Worldwide, women and girls are underrepresented in the classroom. The United Nations reports that 5 million more primary school age girls than boys will never learn to read and write. Three nonprofits in the WeWork creator community—one fusing skateboarding with education, one led by a 20-year-old Nobel Laureate, and one empowering women with tech—work to bridge the educational gender divide. Learn how they do it.

Skating girls in Afghanistan
Youth leaders in Kabul, Afghanistan

Skateistan

Oliver Percovich, Founder and Executive Director

Skateistan, the top winner at the Berlin Creator Awards, started in 2007 when Percovich, a lifelong skater, moved to Kabul, Afghanistan, for his wife’s job and brought a few boards along with him. The hobby caught on quickly with the local children—boys and girls alike—and he launched a brand-new program: youth empowerment through skating and schools. Ten years later, the nonprofit with 80 full-time staff now runs schools (with skate parks) in Afghanistan, Cambodia, and South Africa. And, yes, Tony Hawk is a member of the board.

Why is skateboarding important for girls in Afghanistan?

Any of the sports that were happening, it was all boys. But somehow, the girls were skateboarding. It was a loophole: No one had actually thought to ban it yet. I jumped on that opportunity and I gave the girls more time on the skateboards than the boys, and naturally they became better skateboarders than the boys!

Now in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, there’s a greater concentration of female skateboarders than anywhere else in the world. There’s nowhere else in the world where 500 girls come every week to skateboard. And that’s in Afghanistan, where girls can’t play sports, where other NGOs find it really, really hard to work.

“There’s nowhere else in the world where 500 girls come every week to skateboard. And that’s in Afghanistan, where girls can’t play sports, where other NGOs find it really, really hard to work.”

How do you keep the girls going to school?

We’ve always put way more resources in getting to that 50 percent girls mark. We have separate days for boys and girls in order to get the buy-in from the community. We provide transport for the girls to come and go from our skate school. We do home visits for the girls if they don’t turn up to class and follow up with the families. We did over 1,000 home visits in Afghanistan last year.

The girl that became the first female skateboard instructor was pulled out of school by her parents when she was 11 years old. The parents just needed money. They saw those two hours she would go to school as hampering her income-earning ability. So I made a deal with the parents where I made her a skateboard instructor and paid her $1 per session. We got her back to school, and that got me back to thinking: maybe there’s more that could happen.

Malala Fund's #YesAllGirls campaign
District Buxar, Bihar, India / Photo by Mustafa Quraishi

The Malala Fund

Farah Mohamed, CEO

Malala Yousafzai, the world-renowned advocate for girls’ right to education, established The Malala Fund in 2013. The nonprofit, which has an office at WeWork Dupont Circle, focuses on girls’ secondary education in countries where most girls are out of school, such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, and countries which house Syrian refugees, including Lebanon and Jordan.

What motivates your organization?

Malala is the youngest Nobel Laureate and well-known around the world. But she would be the first to tell you that awards and recognition mean nothing to her if they don’t help girls go to school. We believe girls are our future leaders, creators, and self-starters. But 130 million girls are denied an education today.

What’s your approach?

Malala Fund wants to speed up progress on girls’ education. To do this, we’re investing in educators and activists working in countries where most girls are out of school. Local leaders are best-placed to identify and solve challenges facing girls in their communities.

“Local leaders are best-placed to identify and solve challenges facing girls in their communities.”

What’s the impact so far?

We’re in our fourth year of operations. Already we’ve impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of girls. But there are millions more out of school. We’re ready to build on our early successes and scale our work to speed up progress for the next generation of leaders.

Inclusion's Pitch Competition Winners
Inclusion’s Pitch Competition Winners

Inclusion

Saeed Jabbar, Founder and Instructor

Started in New York City, Inclusion works to close the digital divide by providing underserved populations with the training, skills, and access they need to pursue careers in technology. Headquartered in WeWork Studio Square, the nonprofit just celebrated its sixth graduating class on Oct. 4 with an event keynoted by WeWork Co-founder Miguel McKelvey.

What do you do to get women to 50 percent in your classrooms?
This year, we’ve moved all our ad spend on Facebook and Instagram to target only women. Even though that costs twice as much, it’s played a key role. I’ve always made it my goal to get over the 50 percent level. With this last class that graduated, we had 60 percent. We made it an active, conscious choice, especially for underserved women in communities across New York City, like Far Rockaway.

“We’ve moved all our ad spend on Facebook and Instagram to target only women.”

