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.

Nashville has always thought big. People have moved here with dreams of conquering the city, or even the world. Adam Neumann, cofounder and CEO of WeWork — which has two locations in Music City — has described the company as a place that fosters that kind of growth.

So it makes sense that the two meshed so well at WeWork’s Nashville Creator Awards, held on September 13. Host Ashton Kutcher ticked off the long list of larger cities where the Creator Awards, a global competition that rewards entrepreneurs, have already taken place. “London! São Paulo! Nashville, you are on that list!”

Adam Neumann and Ashton Kutcher at WeWork’s Nashville Creator Awards.

Neumann twice interrupted the event to increase the amounts of the prizes, underscoring that “think big” theme for the night. He boosted dollar amounts for runners-up in the nonprofit category and gave performance arts winner Melanie Faye a recording studio, in addition to her $18,000 cash prize. All told, WeWork awarded $888,000 in prize money in Music City.

If you were expecting a prim-and-proper pitch competition, well, this wasn’t your father’s shark tank. The crowd of more than 2,500 people at Marathon Music Works was standing room only, and there were lines outside of more folks who wanted to get in. (Food trucks kept serving outside all night.) Faye rocked out on her signature blue Fender guitar as attendees made their way to their seats. “A lot of times on stage I am inhibited, but the audience was giving me a lot of energy that I could feed off,” she said. “So it made me play at my potential. It made me a lot more confident.”

Sarah Martin McConnell wowed the judges — and the crowd — with her elevator pitch for Music for Seniors, a nonprofit that takes live music to the elderly.

Kutcher described Nashville has having seemingly contradictory, yet laudatory, qualities: humility and confidence. Also one of the judges, Kutcher said the one quality he looked for most in a creator is “grit.”

Music City’s quirkiness came through loud and clear in all the best moments of the evening:

Best way to fight the stereotype: Nashville likes to emphasize that it’s not just about country music. Sure, the mega duo of Florida Georgia Line were celebrity judges, but what better way to show Music City’s range than to have G-Eazy (wearing a “Cashville” T-shirt) in the house? The rapper played to a happy after-party crowd that danced through beer and confetti.

Janett Liriano of Loomia pitches her company to the judges.

Best eats: Food trucks lined up outside —  including That Awesome Taco Truck, King Tut’s, and Bradley’s Creamery — fed attendees in a makeshift park with picnic tables and a view of the city skyline in the distance.

Best thirst quencher: On a day that topped 92 degrees and humidity levels as noticeable in the air as the confetti streamers that later rained down, “refreshing” was the beverage watchword of the night. Palomas, served both as limed-accented drinks from the open bars in the vendor market and job fair and as shots once the winners were announced, helped the parched and got folks in a party mood, while keeping it light. For non-drinkers, WithCo’s drink call the Jackass, made with fresh lime and ginger, was a particularly popular pre-show energy kick.

Melanie Faye rocked out on her signature blue Fender guitar at the Nashville Creator Awards.

Easiest way to influence your future: Inside, Neumann, Kutcher, and the finalists demonstrated what happens when one has ambition and curiosity. Business card-maker Moo helped people put that initiative in their own hands –– literally. Market-goers wrote a postcard to their future selves that Moo will mail 12 months from now.

Best wearable art: WeWorker and East Nashville florist FLWR Shop used liquid latex to paint fresh-flower corsages on the wrists of willing attendees.

Local vendors showed off their wares at the Nashville Creator Awards.

Best salute to veterans: The world-changing went on not just on the stage but in the pop-up market and job fair, which hosted many businesses and nonprofits specifically focused on helping refugees and veterans, including Bunker Labs, a national nonprofit for veteran entrepreneurs.

Most quintessential Nashville item for sale: Music City’s Original Fuzz was selling its line of guitar straps made from vintage and one-of-a-kind fabrics. Camera and bags straps were available for those who can’t pick a note.

Dozens of jobs were on offer at the Nashville Creator Awards job fair.

Biggest scene-stealer: Before the pitches began Kutcher and Neumann asked for two volunteers from the packed audience to pitch their idea. Sarah Martin McConnell’s hand shot up, and in 30 seconds she wowed the duo — and the crowd — with her elevator pitch for Music for Seniors, a nonprofit that takes live music to the elderly. She was awarded $50,000 to triple the organization’s size by the end of next year. “This is a turning place for us,” she said.

Product that best knows its niche audience: Nashville is home to the largest Kurdish population in the U.S. The majority of Kurds are Muslim, and Muslim women who participate in wudu, a washing ritual where water must reach every part of the body, cannot wear waterproof makeup or nail polish. Enter Júwon Enamel, a vegan nail polish with a water-permeable polish, to solve that problem. (Júwon means “beautiful” in Kurdish.)

Biggest winner: Stephanie Benedetto, founder and CEO of Queen of Raw, the night’s biggest winner with a $360,000 prize for her online marketplace for excess raw textiles, demonstrated a lot of grit. “The kinds of questions they asked were so valuable, informative, and supportive,” she said, but they also forced her to think about the direction she’ll take the company going forward.

Best sign you were on the right track: Anthony Brahimsha, who walked away with a second-place $180,000 prize for Prommus, his high-protein, clean-label hummus, says that “as soon as you win this award, all the blood, sweat and tears that you put into the company comes together. I’m talking, literally, blood, sweat, and tears… Finally, it feels like an affirmation that you were doing the right thing.”

When luxury clothing retailer Burberry burned millions of dollars worth of items that it couldn’t sell, it caused an uproar. Destroying excess fabric is rampant in the industry, but Stephanie Benedetto may have come up with a solution.

Her business, Queen of Raw, offers an online marketplace for buying and selling fabrics that might otherwise go to waste.

