Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bringing Women a Global Voice: Jensine Larsen, World Pulse

"I would wake up in the middle of the night and still hear their voices. I realized it would be a greater risk to not do this; it was almost like something would die inside of me if I didn't do it. I just had to take that chance." - Jensine Larsen

Jensine Larsen is the Founder and CEO of World Pulse, a global media and communication network devoted to bringing women a global voice. They broadcast and unite women's voices from around the world into a powerful force for change. 

You can listen to my interview with Jensine on the Big Vision Podcast website, or on iTunes.  I've posted an edited transcript below.  Our October 14th conversation began with Jensine explaining how World Pulse works.

Jensine Larsen: World Pulse is a global media enterprise fully devoted to bringing women a global voice. We unite those voices to accelerate change. We have several interactive media channels, we publish a print magazine, but we also have an interactive global women's newswire, where women are speaking out and reporting from 175 different countries; that is where the real action is, where women from some of the most remote, unheard regions - some using Internet cafes, some using cell phones - are truly speaking out and bringing their voice to the world.

Britt Bravo: Why did you start World Pulse?

Well, first, it started for me at a young age as a young woman.  I'm a complete magazine and media addict. I felt an emptiness inside, as a woman, that I wasn't hearing from the teachers that I wanted to about world issues. I wanted to go out and experience the world, so I went at nineteen years old to the Amazon in Ecuador and ended up working with indigenous women who were struggling because there had been a oil contamination (four times Exxon Valdez) on their traditional lands.  Those women asked me to be their messenger.

From there, I ended up going to the Burma-Thai border and working with women refugees who had fled the ethnic cleansing under the Burmese dictatorship. Those women also asked me to be their messenger; that was the time when I had the vision for World Pulse, and I realized that I wanted to create something where these women could be their own messengers, and that wherever I was, whether it was the Amazon or whether I was in Southeast Asia, these women had such fiery determination; they had very sophisticated ideas for how to solve the challenges that they faced, and the world really needed a global media source that could broadcast the wisdom of women.

It's interesting that you use the word that you had the "vision" for World Pulse.  I think some of the folks who are listening may have had a vision for something, an idea that they thought would make the world a better place. 

How did you know to trust your idea and explore it? Sometimes we have ideas and we're too afraid to do anything, or we sometimes do them and they are a flop, so how did you have the courage, or insight to check it out?

Well, I was definitely afraid, and the thing was, was that I was so young as well. I had absolutely no publishing experience, much less any technology experience, and I was also very, very shy and I had no resources either, another big barrier. My parents couldn't even afford to give me a hundred dollars to start a vision that I had.

It took a long time actually, it took about five more years of holding it inside, and I bet a lot of people in the audience might have experienced that feeling - of just holding onto something that you think could be very transformational, but you are too afraid to take that step. It took me until I was twenty-eight.  What really pushed me over the edge was, day after day waking up and not seeing this magazine on the newsstands, not hearing it when I turned on the radio, and also the voices of the women that I had met was my biggest instigator.

I would wake up in the night and I would still hear their voices.  I recognized that it would be a greater risk for me not to do this; it was almost like something would die inside of me if I didn't do it.  I just had to take that chance, and it was a small chance.  My friends in Burma and in the Amazon were really risking their lives in the face of the military troops, in both cases in the Amazon and in Southeast Asia, so I felt like this is something that I'm not going to die doing, and I just started.

What was your first step?

Well, the first thing I had to do was to create what it was I wanted to create and really develop the vision. The first thing that I did was, I had a massage practice at the time, I'm also a healer and a bodyworker, and I told all of my clients I was leaving.  I canceled my entire business, which was a big step. I went home to live with my parents in rural Wisconsin, and just to be close to my roots, and have the space to really think about the vision.

I spent a lot of time in the fields of Wisconsin journaling, researching, reading, writing, creating the manifesto, if you will. After that I decided to move back to Portland, because I felt Portland, Oregon was an amazing place to start a vision. It's a very creative town, very community oriented, and the energy there is very supportive. So I moved back to Portland, and I posted on - it was new at the time, but now people are very familiar with it, so thank you to all the people behind because I posted, and the next morning my in-box was full of women from around the world.