If a small organization like us can pull it off, I see no reason why these bigger companies can’t. It just takes someone within the organization to stand up and say, “I’m going to do this.”

Why did you choose to focus on women?

Women are more likely to finish the class and are more committed. You start to see the impact with their families. They can afford better apartments and buy cars.

“If a small organization like us can pull it off, I see no reason why these bigger companies can’t.”

What happens when classrooms don’t have an equal balance of men and women?

When there’s only one or two women in the class, they feel intimidated and guys start to hit on them. They feel much more comfortable knowing there’s a support structure there for them. Their confidence grows when they’re not the only one. They start to use the buzzwords and feel like they’re part of this tech ecosystem.

Reporting on the ongoing civil war that had spilled over from Syria into Lebanon, René Cao says she witnessed suffering on a scale unlike anything she’d ever seen before. But despite the hardships she encountered in war zones and refugee camps, she found herself inspired by the selflessness of the people she encountered.

The former reporter for Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV network now works for a bitcoin exchange based out of Shanghai’s WeWork Financial Center. But the Chinese citizen has never forgotten the people she met when she was on assignment in Lebanon in 2011.

“The people I met really shaped my values,” says Cao. “They have driven me to do something for someone else, not just care about myself. As a journalist, I thought I could use my skills to tell their stories and share them with the world. I knew their voices needed to be heard.”

Her determination to help the displaced people in the Middle East led her to found the Ponybaby Project, a nonprofit organization that raises funds for the education of refugee children.

In 2014, she decided to return to Lebanon to document the lives of young people there. Finding a videographer was tough — her first one dropped out after a terrorist attack in Paris — but her editor connected her to Olmo Reverter. Together Cao and Reverter made a documentary called The Hard Stop: The Plight of Syrian Refugee Children, which reached more than 10 million viewers in China alone.

“Flying over with Olmo and shooting that first documentary was really a turning point in my life,” says Cao, who is 30. “I had no idea at the time that I was going to carry on with this project. What I really wanted to do was tell their stories.”

Within a year the team had officially set up the Ponybaby Project. Cao and her partners tell moving stories through articles, documentaries, and photo exhibitions. In honor of World Refugee Day, she and her team hosted a panel discussion on the crisis in Syria at WeWork Shanghai Finance Center.

Cao says the name was inspired by a verse in a famous Chinese poem, which loosely translates to: “Take your dream as a horse, act your glorious youth.”

The Ponybaby Project partnered with Pear Video, one of China’s leading video platforms, to broadcast its Orphans of the World series. It recently embarked on a new series called Their Responses that follows more than a dozen Syrian refugees living across the Middle East. The Ponybaby Project also teamed up with Tencent Charity, one of the leading fundraising platforms in China, to help raise money to help refugees directly.

Niu Song, a professor of Middle East Studies at Shanghai International Studies University, likes the “community spirit” displayed by the Ponybaby Project team.

“I believe that the stories and documentaries displayed by Ponybaby Project, as first-hand information, can honestly uncover the real status of the refugees, including their basic life, children’s education, job employment, and willingness to return to their home country,” says Song, who was among the speakers at the panel discussion.

All of the funds raised by the Ponybaby Project go towards scholarships for families living in refugee camps who can’t afford their children’s school fees, materials, and books.

“Almost 90 percent of Syrian refugees are in debt,” says Lisa Abou Khaled, who works for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Parents are having to resort to difficult choices like pulling their children out of school and sending them to work because they can’t afford to feed the family anymore.”

Since Cao’s first visit to the Middle East, the humanitarian crisis in Syria has claimed the lives of 70,000 civilians and displaced 5 million others. Despite the scale of trauma, Cao says the refugee crisis is rarely discussed in her native China. But that’s part of the goal—to start the conversation by bringing the personal stories of refugees to households across the country.

“Many people don’t have a chance to talk with refugees, so they have a very unclear concept of who they are,” says Cao. “They’re often treated like wild animals, vulnerable and unpredictable. But they want to live with respect and dignity, just like everyone else.”

Photo by Nicholas Tortajada

Even before the lights went up on the stage, the WeWork Creator Awards was literally one of the biggest events of the year in Jerusalem. Nearly 4,000 people packed a stadium that usually hosts basketball games, and they came from as far away as Tel Aviv, Herzliya, and Be’er Sheva. It was also the largest regional competition so far for the awards, hosted in cities around the world.

