Gaelle Rimpel Pierre wants to change Haiti’s future by helping the very poor transform their lives through entrepreneurship. But to do that, she (and her husband) had to take a long look in mirror, and embrace Onlyness. This is part II of a III part series on how networks can enable onlyness, featuring Fortune’s MPW community. Part I, a Different Tipping Point, is here.
“It was so much glass. So much glass everywhere. Everything we had, we built, was smashed. Gone.”
Sitting in the lobby of a New York hotel with her executive handbag and smartphone in tow, Gaelle Rimpel Pierre looks like just another businessperson taking just another meeting, and in many ways, she is. She is also an electrical engineer, entrepreneur, wife and mother of two girls – one of whom is a freshman at New York University. She ticks through her schedule like a pro. After New York she’s in DC, except next week, it’s Boston, with trips back home to her native Haiti in between, and she’s hoping to check back in with her friends in Silicon Valley before the holidays. “There is so much to do,” she says, the lament of every leader. The so little time goes unsaid.
But the first story she shares about glass and loss (more about that in a moment) describes the kind of pivot point that all entrepreneurs claim, but few understand. When faced with her “we have to rebuild” moment, it’s not just what she did next, but who she was willing to be next, that put her on a path to a very different future.
She could have kept things simple. Along with her husband, Mattias, Gaelle has built a thriving technology and IT consulting business in Haiti – GaMa Enterprises, a mashup of their first names. Mattias has become well known at home, and increasingly around the world, as one of the few self-made millionaires the country has produced in the last hundred years. In fact, he may be the only one. (The media coverage he has received typically doesn’t mention her, and she’s been fine with that until now.)
They’re famous now for being outliers, the ones that succeeded.
Haiti has the distinction of being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with a difficult history of colonial degradation that spans centuries. It was a country built on violence and slavery, with large swaths of people cruelly dominated by a small and exacting elite. You cannot travel in Haiti without seeing the current iteration of this dynamic. The very poor, the always-will-be-poor, their dark faces framed in coarse hair become literal poster children for charity wells, emergency nutrition programs and international aid. Without assistance that rarely comes, the very poor will be born and die on dirt floors. The rich, the always-will-be-rich, living above the fray in a revolving door of political and business power.
Gaelle’s husband grew up in the part of Haiti “nobody ever escapes” – the part with no running water, electricity or infrastructure of any kind.
“He has a slogan,” Gaelle says. “’My origin does not condemn me.’”
But in Haiti, color and wealth – often linked – does end up defining, even condemning people. In Haiti, the poor, dark-skinned people are not seen as being capable of success. Matthias, Gaelle shares, “has the dark complexion of the rural poor”, and she, “the lighter skin of the Haitian elite, the people who have always run things”.
You’d think that because the country is largely one color, the race element wouldn’t be as strong. “It’s a black country and it shouldn’t happen here,” she shrugs. “It’s hard to talk about, but it’s true.” But she is now convinced that the couple can change the way the majority of the country see their own potential. Gaelle and Mattias have come to understand something deeply fundamental about people: Every person who has been an innovator, who has broken a boundary of “what defines” them, has to see themselves first.
This is onlyness: to see the power inherent in each and everyone. That talent is plentiful, not limited. That color does not define, nor gender, nor heritage, not wealth. Each of us is standing in a spot only you’re standing in, and from that place is where you see something only you can see. It is a function of your history and experience, visions and hopes. Onlyness is the way to create value, and so to do so, you must first see yourself. In other words, if you do not believe in your own ability to create value, then no one else will ever get a chance to witness it. You cannot wish you were different than you are. You cannot want to be anyone other than yourself, but to appreciate what only you can bring. Which is not to say you won’t have to also ‘do the work’. You will work hard. Just as Gaelle and Matthias have. But you cannot be good at doing the work without honoring your truth. Even, celebrating it. Because, from your truth comes the flame of passion and the light that will guide the way.
Their insight – that every person who has broken a boundary of “what defines” them, has to see themselves first — unfolded for them in a journey.
The first step came in 2008. It was April, and the Preval government had seeded something now know as the Hunger Riots. “To this day, we don’t know why we were targeted,” she says. The government had paid teenagers to run through the wealthier business districts around the capital city of Port-au-Prince and smash everything they could. GaMa was destroyed, with their employees cowering inside. “The kids who smashed don’t know who we are, that we came from nothing,” she says.
Instead of being angry, Mattias became convinced that if people knew his story, which was also “their story”, that not only would the business have been spared, the community would be inspired. Inspired in a deeper way than just the example that one success offers. In response, he wrote and published The Power of a Dream a book that told his story in detail: born to a life of intractable poverty, grasping every opportunity to be educated and win scholarships, to the hard work of building a business with no access to formal credit or mentorship. The busyness of the journey blurred his vision, but not theirs. “I realized then that I was riding in a nice car, living in a fine home, and the people didn’t know that I was one of them. I didn’t forget them, but they didn’t know me,” he wrote.
He was no longer a part of the community. He was standing alone, because he had denied his onlyness. So too had Gaelle.
