Safeena Husain of Educate Girls

March 2021

On March 10, Safeena Husain, Founder & Executive Director of Educate Girls shared powerful scaling lessons as part of the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE) at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business’s  Executive Speaker Series.

Based on her own story rooted in childhood poverty and dropping out of school, Husain founded Educate Girls to fill a gap among organizations working on either education or gender.  “I saw a lot of organizations working in those two areas, but nothing at the intersection.  I really felt that our girls needed a gender lens,” Husain said. “Nine of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals can be positively impacted if you educate girls.”

Since 2007, Educate Girls has worked to leverage existing community and government resources to ensure that all girls in India – especially in rural communities – are in school and learning well.  Named an Audacious Project by TED and The Bridgespan Group, Educate Girls is working to enroll 1.6 million girls in school by 2024.

While there were so many incredible learnings from the conversation with Husain, here are three takeaways on how others can learn from Educate Girls’ journey to impact at scale:

1. During rapid growth, clarity of vision is critical.

For the last 14 years, Educate Girls has doubled in size every 18 months.  Amid this aggressive growth, maintaining a laser focus on impact has been critical.  The central question Husain asks is “are we just replicating or is there still a value-add for that last girl served?”  Remaining grounded in both a clear understanding of the problem Educate Girls is working to solve and in a robust picture of what success looks like has been critical. “Unless you have that clear vision of success, it is too easy to stray,” Husain said.  “Clarity of vision – especially amid crises like the COVID-19 pandemic – helps you stay results-based and avoid mission creep.

2. Data and tech are helpful – but insufficient – tools for scaled impact.

“Data and technology are the scaffolding on which we build everything,” Husain said.  Among other applications, Educate Girls relies on a sophisticated approach to data, using machine learning to effectively and efficiently choose which villages to target as they geographically expand their reach. 

However, Husain cautioned about an overreliance on technology, adding, “If you are going to build for the last, most vulnerable child, you are going to have to think beyond just getting a tablet in their hands.” She continued, “poverty and patriarchy are the two things that keep girls out of school,” and therefore Educate Girls takes a “100% saturation approach” and thinks in terms of community-level mindset shift.  In addition to utilizing data, hiring local talent has been a key lever in Educate Girls success.  “The more local talent, the higher the results,” Husain said in referencing the fact that 99% of organization’s teams come from the same communities in which they work.

3. Development Impact Bonds can provide transformational, flexible capital.

To help finance their scaling journey, Educate Girls partnered with UBS Optimus Foundation and Children’s Investment Fund Foundation to launch the world’s first Development Impact Bond (DIB) in education.  This innovative, result-based funding model, provided Educate Girls with $270,000 in unrestricted up-front working capital that allowed for more flexibility in focusing on the agreed results they were seeking to achieve.  To summarize the model Husain explained, “You do the work and the investor gets paid when results are certified by a 3rd party.”

However, this type of investment did not come without challenges. To achieve the results promised in this three-year DIB, Educate Girls “had to change everything,” Husain said.   “The first year, we felt like we got hit by a bus,” she said.  “Our entire data trajectory needed to change,” she added, referring to the institutionalization of new online and off-line performance management systems that Educate Girls now uses. In the end, Educate Girls surpassed both the enrollment and learning targets included in the DIB. 

…and one final tip: scaled impact starts at home.

Husain closed with a reminder that gender equity in all spheres of life can often start at home. “It’s easy to be a feminist on the outside,” she said.  “It’s much more difficult to be a feminist in your own home.” In sharing the example that Indian women do 10 times that amount of housework that Indian men do, regardless of their educations or work outside the home, she said, “This is what we all really need to work on.” “How can we find ways to make our own homes more equitable?” A wonderful reminder of the role that we all have in changing behaviors and mindsets at the local level which then serves as the foundation for greater systems change.

To learn more about the scaling journeys of Educate Girls and other impact enterprises, dig into our Scaling Pathways tools, stories, and checklists.