At the job fair and pop-up market held before the awards, there were so many people that it was sometimes difficult to navigate the aisles. People eagerly pushed forward for free samples of food — even crispy grasshoppers.

When WeWork cofounder Adam Neumann finally stepped onto the stage, the event had the feeling of a homecoming. Neumann and his sister Adi Neumann, a model who hosted the event, both grew up on a kibbutz not far away.

WeWork cofounder Adam Neumann and his sister Adi share a moment at the Jerusalem Creator Awards.

“It’s a really special city and really special to be here,” said Adi from what is usually the home court for the HaPoel Jerusalem Basketball Club.

This is the second time the Creator Awards has been held in Israel. In October more than $1 million was awarded to winners at an event in Tel Aviv. In Jerusalem — where a WeWork location is slated to open later this year — a total of $774,000 went to eight winners.

Host Adi Neumann announces the winners in the business ventures category at the Jerusalem Creator Awards.

Here are some of the most unique and exciting highlights of the evening.

Most progressive fashion statement: More than 30 local artists, companies, and nonprofit organizations took part in a pop-up market on the arena’s concourse. There were bright paintings on canvas, glittering jewelry, natural beauty products, and plenty of T-shirts, including some emblazoned with the words “I’m Not for Sale,” part of a campaign against prostitution and human trafficking by the local nonprofit Turning the Tables, which was also a finalist at the Creator Awards.

Best product you can bury: Perhaps the most intriguing items for sale were paper greeting cards that weren’t just recyclable — they could actually be planted in the ground. Made by the Israeli company Paper Bloom, there are nine types of seeds embedded in the paper of the cards, resulting in several types of flowers that bloom throughout the year.

Winners in the nonprofit category of the Jerusalem Creator Awards pose for a photo together.

Best way to attract a crowd: More than 30 companies and nonprofits staffed tables at the event’s job fair, including half a dozen Creator Awards winners from last year’s event in Tel Aviv., The participants, like Yahoo’s Israeli R&D team and Taboola, were looking to hire a total of more than 70 people. Among the most attention-grabbing booths was that of the Israel Innovation Fund, a nonprofit promoting culture and creativity in Israel, whose table was covered with bottles of local wine.

Most popular souvenir: The most intriguing table at the job fair belonged to Hargol, an Israeli company that produces food products made from grasshoppers. The company — the top winner at the Tel Aviv Creator Awards — caught many people’s eyes with jars of roasted grasshoppers. About 40 percent of people who stopped by the table sampled them, leaving their transparent wings and crispy legs in little piles on the table. Many people then pocketed full jars to take home. “People keep taking them when we’re not looking,” said Hargol CEO Dror Tamir. “I don’t blame them. It really is the best souvenir.”

Most practical swag: The most in-demand item of the evening appeared to be bright red bags emblazoned with the words “Work Happy.” These were from Jobbio, the Dublin-based online hiring platform. “Personally I think they are quite eye-catching,” said Jobbio’s account manager Martha Hayes, who traveled from Dublin to attend the event in Jerusalem. “And they are a useful place to keep the rest of your swag.”

Netta Barzilai, who recently propelled Israel to Eurovision champion, is surrounded by fans.

Favorite food: At a moment when Israeli cuisine has been making global headlines, tables filled with local specialties were scattered throughout the event’s pop-up market and job fair. Popular items included fresh pitas stuffed with chicken, lamb, fish, or roasted vegetables and topped with cilantro-infused tahini. There were also tiny jars of creamy malabi pudding topped with pomegranate syrup and pistachio nuts. But the biggest hit may have been the chocolate chip cookies, baked on the premises in a giant oven by Pilpel Catering. “Holy Moses, these are good,” said one person who sampled them.

Most creative cocktail: Open bars served beer, wine, and craft cocktails all night long. People seemed to love the Golden City, a drink inspired by Jerusalem and made from vodka and honey and garnished with fresh cucumbers.

Most mind-blowing performance: For those who could tear themselves away from the party-like scene at the pop-up market, the highlight of the masterclasses was a show by Israeli mentalist Lior Suchard. As usual, the internationally known performer wowed the audience by reading people’s minds. At one point he seemed to know some participants better than they knew themselves. When asking one woman how many letters were in the name of her first crush, she kept saying five. Suchard replied, “Are you sure it isn’t six?” Sure enough, Suchard guessed the name, and there were indeed six letters.

