Esha Chhabra, Special to The Chronicle
Sunday, November 20, 2011
Photo courtesy of Erin Lubin
Originally published in the SF Chronicle
At the age of 50, social entrepreneur Jenny Bowen was just getting started.
In 1997, the independent filmmaker and screenwriter adopted a girl from a welfare institution in southern China. The experience led her to found Half the Sky Foundation, a not-for-profit enterprise that addresses orphan care in China.
This month, she was honored for her work by San Francisco think tank Civic Ventures with $100,000 and the Purpose Prize for Intergenerational Innovation.
Bowen, 66, was one of five “encore entrepreneurs” – entrepreneurs over 60 who are using enterprise to make a positive social impact – selected for the honor. Alexandra Cespedes Kent, director of the Purpose Prize, said she was impressed with the global footprint that Bowen has been able to achieve in a little more than a decade.
“I hope other encore entrepreneurs see Jenny’s work and realize big changes start with small steps,” she said. “When you add passion, persistence, patience and experience, … you never know what can happen.”
Bowen’s quest began in 1996 with an article in the New York Times that depicted the plight of institutionalized children in China, many of them girls due to China’s cultural preference for boys and its “one child” policy.
“We didn’t know little girls were being given up just because they were girls,” she said. “We felt compelled after seeing that photo to do something.”
Bowen and her husband adopted 20-month-old Maya from a welfare institution in Guangzhou. A San Francisco native, Bowen’s exposure to Chinese culture was largely from Chinatown and its large immigrant population in the Bay Area.
Photo Courtesy of Half the Sky Foundation
1 million orphans
On her first visit, she was struck by the poor living conditions for orphans, a significant population of nearly 1 million children crowding the country’s welfare centers.
“We were in a position to give back and we wanted to do more than just give a check. We had enough love and room in our home to bring a child into our life,” Bowen said. “It just started out as an adoption journey.”
But Maya, her adopted daughter, was not in a good state when she came home. She was unresponsive, reserved, unable to walk and emotionally shut down, a result of the time she’d spent in institutionalized care, Bowen said.
“We just loved her up, sang to her, engaged her and she grew up sitting on my lap as I was editing films. In fact, her first words were dialogue from the movie,” she said with a laugh.
The girl’s transformation compelled Bowen to return to China and address the problems of institutionalizing children. After two years and much perseverance, she said, she “wangled” herself into a meeting with Chinese government officials, where she proposed alternative methods of care-taking and teaching in welfare institutions. Eventually, she was assigned to two centers in small provinces, far from Beijing.
‘The least threatening’
“I think they thought that we were the least threatening of the options. So, they let us do it, thinking that it would result in nothing and I’d shush up,” she said.
But Bowen surprised the Chinese officials by creating more nurturing environments for the children. Curious and impressed, they started traveling from Beijing to see her in action.
In 2007, she was asked to join them in reforming and improving the care of orphans.
Today, Bowen works in 51 Chinese cities and has affected the lives of 60,000 children across China. Half the Sky Foundation provides infant care, preschool programs, financial assistance to foster families who have orphans with AIDS, and medical care for disabled children – all at no cost.
Also a Skoll Entrepreneur supported by the Skoll Foundation in Palo Alto, Bowen said her foundation is more than just a nonprofit. She runs a business, one that’s focused on system change.
‘It’s like a puzzle’
“Trying to make change in any government is tough. You’re working with people who don’t have the power to make decisions on their own,” she said. “That’s difficult and fascinating. It’s like a puzzle, how to make a change when no one has the power to say yes or no.”
With the Purpose Prize, she hopes to raise more funds for the organization through a matching donation program, and in a few years wants to turn over the entire effort to the Chinese, who have adopted Bowen’s model of orphan care.
“We’ve always worked as partners, so we’ve gained their trust. That’s why we’ve had phenomenal success,” Bowen said.
Working closely with the government is the most sustainable model for a country the size of China, she said.
“It’s not as if they don’t want to do it. They just needed someone to guide them a bit and give them the resources,” she said. “Now, they really want to do it and do it right.”
Half the Sky has received invitations from other countries such as Russia to share insights on orphan care. While other members of her team may work elsewhere, Bowen is likely to continue focusing on where she started.
For Bowen, who had no experience running a nonprofit or working in development, Half the Sky has been a journey of love, learning and perseverance. Her advice for other encore entrepreneurs?
“Just do it. The invitations aren’t going to come along, and probably more so if you’re not 30 anymore,” she said. “If you have a passion for something, just do it. And push, push, push till you get there.”
E-mail the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page D – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle