Kate Curran School the World and schools for the future

We hear plenty of talk about “build the wall.” We hear much less about why caravans of migrants are leaving Central America to come to the United States. In this podcast, we talk to Kate Curran of School the World, a Boston-based social entrepreneur who is going to the heart of the crisis and trying to make life better for families in Guatemala and Honduras. Her organization builds schoolhouses in Central American villages where illiteracy rates are high and poverty is rampant. If you want to be inspired about how one person can make a difference, give this podcast a listen.

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PODCAST TITLE: Instead of Building a Wall...

*Music Introduction*

SUE: Welcome to The Story Exchange. You’re listening to our series Good on the Ground...

VARIOUS VOICES: ...Good on the Ground...

COLLEEN: You’re listening to Good on the Ground from The Story Exchange, featuring women entrepreneurs making an impact in a world that needs fixing. I’m Colleen DeBaise.

SUE: And I’m Sue Williams.

COLLEEN: We hear plenty of talk these days about building a wall.

SOT: Build that wall (blah blah blah).

SUE: We hear much less about the reasons why migrants --

COLLEEN: -- “caravans” of migrants --

SUE: -- are fleeing places like Honduras and Guatemala to come to the U.S.

COLLEEN: Here’s a clip from the Associated Press -- it’s of a family pushing strollers and they’re walking in plastic sandals -- they’re trying to make it across Mexico to the U.S.

SOT: (man speaking Spanish)

COLLEEN: The father is saying they left because of violence.

SUE: Other migrants talk about extreme poverty, and the lack of opportunity.

SOT: (woman speaking Spanish)

COLLEEN: She’s saying she wants a better future for her kids -- and she’s not going back. Today...

SUE: Today...

COLLEEN: We are talking to a person who is going to the heart of the crisis and doing her part to change lives...

SUE: ...and give some families a reason to stay in Central America.

KATE: My name is Kate Curran. I am the founder and CEO of School the World.

SOT: (Guatemalan students playing)

COLLEEN: Those voices are school children in Guatemala, where Kate does most of her work.

KATE: We have a team of about 12 people in Guatemala and Honduras, mostly in Guatemala.

SUE: She’s building schoolhouses -- literally from the ground up.

KATE: School of the World changes lives through education. We believe that we will have every child soon graduating from primary school knowing how to read, write and count.

COLLEEN: In this podcast, we’ll explore how Kate -- basically, an ordinary person living in New England...

SUE: ...was driven by personal tragedy and a mammoth day of reckoning...

COLLEEN: ...to completely shift gears -- we’re talking 180, career-wise -- and start a social enterprise that does, in fact, build walls...

SUE: ...but not the kind that keep people out.

COLLEEN: Right -- it’s a different kind of wall altogether. If you’re concerned about what you’re hearing on the news...

SUE: ...and want to be inspired by a person who’s committed to making a difference in an extraordinarily complex situation...

COLLEEN: Keep on listening.

*Musical Interlude*

SOT: (Guatemalan students playing)

KATE: We've had many, many situations where there's a teacher, but there's no school building, there's just these shack-type environments.

COLLEEN: Kate Curran has been going to Guatemala for more than ten years.

KATE: Actually, it's kind of a crazy story how I got started in Guatemala.

COLLEEN: She had been traveling for a while and met a tour guide.

KATE: And that tour guide took me to meet the mayor of Chichicastenango, which is out in the rural western highlands, an indigenous area of Guatemala.

COLLEEN: The two started talking.

KATE: He said they needed schools.

COLLEEN: She wanted to know more about this.

KATE: And he said okay, and they took me up right away, up the mountain to see a community that needed a school, and it was incredible. It was, these kids had a shack. At the top of this mountain, a shack with a dirt floor, horrible light. They didn't even have chairs. There were kids that were sitting on tree stumps. There were no books anywhere to be found.

SUE: As Kate soon learned, education -- the lack of education -- is a huge problem in Guatemala.

KATE: The biggest problem has been the dropouts. Kids are, they start dropping out after first grade, and the vast majority dropped out by or in fourth grade, and not really having learned anything.

COLLEEN: And so that day, when the mayor told Kate, “We need schools…”

KATE: I said, “Okay, how about you pay for half, and we pay for half.” So that's how we got started. And very quickly, you know, we built three schools in the first year.

SUE: Of course, building schools was just one piece of the solution.

COLLEEN: Kate soon realized...

KATE: We need to get these kids books, we need them to have an environment to learn in, we need to train these teachers, and we really need to engage these parents -- that's at a minimum.

SOT: (Guatemalan students playing)

COLLEEN: But you know, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s leave Guatemala for a second and head to Boston, Massachusetts.

SUE: That’s where we interviewed Kate, at her small office right downtown.

CAMERAMAN (from tape): Okay everyone, quiet for room tone, 20 seconds, starting now.

