grew up in the east coast of Canada. And on the East Coast, there’s kind of more affinity to New England, and there is due to sort of further Western Canada. So lots of time in Maine and Boston. And, you know, that kind of stuff. Yeah. So listeners may recognize your name, because late in season two, I interviewed your mom, and all the great public health work that that she and your family were doing. And she spoke so proudly of the work you were doing, I wanted to get a chance to talk to you. So maybe we can start you can tell us about your foundation. She is a universe.

Sara Surani 2:53
Yes, absolutely. So she is a universe. We’re a global nonprofit. We’re a 501 C three registered in the United States. And our main goal is to empower young girls globally, through a community through leadership, through storytelling, and through a different educational programming and mentorship. So we do this, we currently have girls over 50 countries, and have reached hundreds of girls from all around the world. So we’re very excited because now we’re at the point in our program, where just about only even six months ago, it was me and my co founder, Laura Pena, who are facilitating all these workshops and educational programming. there right now we have three amazing interns who have helped train 25 other community leaders to facilitate these programs. So now we’re, we’re scaling even more provided free educational resources and community are girls everywhere.

Peter Tonge 3:52
That’s fantastic. Because then you as the founders can spend more time doing the long term visioning and the planning instead of the day to day stuff, I guess,

Sara Surani 4:02
Exactly. But it’s the day to day stuff that I love the most, right? Like I love, even just one on one calls with girls seeing what they’re up to like designing the programs, seeing how the individual change of people growing over time. And you know, even girls who are, you know, maybe uncomfortable speaking English or English as a second language a couple of years ago, and now they’re the ones leading the programs. So it’s amazing and very empowering to see that empowerment and action.

Peter Tonge 4:32
Absolutely. And I will share your website with the listeners. But even looking at the website, you can you can almost see the transition of some of the folks that are there.

Sara Surani 4:44
Yeah, really, really can. It’s amazing.

Peter Tonge 4:48
So can you can you give me an example of a particular program or particular element of a program and how it works?

Sara Surani 4:58
Absolutely. I think so. Initially Only it started as a project going over all around the world interviewing girls about their stories. But during the pandemic, we saw how so many people were so lonely, right? Because quarantine and the pandemic. And we noticed that sometimes young girls are the ones impacted most by it, right, especially in the context of maybe not having access to education, not having access to community, a lot of just gender dynamics as well. So we strive to create a community for girls, right? So we brought together girls from all over the world, once a month to just talk about different issues, whether it’s body image, whether it’s loneliness, whether it’s, you know, even like some professional development skills, and college and things like that. But as its grew, now, our programs have been focused on both personal development and professional development. So some examples of programs include, you know, like networking workshops, how to reach out to people, how you can solve big challenges with simple questions, how you can reach out to people you admire, as well as questions about what is your passion? What can you do about it? How can you contact people in your community? How can you create a change? How can one person change the world? Right? So these are kind of the things we talk about, in how we can, you know, and it’s very unique, you know, it’s the core of it, you know, it’s it’s service above self, right. But it’s also service and self, right. So how you take care of yourself and learn about yourself, but also center service in your life.

Peter Tonge 6:29
And even within the context of robbery, that should be the same for everyone, right? Not just serve as above, so that you can you can develop and grow as you’re doing it even as a as an adult, right? I like putting those two, two concepts together. Now, a lot of the concepts that you that you’ve talked about are are very universal building the communication skills and the confidence and, and all that, but because it’s international, are there ways that you have to adapt the programs to fit a particular culture or particular region?