It had hit India.  It hit Singapore, overnight while I had been sleeping.  I came down, and I just started to cry. Because I realized that it was something that other women had been dreaming, too. Women would write, "I fell off my chair when I read about this," and "I've been thinking about my own own media source, my own magazine." By harnessing that passion of other people who saw the same vision, and wanted to make it happen, I built a pro bono team for the better part of three years. I worked on the side with my massage to be able to get the income to support myself while I did something very, very entrepreneurial and very risky.

How many years has World Pulse been around?

Our first magazine was published in 2004.

I feel like you're at 'start up 2.0' or beginning of the advanced level, or something like that.  How have you dealt with growth? Because there's the start-up part where everyone is like, "I'll do it pro bono.  I'm so excited," and then after awhile they're like, "You know, I can't do this pro bono anymore." Or, you have to grow to a demand.  What advice do you have for people to navigate those growing pains?

That's a great question and it's very true.  World Pulse is really at a point where we've demonstrated proof of concept, and we've tested all of our media channels over the years. There's a need, the women are responding, and our community is doubling over the last year, so we really are at a point of expansion and scaling.

Our next phase is really a massive expansion - our vision is to link over five million women within three years into one of the largest action networks for women in the world, and have a communications infrastructure that really unites the women's movement. There are a lot of things that are different from the start up phase.

One thing I have learned about myself is that I have to adapt and shift. I am very much a social entrepreneur.  I'm like, "Let's just do it!" and "Let's call that person, figure out if they'll volunteer to do that, put it down on paper, get the designers to bang it out, see if it works, and throw it out to the community."

Well, at this point because we've grown so much, we have a staff now of over 10 people.  We have such a large community, our network is over 40,000, who is depending on us.  The responsibility is much larger to our entire community, and it becomes a lot about your long-term sustainability, and your legacy.  That means building in more structure and more discipline, and for myself, it was a lot of letting go of doing everything and knowing how to do it, you know, figuring everything out and really bringing in people who bring that different set of skills.

So, bringing on a COO who can manage the organization and bring a lot more structure than I can, because I am definitely a starter and a visionary and a networker and can bring all the people to the table, but I really needed that partnership of someone who is about structure and long-term strategic planning and bringing in various staff to manage each aspect of World Pulse.  Today, we have some incredible people who just head up the magazine. Corine Milano, our Managing Editor, and Jade Frank, our Online Community Manager, who is very much stewarding the heart and soul of the entire community and making sure that women feel heard there.

It's been an amazing process finding these people, nurturing their talents and watching them grow and blossom.  Most of our staff did start as a volunteer; about 90 percent of our staff started as volunteers. Many of them are quite young, and just grew and really filled the shoes of what we needed.

A lot of attention on team, it's probably the hardest thing because you have to keep getting out of your own way. You have to keep tapping the wisdom of the team and remembering that you don't know everything. I have had the vision, but I don't always know how we're going to get there. And the team brings a lot of wisdom there.  For anyone who is shifting to that perspective, I think it is all about your team. It's all about your team.

I think it's really interesting that you were in the healing profession, and then moved to this, which some would say is businesslike or organizational, or journalism.  

I'm wondering what you see as the connection between someone who has been involved with individual healing of people, and then this global, different kind of healing. What do you think is the connection between those worlds?

I've realized that they're very related.  I actually started out with International Studies, and more academic.  That wasn't fulfilling me. I wanted something deeper.  I ended up going into bodywork to have a skill that I could perform with my hands. I fell in love with it, and realized that healing people one-to-one was something that I could do and I loved. But it was not enough.

What's interesting is that part of why I started World Pulse as well was that it was after 9/11.  As people came into my office, my studio, and I would have my hands on their bodies, the tension and the fear and the terror that they had that the rest of the world was out to attack us made me realize that people needed to have an awareness of people around the world, of how much they wanted to connect with us, of how much they actually did want to partner with us, of how many good things were happening out there in the world, and of how much leadership there was.