As an “outsider” and newcomer to power, it is easy to see how (and even why) neither emphasized difference. They did something that most people do as they rise beyond what their roots define for them: to act as if you belong, you don’t talk of your experience and history, because it only sets you apart from this group you now “belong to”. To crack the code of “belonging”, you aim to be as much “alike” to the majority group. You conform. The choice they made is to tell the story of how you have overcome your past or outrun your past, instead of actually claiming it — your history and experiences, visions and hopes — as a strength.
After all, if what you see in the mirror is someone who doesn’t belong at the table because of your onlyness, than you hide it. But if what you see in the mirror is someone who does, than you claim this as a source of strength.
The couple was already well known for the services they provided corporations and NGOs operating in Haiti. But after the window smashing thing, they shifted. Now they want to be people with a mission. Mattias and Gaelle started training programs that could enable anyone (quite possibly, everyone) to rise. In entrepreneurship for youth, a foundation, and became fixtures on boards. “I focused on the girls,” Gaella says, and later women, holding trainings in the poorest parts of the country. She says that to date she has trained more than 600 women, in every Department (the equivalent of a county) in Haiti. Later, when the earthquake hit, these women instrumental in getting the temporary headquarter for the President back online before the first NGO arrived.
It was the economics advisor to the U.S. ambassador to Haiti who tapped her on the shoulder at an Embassy gathering and told her about the Fortune MPW program. “He says, ‘you are a woman and you are in technology so I think this program is perfect for you!’” She embraced the terms: when you return, you spend a year figuring out how to share what you’ve learned. After a month of leadership training at the State Department, she began her in-depth meetings with her co-mentors, Kathi Lutton, a litigator in the Silicon Valley firm of Fish & Richardson, Megan Smith of Google.org (now the CTO of the United States) and Susan Wojcicki of Google, now the CEO of YouTube. She spent hours shadowing them, watching them work, running ideas by them, speaking to their teams and direct reports, being introduced to their friends.
Through the Fortune program, not only was this change-agent connected to a network to help her make her ideas powerful enough to dent the world, she was connected to a community who shared her purpose.
“One of the things that I wanted to do when I came out of the program was empower women and girls to embrace a career in tech. I wanted to launch a real STEM project, in the poorest areas.” Megan (Smith) suggested the concept of Haiti 2.0, a project that would reimagine the next version of Haiti through technology, but Gaelle knew she had to start more simply. “There is nothing there to upgrade,” she says of the communities she plans to serve. “So, my idea is to have a big bus that would go to schools and it would be a lab. For chemistry and physics, but also computer science.”
She is starting with a test program close to home. Gaelle has on loan 50 computers from One Laptop Per Child program that closed in Haiti, and she hired a woman to pilot the curriculum at a school near her home. “I am teaching boys and girls at the moment,” she says, “but it is very important that the STEM material be delivered by a woman.” She is also working to create a special showcase at a new technology fair in Haiti called E2Tec. “We will be bringing women together from around the country and the region to talk about how to bring STEM education and business opportunity to Haiti,” she says. After her mentorship experience, she has a particularly keen sense of how to bring together people to shape a meaningful outcome. “And yes, I will be inviting Megan to come!”
Gaelle is also preparing to embrace what her work can mean to Haiti from a broader perspective. Her husband has long wanted to enter the fray politically, but Gaelle, who had grown up in a modest, but politically active family, wanted no part. “It’s always drama,” she says, referring to the battling, corruption and the complex history of Haiti. But now, she sees that her husband’s calling can also mean an important role for herself. “The successful few – like him – is just the tip of the iceberg. We want to help the people hidden underneath the surface. And we can. We see that now.” The people who don’t look like leaders or who don’t have a famous family name. “But because I’m light skinned and my hair is soft, sometimes I have to be the one in front,” she says. “It just is that way.”
As she grows the network of women she’s trained and engaged, she is developing a deep understanding of what their communities need to succeed. She rattles off a list: banks that will lend to them, a government that prevents cheaper foreign commodities from flooding the marketplace, less dumb aid and more smart business conducted without bribes or kickbacks. A place at the table alongside men. She acknowledges that she has reproduced a network and community herself, building base of women around the country, who can solve real problems.
“It is a network that I’ve enabled, yes, but more, they are the network heart of Haiti. We connect them to each other.”
You can almost hear the heartbeat grow stronger, can’t you?
Why am I drawing attention to this powerful Fortune/Vital Voices / State Department network? Because it is enabling a different kind of tipping point, united people are more powerful. In the first part of this series, I asked when has being part of a group made you feel more powerful? With this part II of III, I want to ask something about how you see yourself.
What do you see when you look in the Mirror. If your mirror had a label, what would it be? (Share in the comments)
And, feel free to send in questions and topics that you’d like to see explored along these lines, by writing back to the email you get as a subscriber… You can always stay in conversation here, and on Twitter (@nilofer). Your questions, reflections and dialogue often spur and inspire others. Which is why I want to encourage an ongoing conversation. Tag ideas online with #onlyness.
I mentioned last time, we have a surprise in store at the end of this series. Equinox “it’s not fitness, it’s life” has generously come on board with some gifts for the Yes & Know community. More on that, and Part III of this series next Tuesday.
Next up: the story of Manal Elattir.