Sara Surani 7:08
Oh, absolutely. So many ways. And in so many ways, we’re still learning to write now our program is bilingual. So where are we everything is in English and Spanish. And I guess Portuguese, because girls can also apply in Portuguese. But because it’s very global, we’re constantly learning, right? Like for one, time zones is a big thing, right? Because we have girls everywhere. We have programs at all times of the day, to account for different timezone people living in the Philippines, Iceland, Brazil, Indiana, Texas. But also another thing is just realizing how different things are, right? So we have this online platform called the galaxy where the girls can interact with each other. But you can learn and see how different some communities are. But how we’re all more similar than different. Okay? Well, for example, like in the US, there has been a great in the United States, because there’s been a great movement for more girls in STEM, right, like technology, engineering, computer science. And still, I mean, there’s, there are a lot fewer women than men in computer science, but there’s a movement towards it, right? Like the stemness movement. This isn’t the same in a lot of places. So we have a lot of girls from different countries around the world who are like, I’m the only girl in my in my science class, and I love science. But everyone believes me for loving science, which is not something I experienced growing up because I was still in this I grew up in this steminist age where where you were still, it’s, it’s something to be excited about because every girl everyone I met class was it was a girl. And so it’s interesting to see these these differences across countries, but also how everyone’s more similar than different because you see how people listen to similar music or because of globalization watching some like reading similar books right? There even everyone is just as in like a body image issues or being scared or impostor syndrome or not feeling good enough. These feelings are present everywhere. It doesn’t matter what culture you’re in.

Peter Tonge 9:12
There interesting. And I love that that phrase steminist is not one I’ve heard a lot before but it’s so appropriate. It really is. It really is. And that was my first my first career was in computer science. And at that time in the, you know, in the 1980s is very male dominated field. Right. So nice to see it changing. Slowly but surely zero. Yeah. Well, all the good things happen slowly but surely I think. Can you can you give give me one, maybe one example out of the foundation or out of the programs that really stands out to you that having the biggest impact?

Sara Surani 9:55
Yeah, so I think there are a couple things that stand out. The most powerful one for me was how Five years ago, I was doing I think four or four years ago, I was working in the middle of the Amazon jungle. And working with young girls there, right? And we were doing different storytelling and social entrepreneurship workshops there. And the one of the parts of the project was we were talking a lot about dreams, right? What dreams do we have for ourselves and our communities. And we gave everyone Polaroid cameras and told them to take a picture of their dream. And some girls have pictures of them wanting to be an engineer or doctor veterinarian or a mother or secretary. And then they kept these pictures and we built on it and worked on it. But these were very rural communities in the Amazon jungle, right, just to get a sense of how far it was from the Capitol in Lima. You would take a two and a half hour flight than a two and a half hour bus, then a two hour motorcycle, then a five to six hour canoe ride. Wow. Yeah, well, and so it was hard to you know, you don’t have technology, there’s no phone, there’s no Facebook. And so I hadn’t talked to some of these girls in a couple of years because the pandemic happened. And so after the pandemic, I was moving, I had gone back to Lima to Peru. And I was living in the capital. So I went back to the Capitol. And there was a fair going on, like art fair. And I walked into the art fair, and I recognized one of the girls there. And one of these girls was actually took this these, this grass from the jungle, the Amazon jungle called chum betta. It’s used a lot in craft, making artistry. And now was making her own bags and earrings and jewelry sell and was so successful, that she would all over the country was now presenting in the capital of his art fair. Wow. And she said that it was because of this workshop. And because it was the first time she was able to share her dream. And other people in her community were able to see the power and the skill that she had, and give her the support to actually create this business. And she had this picture of her saved on her saved rate of this picture. She first took in this workshop, and she said she wanted to be a secretary. And now she was having running her own business,

Peter Tonge 12:19
Running her own national business, basically. Yeah.

Sara Surani 12:24
Yeah. There’s so many stories like that as well. And there’s stories of girls were so shy to speak up in a workshop. And now the wanting now they’re running their own workshops. Right. Yeah,

Peter Tonge 12:38
I love it. Now, there there are lots of young people are out there in the world making an impact. But there’s, there’s there’s very few people that go out there and start their own international foundation. What took you down that path?

Sara Surani 12:53
Oh, I think it was I mean, every I wanted to say I had dreamed of this my whole life. But it was an almost an accident, right? I was working on this with other organizations and met my co founder in a coffee shop. And we were doing this because we care so much about this. We care so much about girls empowerment. Every single girl we care so much about and the power that they have, we believe so deeply in it. And it got to a point where we were like, I mean, we’re still working on this now is like, how do we sustain ourselves? You know, like, there as we move, we are both in person. And online. We also have in person, leadership camps for girls. Right? So how do we get funding, right? If people want to donate, they want to donate to a 501 C three nonprofit. And so some of this so much of becoming an international foundation come from this need. And this thing that oh my god, we’re getting bigger. Now. What do we do? We need to raise money. Yeah, you have to apply to become a nonprofit. Right? So other artists, other people can walk alongside us.