At a certain point, I realized that the one-to-one transformation of people, that journey was not enough, and I wanted to work on a global level.  I realize now that it wasn't an accident, this life journey. With World Pulse, with a community of women that are connecting and supporting each other - when a woman has a space where she can truly be listened to, truly be heard, and pour out everything that's happened to her and everything that she sees possible for her life - it is very profoundly healing, very profoundly healing.

The women are day after day documenting that healing process in their online journals, in their online blog. We call them journals, because blogging is a little intimidating to the women who are new to this. So it's healing, it's just on a bigger scale.

Can you talk about, since you mentioned the online journals, the difference between the print magazine and the online magazine and then PulseWire so folks know what are these different entities and programs that you have?

Yes, and they're very synergistic. All our media channels work together in a design to lift women's voices from the ground to drive change. So, for example, on PulseWire, our global community newswire, every woman can have a voice. Any woman who is just coming on from Kashmir has access to some kind of connectivity to either an Internet cafe, or a cell phone, or a computer at her work. She can speak out. She can join the community and find resources and network.

Then, the magazine is like a curation of all the best that's out there on our newswire, on our pipeline of content. It's also the hottest issues on the world stage, whether it's what's going on in the Congo, or with the environment and climate change, but it's through the perspective of women, of leading women, Nobel Peace laureates, or a woman who is on an island and is experiencing the rising tide of climate change and speaking her life experience and a way to solve it.

There's the magazine, there's PulseWire, and the third component that has been very powerful is the online training, the women's Web 2.0 citizen journalism training that we developed because the women were asking for it. They wanted more training in-depth, and they wanted to really learn how to use all these different tools to get ahead in life and advance their dreams.

So, we started this program. Last year we piloted it, in 2009. We had 500 women apply from 90 countries. And mind you, they weren't all women who wanted to be journalists. Some of them were community leaders and they wanted to have their voices, "shake the earth," as they often say. We selected 30 out of those 500, and they were the most high voltage voices. The ones we felt that with the proper training could become loud voices for their communities, and really offer solutions and a fresh perspective to the world agenda.

They came from the favelas of Brazil, from Alaska, from the Bronx, immigrant women from the Bronx. They came from Sudan, from Saudi Arabia, from all over, some of the most unheard places of the world. We trained them in how to use their cell phones for rapid response, and how to write Op-eds, feature stories, and front line journals.

We publish their stories, and from that experience, a big impact was that a lot of the women got their stories picked up. A woman journalist from Sudan had her story about the flogging of a woman who was wearing pants get picked up, and it made international headlines. We had the BBC pick up some of those stories, the UN Wire, and The Huffington Post.

The most powerful impact we found was actually in the women's leadership and influence locally. They got so much confidence by being encouraged by each other, and by being published, that they started cyber cafes, they started solar power projects through women that they had met on the site, they got new job opportunities, and they got hired with other news bureaus. They also started doing training of other women citizen journalists, and training illiterate women how to read and write, and developing all of these programs that were influencing hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of other women.

We really started to see this massive ripple effect, that if you could train one woman who is a transmitter, who is ready to be a communicator and harness the technology, she will reach out and she will share that confidence and knowledge with many other women in her community. The training really showed us our way forward for how we want to scale World Pulse, and how we plan to build a network of women citizen journalists and leaders speaking out from every region of the world.

I feel like there's this wave right now of citizen journalism.  Just here in the Bay Area we have local things like, Oakland Local, Oakland Seen, and  I feel like it's in the collective consciousness. 

If someone is in there own community and wants to do a training for journalists within their community, whether it's internationally or here, what advice do you have for them? I feel like people are saying, the news right now is not telling the stories we want told. We want to empower people to do that.  How can they do that?

The first place that you start is you really want to tap into the local wisdom and the local experience that's there in the community, on the ground, that the big media outlets are probably missing. If your angle is using this training as an outlet for local empowerment and development, then you very much want to bring in mentorship. I think that's the key, 90% of our women were from conflict zones or very economically depressed regions, but we had an over 80% completion rate, which is double, if not triple, most online training program's completion rate. We think it's because of the mentorship. We brought professional empowerment mentors and coaches, and also professional editors. We call them editorial midwives, because they're helping these women really find, and birth their own voice and vision.