SUE (from tape): And please look into the camera.

KATE (from tape): Oh.

COLLEEN: So, Kate’s background has really nothing to do with education or human rights.

SUE: Nope, nothing at all.

KATE: I was 28 when I started law school, and I ended up finishing first in my law school class.

SUE (from tape): Was there any particular aspect of law that interested you?

KATE: Yeah, I had a big, grand plan. I was going to go to law school, come out and work for legal aid doing juvenile rights work.

COLLEEN: But she took a detour.

SUE: She clerked for awhile...

KATE: And I went to a prominent Connecticut firm, and they ended up loaning me out to GE. And while I was there, GE recruited me.

COLLEEN: That’s General Electric, which in the 1990s under famed manager Jack Welsh, was thriving.

KATE: I saw an opportunity to get advocacy experience doing some government relations work for them. So I thought, “Okay, I'll make a little bit of money for a while, and I'll pick up some skills.”

COLLEEN: Fast-forward almost ten years later...

SUE: ...And a string of tragic personal events happen.

KATE: I lost my brother in 2005, and then I lost both of my parents in 2006.

COLLEEN: Kate comes from a tight-knit family.

SUE: She was one of six kids, born and raised in Connecticut.

COLLEEN: She especially looked up to her dad.

KATE: My father was a politician growing up. He was the mayor of Bridgeport.

SUE: He had been active in the civil rights era.

KATE: Bridgeport was the only city in the northeast that did not have riots after Martin Luther King was killed, and he was credited for that because of the relationships that he had built with the black community. “Do something” was a very familiar refrain to me from both parents all of the time. Doesn't matter what it is, but do something.

COLLEEN: Losing three family members in quick succession...

KATE: ...really made me pause and think about what I was doing with my own life, and what I had contributed or not contributed.

COLLEEN: That brings us to 2007.

SUE: Kate is still at GE, which has a finance arm called GE Capital...

COLLEEN: ...which was issuing everything from car loans and credit cards to subprime mortgages.

SUE: Which of course, would not end well.

COLLEEN: No. Not for GE or, really, the entire country. Here’s CBS News...

SOT: It was a manic Monday in the financial market. The Dow tumbled more than 500 points...

KATE: It was like cognitive dissonance, holding the grief that I had for these Greatest Generation parents who had contributed so much to society, and working in a place where I felt...really disappointed. I just felt like, “I’ve got to get out of here.”

COLLEEN: We’ll tell you what she did next, after this brief break.

COLLEN: The Story Exchange is a nonprofit media company that provides inspiration and information for women entrepreneurs. Check out our videos -- including a profile of the entrepreneurs you are listening to right now -- at www.thestoryexchange.org. And we’d love to hear from you, especially if you know someone who should be featured on this podcast: Drop us a line at [email protected] -- or find us on Facebook.

COLLEEN: We’ve been sharing the story of Kate Curran, who’s working as a corporate lawyer at General Electric. But she had originally wanted...

KATE: ...to do something mission-oriented, social-oriented, serving youth.

SUE: Which is why, as the financial crisis unfolded...

KATE: I had this almost irrational thought that if I left the country, all the bad things would stop happening.

COLLEEN: Still dealing with grief, and feeling a little lost...

SUE: ...Kate quit her successful career and hopped on a plane.

KATE: I landed in Buenos Aires, and just fell in love with Argentina.

SUE: After that...

KATE: I went to France for a couple of weeks. When I went home, I said, “I’m going to Africa next. I always wanted to do the Peace Corps and I didn't do it, so I'm going to go do volunteer work in Africa.”

SUE (from tape): And where did the idea of School the World come?

KATE: I saw a lot while I was traveling. You know, even starting in Argentina, you'd see the little kids in the streets looking for cardboard to sell. In the Andes you'd see these kids working under the really hot sun. And then in Tanzania, you would see classrooms with 12 kids sharing two pencils, and I actually visited a village in Zambia where kids were walking through crocodile-infested waters just get to school every day.

COLLEEN: Ideas began to percolate...

KATE: I actually started to remember, “Wait, I went to law school to start a nonprofit, and gosh, when I was younger I actually wanted to start my own school.” I just woke up one morning and said, “I could do this, I can do this.” And this wasn't very well-defined, you know, it was really, “I’m going to do something for children in the developing world who obviously are suffering and in circumstances that should not exist.”

COLLEEN: Kate began researching nonprofits.

SUE: She couldn’t find any organizations that were providing the most basic educational resources...

COLLEEN: ...such as a building with a floor, or books and teachers.

SUE (from tape): But how did you start, like why Guatemala?

KATE: Believe it or not, my first trip to Guatemala was to lobby the government for tax breaks for GE, they were putting a call center there.