Peter Tonge 14:01
Yeah. And then all the all the mechanisms that come with that the online they in the website and the ability to donate, you know that.

Sara Surani 14:10
Exactly, exactly, exactly.

Peter Tonge 14:12
Well, that that’s amazing, because that will help you remain sustainable. I mean, that’s the interesting, the interesting.

Rotary Ad 14:23
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Peter Tonge 14:52
The other thing that comes across my mind is as these girls go through the system, and they get on over and some are starting their own businesses and all that. Where do you see the path is as these young women age?

Sara Surani 15:07
Yeah, so a big thing is like when they age currently, they’re around 13 to 20. mostly focus on. And usually notice when they come to college, that’s when they have an opportunity to become mentors. Okay, it’s a ripple effect, right? And so, so much of our programming is, we very much believe that talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not.

Peter Tonge 15:30
So, listeners can’t see me do that. But I’m nodding my head, like a bobblehead.

Sara Surani 15:39
Yeah, talent is equally distributed, but opportunity, it’s not. And we want to make sure that it’s accessible and available to every girl who would like to be a part of it, right? Regardless of where she’s from, what she is what goes on what you know, like, it doesn’t matter. She’s a part of it, right? It’s free for all girls. And so because of that, what we do is that a lot of girls who benefit from this program, and the workshops often then start to run it, right, run their own workshops, or become mentors for other girls, or to help them on their college applications or apply for scholarships or things like that. So more than anything more than like a pipeline or like a, you know, like a ladder, where we’re creating as a as a community, we’re creating a circle.

Peter Tonge 16:25
Yeah, which is then getting reinforced by things like your mechanism of the universe, and that kind of stuff is just reinforced in the community.

Sara Surani 16:34
Exactly. Yeah. And so it’s powerful, because when you girls are a part of cheese universe, they’re like, Oh, my God, I have friends from all over the world. My community is, is so much bigger than just me. It’s everywhere. I can go anywhere and find a girl from she’s universe and we’ll know, right? Just like Rotary, like rotary is very similar in the sense that you can go all around the world, it’ll make Rotarians Yep. Like rotary is a community like that. You had to do something that ties you it’s invisible bond.

Peter Tonge 17:02
Absolutely. And before we leave, she’s universe the other. The other thing that I’m wondering about is, are you getting feedback from your participants about this is where we would like to go next, or as a community should, should we try this?

Sara Surani 17:18
Oh, my God, so much feedback. I mean, we’re working with 13 to 20 year old girls, there’s always feedback. I think the biggest thing is we’re trying to see how we could transition where over the pandemic, we were online and virtual. But as the as it’s become more the world is changing and evolving. We’re also implementing in person leadership workshop workshops. So we actually had our first leadership retreat in the Dominican Republic, giving every girl a full scholarship. For in April, May, late April, early May. And so we’re trying to have more of this right, bring people together girls from all over different countries. So trying to do one in Liberia or bring together girls from all over Liberia would love to do one of the US, we’d love to do more and more in person. Because if there’s a different power in it as well, right. And then these girls eventually can can facilitate workshops in their own communities, especially in rural areas that we may not have access to, because of a lack of zoom, right? And then these girls can also become part of an online community where they can facilitate more workshops.

Peter Tonge 18:27
I think that I think that was absolutely fabulous. I’d love to see right here, what’s going on there. Now let’s, let’s talk a little bit about your involvement as rotary because you come from a rotary family. Both mom and dad are Rotarians and very much well involved in and when did you start in your rotary right?

Sara Surani 18:50
Oh, I started back in 2020 20. It’s been two years, I think, a year and a half.

Peter Tonge 18:56
2020 Yeah. 2020 around there. Yeah.

Sara Surani 18:58
Yeah, yes. And so I think I started mostly because I saw the power and impact of Rotary. And I realized it really resonated with you know, you know, this, this emphasis on service. And this emphasis on like, this global community of people who really care about serving other people. And I first I’d heard about Rotary for a while. I did RYLA when I was younger, I was exposed to Rotary in that way. But also when I was working, even when I was working on an education program and a rural part of Lima, Peru. It was the Rotarians who funded that project. Lima who was involved with that education project. So everywhere I go, I’d go to public parks and see the Rotary wheel. So I’m always curious about it. I was appliances everywhere Rotary is everywhere. And that piqued my interest and then my mom got more involved a mom’s a very active Rotarian half her wardrobe. We joke, her entire closet that’s just Rotary shirts.

