The reluctant nonprofit founder

By Jenny Lei Ravelo 22 November 2016

Julia Lalla-Maharajh, CEO and founder of the Orchid Project, with social mobilization agents Marieme Bamba and Diarre Ba, witnessing 52 communities declaring abandonment of female genital cutting, in Kaolack, Senegal. Photo by: Orchid Project

Julia Lalla-Maharajh was looking for a change from her corporate career — though she wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. Soon after, she chanced upon an opportunity during a Voluntary Service Overseas event in London, where she was pleasantly surprised to learn her advocacy skills would translate to work abroad.

Initially she viewed volunteering as a short-term distraction from her corporate engagements, but that changed after she embarked on a six-month volunteering stint in Ethiopia, where she realized the magnitude of the problem of female genital cutting, the ritual removal of some or all of the external female genitalia. The practice can be found in 30 countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and among migrant communities in Europe and the United States.

She returned to London feeling determined to fight the practice. Her resolve later led her to Davos, where she shocked friends by “talking about vaginas” at the World Economic Forum, then to Senegal and Gambia to witness how women are spearheading work to end FGC in their own communities. Finally, her passion led her to found the Orchid Project, a nonprofit focused on raising awareness about FGC and on advocating for resources to end its practice.

Here’s an excerpt from Devex’s conversation with the CEO and founder of the Orchid Project, edited for clarity and length:

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About the author

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Jenny Lei Ravelo@JennyLeiRavelo

Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex senior reporter based in Manila. Since 2011, she has covered a wide range of development and humanitarian aid issues, from leadership and policy changes at DfID to the logistical and security impediments faced by international and local aid responders in disaster-prone and conflict-affected countries in Africa and Asia. Her interests include global health and the analysis of aid challenges and trends in sub-Saharan Africa.


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