COLLEEN: Ah, Corporate America. The good news is that she still had a contact there, from her GE days.

KATE: And he said, “I’ll help you get started, and we'll fund your first few projects.”

SUE: Kate also picked Guatemala because it made sense.

KATE: When you look at it from a practical perspective for a startup, Guatemala is cheap to get to, easy to get to, fast to get to. To start in Africa would cost thousands of dollars just to get there.

COLLEEN: Using analytical thinking skills she had sharpened as a lawyer, she began putting a plan together.

SUE (from tape): What year was the first school?

KATE: The first school was situated in Chichicastenango, on the western highlands of Guatemala.

COLLEEN: It costs about $15,000 to build a three-classroom schoolhouse.

KATE: It'll be a simple building, but it's still the nicest building in the community, and it will have electricity, light, ventilation, windows, bright paint.

SUE: Kate makes sure to involve the community.

KATE: So we start at the infrastructure, because the community truly values infrastructure. And it's an opportunity for us to build trust and to engage the community and the local government. The community actually builds the school themselves. They supply all the unskilled labor.

SUE: School the World also spends a significant amount of time working with parents and teachers.

KATE: We start with the parents and we help them understand that they are the first educators. Even if they cannot read or write, there are things that they can do to help their children learn.

SUE (from tape): Who does this teaching of the parents?

KATE: We hire people, local people. And they are true examples. They are examples of people who have beat all the odds, and are now in the university studying, and they are the best possible people that we could send in as an example of the difference that education can make.

COLLEEN: As for teachers, School the World offers two years of training.

KATE: The teacher is getting a much better environment to teach in. The teacher’s morale starts to improve, at the same time as parents are beginning to show some signs that they're going to hold the teachers accountable. And that's how you turn the environment around.

SOT: (Guatemalan students playing)

*Musical Interlude*

COLLEEN: School the World has built 75 schoolhouses in Guatemala and Honduras -- mostly in Guatemala.

KATE: Honduras has been more difficult to fund because of the danger there, so that's why we're not as big in Honduras.

COLLEEN: The organization now has a $1.4 million annual budget.

KATE: The biggest challenge is now -- continues to be fundraising, funding, because there's so much that we want to do.

SUE: School the World is supported by government grants, and private and corporate donations.

COLLEEN: Including a little help from her old co-workers.

KATE: A lot of my former GE colleagues funded the first few schools. A lot of them were very successful and became very generous.

COLLEEN: And a few years back, School the Word added a tuition-based service program in which high school students in the U.S. help build schools in Guatemala.

SUE: It’s designed to open the eyes and minds of privileged American kids.

KATE: They're mostly fairly affluent kids, and for them, it's a complete shock to be in this environment. You know, in the beginning, they are so inspired by the happiness and the warmth of the community.

SOT: (Guatemalan students playing)

KATE: But it really hits home when they see how these kids have to live, it really has a huge impact on them.

VOLUNTEER SOT: And this whole experience really opened my eyes to, you know, different situations that you don’t really tend to see in parts of the United States.

SUE: In the video we filmed about Kate, you can see footage of the schools as well as the homes the kids live in -- very simple one room huts, dirt floors, really poor.

COLLEEN: And you can watch that video at thestoryexchange.org.

*Musical Interlude*

COLLEEN: With the building -- and the education and training -- it can take several years for School the World to see the impact its making on a community.

SUE: But dropout rates are improving.

KATE: It took about four years when we finally started to see it. And then, I was visiting, and a teacher came up to me and said, “Kate, we didn't have a single dropout this year,” and I was like, “Yes!” You know, then I know that it's working.

COLLEEN: And while Kate is making less than half of what she made at GE -- she says it’s worth it.

KATE: I feel like I have made a difference, made a contribution. If you can prove that just basic resources will change a society, I think you start to change the systems.

SUE (from tape): It's giving people the idea they can have a future.

KATE: Yes. Giving them hope, giving them some dignity. You know, we actually require the parents to contribute money for books, which is sometimes a very difficult thing to accept when we know the degree of poverty. And they typically give about $1 to $1.50 per child, and they take it so seriously that they write it up in something called the Book of Acts. And that's how we know it's about 70% that are illiterate, because they come up and they put their thumb in an ink pad and give their thumb print as their promise to pay $1, so that their own children can write their own name some day.

COLLEEN: We thank Kate Curran of School the World for sharing her story.

SUE: And we thank you for listening. This has been The Story Exchange. Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or...maybe you would.

COLLEEN: If you liked this podcast, please share on social media or post a review on iTunes. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women entrepreneurs. And we’d love to hear from you, especially if you know someone who should be featured on this podcast: Drop us a line at [email protected] -- or find us on Facebook. Sound editing provided by Nusha Balyan. Production coordinator is Christina Kelly. Interview recorded by Bestor Cram. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.