Peter Tonge 19:57
Has a wheel on everything, right? Yeah.

Sara Surani 20:00
Rotary shirts, Rotary scarf, Rotary earrings. You name it Rotary backpack. She’s She’s Rotary right? And very engaged. She’s like, I think you would enjoy this. Because think about rotary that you’re connected to people all over the world and all over the world, you feel a little bit less alone. I can go to the Dominican Republic and meet someone from Rotary. I can go to Spain and meet some locomotory. Last week, two weeks ago, I was at a conference in Portland, Oregon. Right? I was at a conference and I met another woman who is a Rotarian. And we talked about it. So it’s like we’re everywhere.

Peter Tonge 20:38
Yeah, absolutely. That’s what I like about retail is all the international connections. And that’s part of the reason why. I mean, every everybody complains about the pandemic, and about zoom and all that, frankly, this podcast wouldn’t exist with Zoom. And it’s allowed me to meet people from all over the world and their different perspectives, even within the confines of rotary right? It’s so bright, and there’s so many impacts. We interviewed a fellow last year that was doing water projects in Laos, who said, Oh, yeah, how many? How many families have you impacted? And I forget the precise number, but it was something in the range of 35,000. And he said it like it was 10 45,000. We sort of stopped for a minute and said, did you just say 35,000? Oh, yeah, 35,000 families. It was just in this gives me such great opportunities to learn about all that stuff. I love it. It’s one of my favorite things to do.

Sara Surani 21:51
Oh, I think we could talk about, um, I think one thing that’s been alive on my mind a lot is that there’s been so much so much going on in the world in terms of so many hard, challenging, sad tragedies, right? And I would love to talk about the different things that give us hope in this world.

Peter Tonge 22:11
All right, let’s talk about hope. I’m all for that. What? What are the things that give you hope?

Sara Surani 22:17
Me what gives me hope, um, I think a lot of young people, right, I was just on this call, with this group called the Latin American Leadership Academy right before this, and they empower teens from Latin America. And they had this call and all these, these youth and these different guests. And I’m always reminded from that, as well as some of the girls from she is the universe, about how powerful young people are, and also how powerful their stories are. And it gives me hope, because a lot of young people, they don’t know what’s impossible yet. So they live a world. And they, they, they’re walking in a world and you’re walking as if nothing is impossible. And their dreams are so big. And that gives me hope to talk to people with such big dreams.

Peter Tonge 23:09
I agree in it as as, as a as an older person. I often see this and I say the great thing about young people is nobody’s told them that you can’t do this, right? If you came to me as a 59 year old person and said, Hey, we should start an international foundation out of the 12 bucks we have in our bank account. I might be reelected. But you guys forged ahead because you believed in it. Nobody told you you couldn’t do it.

Sara Surani 23:36
It’s also like, I mean, you mentioned you meant you’re 59 years old. Yeah. The cool thing about that is that like that’s still so young people say that right now, if we live to 100 years old, you have your whole life, like how old you are right now imagine having you’re gonna live that all over again.

Peter Tonge 23:56
I certainly hope so, because I have so much stuff I want to do.

Sara Surani 24:01
And so that gives me hope because you’re like, wow, you’re you’re so young. You can do anything like what you know, you could do literally you could do anything there’s, you have the time, sometimes we lack energy, but sometimes hope we get more energy.

Peter Tonge 24:15
I appreciate that confidence because I feel that way I feel like you know I need so much more time because I have so many things I want to do during the worldwide Shelterbox community to receive exclusive email updates, but we’re social solar box is currently working in the world. You’ll be joining a community of passionate individuals who are impatient to see a world where no one is left for their shelter after disaster. Head over to www dot Shelterbox canada.org/signup so on on the path of hope if we could get out or or basket of hope and And our crystal ball. Where do you want to see she’s the universe in the next five or 10 years.

