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A Word with Parvoleta Shtereva

Posted 19 July 2023 in EMpower News   |   Share

Recently EMpower’s President and CEO Cynthia Steele spoke with Parvoleta Shtereva, a CIO at Gemcorp Capital and longstanding member and former Co-Chair of our UK Board. They spoke about philanthropy, learning from our partners and young people, staying humble, and more.

You’re one of the directors who has visited many of our programmes. What are some of your key takeaways? 

First and most important: understanding. We think that after so many years, we know the programmes and their purpose. But of course, visiting and seeing the environment and the circumstances of both our grantee partners and the young people they serve really adds so much in the way of understanding—and also a connection with the young people. Forever more when this grant comes up, you have such a clarity of why this particular intervention is needed, why they're doing it this way. I know how much these young people enjoy and appreciate it.

I remember being with kids in South Africa who were orphaned. Some of them were talking about the experience of being an immigrant, coming to a new place and not having friends and not knowing how things work. I could relate to that even if the circumstances were very different: I came to London when I was 18, and it was a very difficult time of adjustment. There was this unexpected realisation that we have something in common. In that moment, I wasn't a donor or foreigner. I was just another immigrant. I was able to share the experience and to tell them, “I felt that way too. You're not alone.” That was just a moment of time and there have been many more like that. 

That's really powerful for them, too, because they probably wouldn't have imagined that they have something in common with you either. To see that it’s possible, that like you, they can get to a better reality. 

Yes, a second aspect is learning. it's incredible that so many of our grantee partners do research and develop methodology, and all of the tools and the ways they have to help young people and children with some very important life skills—to be able to deal with an environment and circumstances that are very traumatic. Some of these teachings are probably universal. The grantee partners we support really understand the people that they're trying to help and what's needed—rather than coming with preconceptions. 

I'm proud that we support grassroots organisations that were started and run by people that either come from that community or have worked with the community. They provide very tailored solutions and that special understanding of the young people they work with. I'm proud of our staff. The way that they engage with the organisations—all the work that we do to help them with their programmes and understanding of the global environment and challenges. Connecting them with each other to be able to exchange their knowledge and understand that they're not alone with these kinds of issues. This is very important work. 

Lastly, I'm very grateful that I've been fortunate in my life to be involved with EMpower—to have this opportunity to meet the organisations, to meet the young people. I’m also very grateful that we have such a connected and vibrant emerging market community that has nurtured and embraced EMpower over the years. 

I love and echo these sentiments. In terms of your own learning about philanthropy, how has it been shaped by your connection and board service with EMpower? 

Infinitely. Everything, pretty much, that I know about philanthropy, I know from being involved with EMpower. One of the great things about EMpower is that it involves and engages its donors and board members so much and actually gives some important decision powers to the board members. Something that was surprising for me—and I think would be surprising for a lot of people—is that philanthropy is not so different from investing. Underneath the very inspirational purpose and mission, there is a lot of very meticulous, detailed work: on the programmes, on fundraising, making sure that we're very disciplined and accountable in the way that we deploy the funds, making some very tough decisions in terms of turning down certain things, encouraging others. The understanding that you can't help everybody, and have to really focus—and also continuously learning from our staff. 

We've invested in these countries for a long time and we think we know them; we think we know what the issues are. Most of us are intellectual, we kind of live in our heads and are very rational most of the time. We think we know better. Then we have these exchanges and debates with the staff and have an “a-ha” moment of, “wait a minute, I actually don't understand and I never thought about this.” For example, the realisation that no matter how good and valuable your assistance is, you have to engage the local community, you have to engage the parents, you have to make sure that on the ground, this is well understood and accepted to be successful. 

Sometimes the things that matter are very simple. I remember in Ghana, the seamstresses that learned to repair their sewing machines. Besides how much time that saved them, they also gained a community to talk about their life beyond their small business, to be a support network for each other. There's so much that I never really thought about or understood before, that I know now. For our staff, this is their profession and their life. This is where EMpower is so amazing: you put together a bunch of investment professionals and the subject-matter specialists, and in the exchanges and debates that ensue, something wonderful happens. 

It's not just about granting the money, it's growing our understanding of each other's thought processes and priorities. I feel like we've grown together: the staff and the longstanding directors and supporters. I always tell people philanthropy is not glorious, and in a lot of its moments, not even inspirational. It's this kind of very methodical, meticulous labor of love, but it is labour. 

I love the way that you're describing the journey and the relationship between the board and other stakeholders and the staff. I think fundamentally there's a lot of trust and mutual respect and that's the foundation.

And humility. I'm humbled every time. Right? There's so much about this that I still don't know, and I don't understand. Every time we have a meeting or go for a visit or discuss a grant, I'm constantly learning something. 

I feel the exact same way. With our partners and with young people, we never come in as though we're the experts but rather say “you're the experts and we're here to learn together with you.” Last question: the world's a mess, what is it that gives you hope? 

The human spirit. I think it's very easy to forget—especially in modern society—because so much of our information flow is about clicks and of course, negative news. Sensationalism sells. I think it's easy to forget that humans have this incredible power to heal and overcome and create. I don't know that we see enough of that. I found a quote recently that I absolutely loved, which is from an ecologist, David Orr. He said, “The planet doesn't need more successful people, but it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind.” I thought this was a wonderful quote, and that's my hope: that we are and can be one of these things, at least in a small way, every day. 

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