Most tear-inducing moment: After the audience heard inspiring stories from all of the night’s finalists, it was Kaima Farm, which helps teeneagers who have dropped out of school, that took home the top prize for nonprofit ventures. Yoni Yefet-Reich, Kaima’s CEO, immediately handed the prize over to one of the teenagers who said his life had been transformed by his time on the farm.

Biggest winner: The $360,000 grand prize went to Yehudit Abrams, a recent American immigrant to Israel, for her startup MonitHer, which is developing a hand-held ultrasound device women can use for monthly breasts exams. The device will alert them to any changes in tissue, a key to early diagnosis of breast cancer. “I’m empowering women,” Abrams said, holding up her award.

Best show of hometown pride: Moments after Abrams was showered in sparkly confetti, another top figure in women’s empowerment, Netta Barzilai, who recently propelled Israel to Eurovision champion with her song “Toy,” took the stage to kick off the real party part of the evening. The crowd gathered around her, wildly snapping photos.

When Raffi Rembrand’s son was diagnosed with autism at the age of 4, it was not the worst news the family received that day. The biggest blow came when their doctor said it was too late for the earliest treatments.

So for Rembrand, a chemical engineer by training, finding a way to detect autism earlier became his life’s mission.

Now, more than three decades after his son was diagnosed with autism, Rembrand has founded an Israeli company, SensPD, which he hopes will accomplish just that. 

SensPD, a winner in the WeWork Creator Awards held on June 20 in Jerusalem, is developing a way to detect autism based on physiological signs. The company uses an existing device commonly used to check the hearing of newborns, but has modified it to check for sensory perception. One of the major components of autism, which affects one of every 59 children born in the U.S., is its effect on the sensory system.

“We didn’t reinvent the wheel,” says Maayan Shahar, SensPD’s CEO.  “But we have altered a very known device used in all hospitals that will hopefully provide a standard screening process for all babies.”

The goal is for such a test to eventually become standard for every baby born around the world, allowing the various treatments for autism to start as soon as possible. When started very early in life, some therapies have a success rate of up to 90 percent.

“It’s been known for a long time that it’s early intervention that makes all the difference,” Shahar says.

But the standard diagnosis of autism based on a series of evaluations often comes after a children has reached the age of 3 or 4, which is too late for some treatments.

SensPD is currently preparing to start clinical trials in Israel. It hopes that if all goes well it will get regulatory approval for its device within three years.

Rembrand’s son, now 35 and living in a group home in Israel, remains an inspiration for the company.

“We want to bring this to market as soon as possible, but in the most professional way,” Shahar says.  ”So that instead of being isolated, children with autism can be a productive part of society.”

While Yehudit Abrams was working as a postdoctoral fellow at NASA, her job was to research the potential use of ultrasound to monitor astronauts on long missions to the international space station. But when her cousin, a gynecologist and breast cancer survivor, was killed in a car accident in 2011, Abrams started thinking of other uses for the medical device.

“She was so passionate about the early detection of cancer, and I wanted to honor her for that,” says Abrams, a physician and mechanical engineer who immigrated to Israel last year from California. “That is what got me thinking about using some sort of portable ultrasound for early detection of cancer.”

Abrams founded MonitHer, a Jerusalem-based startup that is developing a handheld ultrasound device that women can use at home to monitor their breast tissue. The device and its potential to change the way breast cancer is detected is why MonitHer was the big winner the WeWork Creator Awards, held in Jerusalem on June 20. Her company took home $360,000.

“I’m empowering women,” Abrams told the crowd, holding up her award.

An early prototype of the MonitHer scanner.

Women using the device will scan their breasts once a month for about 10 minutes. A U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved software program then scans the images for any changes over time. If the software detects any potential problems, users will be advised to consult a physician.

By monitoring breast tissue over time, Abrams says women will be able to detect cancer earlier than the traditional method of self-exams where women feel each breast in order to find lumps or swelling.

“We are changing the paradigm from breast cancer screening to breast health monitoring,” Abrams says.

Once more than 100,000 women begin to use the device and upload their scans to the app each month, artificial intelligence and machine learning methods will be used to evaluate tissue changes.

While mammography has long been the best way to diagnose breast cancer, it is less effective on certain women, especially those with dense breast tissue. And the current protocols for breast cancer detection have recently been questioned for resulting in the unnecessary treatment of tumors that may never grow in size or harm a women’s health.

“We are wasting billions of dollars of year treating cancer that women don’t have, and this is because we have stopped innovating,” Abrams said. “Medicine is a dinosaur.”