So, finding that kind of expertise, whether it's video experts, or podcasting experts, or whatever, doing some of that matchmaking and training, and one-to-one peer, can really make a big difference.

Going back to when we were talking about your process of developing World Pulse, how do you sustain yourself? It's a long journey, and it has ups and downs. What advice do you have, and what have you done to make it a sustainable path for you, presuming it's going to go on much, much longer, as well?

I think, not only do most social entrepreneurs struggle with that, but I think women struggle with that as well. We so often are willing to give and give and give, and our own bodies or our own state of mind is the last thing. I'm really no different then that. Actually, who I am, I'm very much of a hedonist so, bring me wine and chocolate, crazy days on the river, dancing, and all that stuff. I love it. I love to live life large, but I also work very hard.

In the beginning, you feel like it's all on your shoulders, and nobody understands, and they think you're a little bit crazy because it's never been done before. The world is just now starting to really understand what we're doing and how important it is to empower women, and technology is the great accelerator. So, you have many dark days.

It's you sustaining every single day and saying, "Yeah, it's going to happen, and it's going to be great," You have to repeat that over and over again, so you believe it, and everybody else believes it. It's the only thing that keeps it going. I definitely am shocked at how I maintained my energy and balance over the last six years.

What's interesting about the way the organization is shifting into this place of more of a foundation, and more of that team, and sustainability, is it's giving me the space to build in my own sustainability. I had two weeks off this summer. I am able to focus so much more on my diet, my own exercise, my own health, and just watching bad TV sometimes, tuning everything out, and feeling like other people are carrying this.

I think that shift really came beyond the team with the women from all over the world, as they started to pour onto PulseWire, onto our newswire. I would have women writing, and they still do to this day, and say, "Thank you so much for creating this vision. I've got this. I'm spreading it now. I'm carrying this."

We even get Skypes from a woman from Kenya named Leah, who was one of our first grassroots women reporters. She would Skype me and see that I was up working late at night, burning the midnight oil. It was morning for her, and she would Skype me, and she would say, "Jensine, zoom off to bed it's time for you to rest." She would say, "I've got the flame. I'm carrying the Pulse Wire flame, so go rest."

This woman who is HIV positive, care giving for 17 other women who are dying of AIDS, going to more funerals in a week than I've gone to in my life, saying to me, "You rest, I've got this," was a revelation, and it was this first glimmer of, "Oh my God, this is all happening."  Since that day, I get those kinds of comments all the time, and it is those women, their strength, and their courage, that is such a fuel for me, and makes it so exciting.

Everyday I wake up and think, "What are we going to read on PulseWire today? I'm totally addicted. It's like my crack. It's better then coffee. It's better then anything. What they're coming up with, what they're saying, and how they're organizing. It's just accessible. I love that it's accessible to anyone. You can just go on there and you can be talking immediately to women in Bolivia, and in Nepal, and drawing strength, courage, and support from them, and vice versa.

Is there anything else you want to add about what's happening right now with World Pulse or stuff that's going to happen in the future, before we close?

There are a lot of things coming up. Anyone can engage in the World Pulse network and really become a part of this pulse of women's voices rising. You can sign up as a member, and for a membership you'll get a magazine.

You can go onto the site and log onto PulseWire. It's all part of, but if you go specifically onto the PulseWire section you can be immediately talking to women all over the world. You can post a resource if you have medical supplies, or iPhones, or something you want to give to women, or anything you need, like you're looking for a designer, or a volunteer opportunity in Peru. You never know what you're going to find.

Beyond that, there's an opportunity in the United States to be meeting with some of these women leaders face to face. We are doing a media and speaking tour (November, 8-20) of three of our award winning women citizen journalists. They're coming from Nepal, the Philippines, and Bolivia.

They're going to come into New York City, D.C., Colorado, Portland, and San Francisco.  If you're in any of those cities, you'll have an opportunity to meet with them face-to-face, and hear them speaking about how we can use new media to accelerate women's empowerment around the world, how it's changed their lives, and what they're doing with it in their countries.

Nothing is better then hearing the women for themselves.

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