International Women’s Day!

So many women have influenced our lives. Some are relatives; some are internationally famous for their tireless achievements toward an equitable world. We interviewed some of Shanta’s courageous leaders about their experience as female leaders.

Tricia Karpfen, Co-Founder of Shanta Foundation

My leadership values have likely looked different from more conventional ideas of leadership approaches. Its roots were planted when as a young woman of 20 I lived in a Buddhist monastery in Thailand and learned to watch my breath in meditation. The ability to pay attention in the moment and be deeply curious about life and that of others became the basis for all work I took on in the world, from delivering corporate leadership retreats to practicing acupuncture and founding Shanta Foundation with Mike.

My style as a leader, whether in Shanta’s villages or board meetings and as a consultant and trainer, is to be the “guide on the side.”  My intent is to encourage what is already known and developed in others to emerge more. A hallmark of the early work in Myanmar with local staff was facilitating their own self-observation and their ability to be present in the moment with acceptance and caring in the village communities.

The biggest barrier I encountered throughout my life was the cultural bias towards linear thought and language based knowing. I seem to have a predominance of what are called feminine traits – intuitive knowing, deep-felt senses, and nurturing impulses. I have learned to listen deeply to myself and develop the patience to translate my instinctive knowing into a more cognitively based expression.

I think leaders that contribute most to the well-being of the world create a natural balance in their own lives originating from their self-awareness. Leadership that I have expressed in my life is the same to me as living a life well-lived: being honest with myself, caring about the happiness of others, and listening deeply. This is the attitude that led me to the original Shanta villages and subsequently to developing Muditar staff members. Approaching the development work with the humility of knowing they knew more about their lives and needs than we ever would be able to know.


Arlen Weiner, Shanta Foundation Board President

Who inspired you to be a leader, and why?

I was very lucky to grow up surrounded by strong women who inspired me. This includes my mom who demonstrated what it meant to be a confident and professional woman, as well as my sister who was always a role model for me.

How did you get involved with Shanta Foundation?

Shanta’s co-founders are my aunt and uncle, so Shanta has been part of my life since its start. I was always so inspired by Mike and Tricia’s work, so when my career took me in the direction of international development, I wanted to contribute my skills to further Shanta’s mission.

What do you think are the benefits of having women in leadership roles?

Women often have unique perspectives, especially because of how they have been positioned in society. I think this is true for most groups of people, which is why diversity in general is so important to an organization. I also think having women in leadership positions provides role models for other young women and helps advance issues that are important to women – such as reproductive health, pay equity, and many others.

How can women plan to juggle work, family life (if they choose to have children), and self-care?

Women need to be honest about what they want and then communicate it assertively. We spend a lot of time worrying that other people will think we are slacking off if we make time for family or self-care, but we are whole people with complex lives – and should not be afraid to ask for what we need to balance those things. I also think we cannot put it all on women to juggle these things – we really need to look at the systems in place in our workplaces, and then advocate for reforming these systems to better serve women.

What advice do you have for women looking to become leaders in their industry?

Work hard, meet as many people as you can, learn as much as you can – and have fun doing it.


Dr.Khaing Zar Oo  (Nge Nge)

 Who inspired you to be a leader, and why?

My mother inspired me to be a leader by always giving us options and allowing us to make our own decisions, take responsibility, and face the consequences of our choices.

Aung San Suu Kyi also inspired me because she was the first woman leader I knew as a child. Her fearlessness, assertiveness, sacrifice, and wisdom influenced and inspired me. I learned from her leadership to help others in need, to gather all our resources, and to mobilize and collaborate to achieve the goal.

What do you think are the benefits of having women in leadership roles?

Our “Female” thoughts are always from the heart and are based on the mother’s mindset, which creates a sympathizing and safe environment as a leader in whatever role we play. The positive characteristics of having women in leadership roles to develop the well-being of humans in our society are love, caring, consciousness, negotiation, and conceptualization.

What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership? What has been the most significant barrier for you?

Lack of self-awareness and acceptance of a woman as a leader is the most significant barrier to female leadership, and other factors such as women not encouraging each other, men not recognizing women leaders, and social and cultural norms are also prevalent in Myanmar.

The most significant feature that I overcame to become a female leader was triumphing over social and cultural norms to demonstrate that Women Can Do It.

What advice do you have for women looking to become leaders in their industry?

To capture your dream of becoming a leader, listen to your heart and follow it with your consciousness. Please make your teams feel like a family by supporting them, being courageous, and treating them as you would like to be treated. Remind yourself that nothing is impossible and that there are no limitations to being a female leader.


Gina Chiwela, Executive Director of People’s Action Forum

Who inspired you to be a leader, and why?

My mother has been the top inspiration for leadership in my life. Having been influenced by the mothers in her own family who were also trendsetters in their fields of teaching and nursing, she was raised without the typical belief that women were limited in what they could achieve. She has always believed in the innate ability of every human being to find solutions to their challenges, women being 50% of the diversity in capacity and potential that should come to the table.

What do you think are the benefits of having women in leadership roles?

Men and women are differently endowed in their perception of and approach to issues. Inclusion of women allows for a rounded view that increases the likelihood of reaching sustainable solutions.

Eliminating gender disparities in education and training, and thereby barriers to leadership is one of the most effective ways to accelerate progress toward Quality Education (SDG4) and ensure progress toward Gender Equality (SDG5).


What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership? What has been the most significant barrier for you?

A significant barrier to female leadership is a mindset that comes from a culture of putting women in second place even when they are evidently as competent and intelligent.

A significant barrier for me has been securing scholarships to pursue further studies that would open the door to leadership in both academia and the world of development, this being compounded by the difficulty of balancing work/study life with raising small children at that time.

What advice do you have for women looking to become leaders in their industry?

Enjoy what you do! Self-awareness is the key starting point. Self-development is a life-long pursuit. One should periodically assess one’s life and see if growth continues to happen.

See helping to develop others as a primary goal of leading, not forgetting that you as leader will learn from them too. They should leave better people for having been part of your team.