Queen of Raw cofounder Stephanie Benedetto wants to use the prize money from the Nashville Creator Awards to take her company international.

The New Yorker says there’s $120 billion worth of excess fabric sitting in warehouses around the world. That costs the factories that made it, the companies that ordered it, and the warehouses that store it. And Benedetto says it also costs the planet.

The textile industry is the second-biggest polluter of clean water in the world, right after oil. That cotton T-shirt you’re wearing as you read this? Benedetto says it took a mind-boggling 700 gallons of water to produce (unless you happen to be wearing an organic shirt, in which case it’s more like 10 gallons). Multiply that by the 2 billion shirts sold annually across the globe, and you can see the impact this has on the environment.

With Queen of Raw, Bennedetto says that businesses can sell their excess raw fabric (hence the name) instead of destroying it. And if the company that buys it ends up not needing it? Well, it can sell it to another firm.

Buyers become sellers and sellers become buyers,” she says.

Bennedetto says she’s continuing a family tradition. A century ago, her immigrant grandfather worked in the garment industry on New York’s Lower East Side. Today, she runs her technology-driven company from New York’s WeWork Empire State.

A former lawyer who specialized in fashion, technology, and other fields, Benedetto started mapping out Queen of Raw on a napkin four years ago. She officially launched this year with cofounder Phil Derasmo, whose Wall Street and startup contacts were a good balance for her fashion industry chops.

Benedetto estimates that by 2025 Queen of Raw could help save more than 4 billion gallons of water and prevent 2 million tons of textiles from going to the landfill. While Queen of Raw strives to have serious social impact, it was important to Benedetto for it to be a for-profit business to show the industry that preventing waste will help their bottom line.

Benedetto knows how hard it is to run a successful startup. But things suddenly got a lot easier on Sept. 13 when she took home the top prize — $360,000 — at the Nashville Creator Awards.

“We were a bootstrapped company and it took us all the way to launch,” says Benedetto. “We want to be able to grow and scale beyond the U.S. and around the world.”

Her ultimate goal is to get people — business owners and consumers alike — to stop and think.

“Wherever you are, whatever you are going, the materials in the space you are in —the office, a car, a plane — did not come from nowhere,” says Benedetto. “If everyone thought a little differently about one T-shirt, about sourcing sustainably one thing, that would have a massive impact.”

Architect Luiz Alberto Altmann Fazio was volunteering with a well-known nonprofit when he visited a favela in Rio de Janeiro. There he saw for the first time the problems with sewage encountered by many poor communities in Brazil.

“Companies won’t build sewage networks in poor communities because they don’t see it as economically viable,” he says.

About 50 percent of Brazilian households are not connected to a sewage network, a statistic that disproportionally affects the poor. So Fazio created Biosaneamento, a project to build low-cost biogas toilets in communities that lack basic sanitation.

A biogas toilet is similar to an eco-friendly composting toilet in that it converts waste to fertilizer. But a biogas system takes things a step farther by also collecting methane gas that can be used by the local community. This gas can be a lifeline for poor families, who have seen the price of canisters of gas rise in recent months in Brazil.

Despite Brazil passing a law guaranteeing all citizens access to a sewage system 10 years ago, Fazio says that in a best-case scenario, the country is still at least 25 years away from fulfilling its promise. The total cost would be more than $100 billion.

But Biosaneamento offers a cheap and quicker solution to the problem. The construction of bio-toilets uses readily available materials and can create jobs in the community.

Biosaneamento, with offices at Rio de Janeiro’s WeWork Carica, is a winner in the nonprofit category at the WeWork Creator Awards. With the $18,000 prize the company will be able to build up to 50 systems — enough to serve 150 homes and 600 people.

Fazio says that says that their system would cost around a tenth of a sewer traditional system. One of the big benefits would be improving the health of local communities.

“In poor communities with open sewer networks you have high rates of diarrhea and other diseases,” says Fazio. “For young children this can be deadly.”

When São Paulo business leader Alcione Albanesi decided to start a nonprofit organization back in 1993, little did she know that 25 years later it would be one of the best-known programs in Brazil.

“At the time, we couldn’t have imagined where it would take us,” says Albanesi, who started off her career as head of a successful lamp company.

Today, Amigos do Bem — which translates as “Good Friends” — has 8,600 volunteers working to help 60,000 Brazilians in Sertão, one of the country’s poorest areas. The semi-arid region sits in the northeastern part of the country.

Through volunteering, fundraising, and other efforts, Amigos de Bem serves 118 villages in the remote parts of the states of Alagoas, Pernambuco, and Ceará. Last year, Amigos do Bem received an award from Brazil’s Epoca magazine, which honours the 100 best non-governmental organizations in the country.

Sertão is a visually beautiful and enchanting place that has inspired some of Brazil’s best literature and cinema, but it’s also a region that throughout Brazil’s history has suffered from natural disasters, poverty, and neglect.

While there have been some serious improvements in recent years, including much-needed grants provided by the government, problems remain. Jobs are hard to come by, and many residents rely to varying degrees on subsistence agriculture to help them get by.

To make matters worse, two years ago the area suffered its worst drought in history. In 2014, Brazil was removed from the United Nations World Hunger map, but in Sertão, there are many areas where hunger persists.  

“It’s a difficult fight,” says Albanesi, a resident of São Paulo. “It’s really complex. Without a humane intervention, it’s a pattern that repeats itself.”

In partnership with leading supermarket chains in Brazil, Amigos do Bem donates 11,000 food baskets each month to poor families in the Sertão region. But while the nonprofit started off with donations of food and clothing, it has expanded to offer housing and medical and dental care.

Today, the organization is focused on self-sustaining projects such as university scholarships that will benefit nearly 200 students. Most of them will be the first in their families to go on to higher education.

“Today, kids and teenagers in the region can dream,” says Albanesi.