Sara Surani 25:07
Like I would love to. I mean, we imagine she’s universes. That every every young girl is a part of, right. And every young girl has access to a community. And she feels really accepted and loved and empowered to be who she wants to be and step into her power. And we want to expand to more countries, right? So we would love to do in person leadership camps in every country. So every country, we have different camps. And so there are little hubs everywhere in every single country. So that together, you haven’t in a country version, but that you have a global, like, universe, international community as well, but you’re connected to. So that’s, I think, for that we need, we have people who are excited. But I think the biggest thing that we’re right now, well, that’s holding us back a little bit. It’s just funds, because people want to be involved. And we want to make sure that that things stay free for everyone. But sometimes that can be a limiting factor and how we can scale because we’re We’re a small team, we’re a movement, right. But, and that’s the beautiful thing is that with the leaders that we have, we believe that leadership isn’t wearing a lot of hats, it’s empowering people to wear hats. And the amazing interns we have who are teen girls, have empowered so many other team girls to wear hats. So now this movement is not being led by like the co founder, it’s not being led by the co founders, it’s being led by the girls what was intended to impact in the first place. And to want to continue that want to continue the face of his organization being those young girls.

Peter Tonge 26:51
And clearly you’re doing it in the right way. Because I will remind you that you told me that you started as two people in a coffee shop. And now there’s interns and they’re training 25 more people. And so it’s like the old television commercial, I’ll tell a few friends and you tell two friends. And you know,

Sara Surani 27:11
Exactly, it’s a ripple effect. Right. And you do the it reminds me of the story of one of the girls in our program. Her name is Nick Galletti, she lives in the Dominican Republic. And during the pandemic, we also give scholarships to girls, right. So she’s also one of our scholarship recipients for higher education. And she is passionate about education, and Montessori education, right. And so she lives in the Dominican Republic, and she was working a full time job. And during the pandemic, she noticed that kids didn’t have access to school. So in her backyard, she opened the school. Wow. And there were 10 kids, like under five years old at her school, and to teach them every day. And neighbors would come to her and be like, Why are you spending so much time? Why are you wasting so much time you only have 10 kids, like you’re doing so much work just for these 10 kids. And she just laughed. And she said, these aren’t just 10 Kids, because these 10 kids will teach 10 More kids, and they will teach 10 more kids. And then you you’re you’re then you’re not teaching 10 Kids, you’re teaching 100 or 1000. And you’re not just teaching 10 Kids, you’re educating the generation that I’m not just educating 10 Kids, I’m educating a generation. And that’s kind of the work that we’re doing, right. It’s like it might be you know, 300 people, 400 500 people, 600 people, but that’s not true. Because the skill is that we teach these girls and leadership and empowerment and community building and how to how to be a facilitator, for example, how to hold space for other people, how to learn tools to you know, create change in your community. It’s those 600 700 Girls are each working with 10 more. And then you have 7000. And those are each working with 10 more. And then you have 70,000 You also it’s like it keeps growing. So there’s never like with with scaling numbers. Like it’s amazing when you think in the ripple effect.

Peter Tonge 29:13
Yep, exactly. Exactly. It is. And that that. That brings us back to the hope How can you not have hope in that? Exactly. And having that kind of impact. Oh, sir. There’s only one standard question in in the podcast. And it’s simply this. You could be spending your time and your energy and your money on anything. Why do you spend your time energy and money on Rotary?

Sara Surani 29:44
Oh, I feel like the reason I do it is because it’s it’s not. It’s not just rotary isn’t just you know, Rotary is a community. Rotary is a community of people who care and community Here’s the foundation of everything. In community in rotary people believe in you, right? And rotary will believe in other people. And sometimes when you don’t believe in yourself, it’s really helpful to surround yourself with people who do. And surround yourself with people who really care and surround yourself with people who are willing to go the extra step or the extra mile, just to support and be there for someone even if they don’t know that. Yeah.

Peter Tonge 30:28
That’s why I love it. Thank you so much, sir. been a great conversation. I appreciate it very much.

Sara Surani 30:36
Thank you Peter.

Mandy Kwasnica 31:05
Thank you so much for joining us on another great episode of talking Rotary. We would love to hear from you. Please send us your comments and story ideas and you can share with us easily by sending us an email at feedback at talking rotary.org Let’s keep talking Rotary.

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