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Ella Gudwin of VisionSpring: “Get rid of unpaid internships”

Get rid of unpaid internships. Somebody, a young person, is paying that bill. We structurally exclude people with the lived experience from entry level opportunities. International development will require someone to have experience. For those who are privileged to have studied abroad, great, but this just reinforces a single perspective. As part of our series […]

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Get rid of unpaid internships. Somebody, a young person, is paying that bill. We structurally exclude people with the lived experience from entry level opportunities. International development will require someone to have experience. For those who are privileged to have studied abroad, great, but this just reinforces a single perspective.


As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Ella Gudwin.

Ella Gudwin is CEO of VisionSpring. Under her leadership, VisionSpring has tripled its impact and the global team that is tracking to sell 10 million pairs of radically affordable eyeglasses in emerging and frontier markets, creating 2.16 billion dollars in increased earning potential at the household level.

Before joining VisionSpring in 2015, Ella was senior vice president of strategy and program development at the global health organization AmeriCares. In prior roles, Ella led humanitarian operations as vice president of emergency response and managed access to medicine and health care capacity building programs in ten countries as director of Asia and Eurasia partnerships. Earlier in her career, Ella served as the head of Foreign Government Relations at the Population Council, focused on reproductive health, youth, and poverty. Her passions for social justice and economic development issues took root in Indonesia during the Asian financial crisis and the ensuing people power revolution.

Ella earned an MA in emerging market economics and Southeast Asia studies with distinction from SAIS, Johns Hopkins University, and a BA with honors from Vassar College. Ella is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

There are 2 books that always stand out for me.

I remember when I first read the invisible man. I had an English teacher named Hyacinth, I struggled with English, then got to honors — and the Invisible Man was one of those books I remember underlining — I didn’t skip one page. I kept this underlined copy and brought it to college. It was on my bookshelf through college, then afterwards, back in my home bedroom and it burnt down when my parent’s house burnt down.

I was one of those privileged white kids from a wealthy, mostly white community — Malibu, CA, a child of hippie, liberal parents. I remember so clearly when the Rodney King riots happened — we were reading this book after the riots. It was real learning time for me.

Later in college, I learned about the idea of double consciousness. I was a sociology major and took courses around racial and social justice. I learned about the great migration in the south and interned in a max security prison. Oh, and another meaningful book was The God of Small Things.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“Small is beautiful. Big is necessary.”

– Sir Fazel Abed, Founder and Chairman of BRAC (I remember this during our first meeting. He passed away late last year)

Apropos for our times now especially — Clara Miller, Heron Foundation

“Staying curious and being flexible is the order of the day because it is going to be a bumpy ride.”

For my daughter: “Walk with purpose in the direction that you’re going”. — Reese Witherspoon

My parents followed a guru — the main tenet of his teaching is that peace is possible and it’s inside of you. That thing you are searching for — that’s inside of you. This sentiment has always been a source of strength and truth for me. It was in my household my whole life. I think that gratitude and gratitude journals are popular now, but they weren’t back then.

The idea that this life is a gift and breath is precious — it’s a gift. That inclination to gratitude has been with me since these early days.

I never wanted for anything growing up and that thinking gave me a tremendous sense of possibility. I remember being truly blissed out — in Indonesia in 1995, doing research, and we had gone for a drive through the rice paddies. We were going to their ancestral village. I remember just weeping with joy — pure, happy tears. Tears of joy and gratitude in that moment of just being. I became aware that when your heart lifts, it can be what will guide you in life. I was fortunate to have parents who were tuned into when their hearts lifted.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I think I doubted my own sense or ability of leadership. I was really fortunate to have mentors and role models in each of the past organizations where I worked. The Council on Foreign Relations, AmeriCares and even when I was in film production — each mentor set a different tone and example of leadership.

There is a really traditional sense of leadership, but there’s also another sense, of those who inspire others to do their best work, to stretch. In the last couple of years with the over-glorification of the entrepreneur, the idea of a great entrepreneur is important, but you can’t execute without a team. Leadership comes throughout the organization. My job as CEO is to support from the bottom. It is to support and empower and facilitate with and through everything we do with customers, clients, and donors. That’s where the real work gets done everyday.

As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I make sure I have a full stomach. A banana, a granola bar — whatever, I have to eat. Before a critical all hands meeting recently with our team around the world, I stayed up until 4 going over the deck, then was up at 7, ready to go at 8. When you are coming into some big moments or decisions, they are usually the culmination of a body of work, so by the time you get there, you are going to draw on what you know.

Usually, with a high stakes meeting or talk, I have thought it through, tested versions, or pieces of it, and ultimately when I am putting something together, I am trying to think what is central to the message — what facts and data matter. For this all hands meeting, for example, I had already created the model and knew how it would impact every single person across the organization. I sit in the detail so I have the ownership and choices. I am rooted in the rationale. This is what gives me confidence.

Our Clear Vision Workplace program was also months in the making. There was the actual model, the pricing, the places where we didn’t have answers. I knew the data. When we launched it in Bangladesh, on the stage, I could interact with the stakeholders, I was really familiar with the initiative. Connection between the work and the impact and my being comfortable is everything.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

There are two ‘we’s” here — the America experience of BLM, and the international development sector, where we live and work at VisionSpring.

Not a surprise that we are where we are — it’s a 400 year old history and rooted in violence that has been perpetrated in black communities — it goes back to the original sin of our founding. There was a confluence across the additional burden of COVID-19. In NYC, there was over-policing and presumption of guilt when looters came around the edges of the protests. That is what ignited protests across the country.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

We are facing this question in the broadest sense at VisionSpring with the Int’l aid sector — from north to south, this space is dense with power dynamics. Diversity and inclusion looks very broad for us.

In international development, there is a long arc that we are on from colonialism and post colonial aid and assistance and aid charity, capacity building, intellectual property transfer and localization. It is fraught with power dynamics and wealth coming from the north and going to the south often without control and accountability by and to the communities being served. It is very slow to move, this idea of ownership. There are very few accountability mechanisms to disrupt power dynamics — of NGOs, philanthropists, and aid agencies, which are tied to foreign policy agendas.

All of us in int’l development — are part of this. Where are we as an org in all of that?

At VisionSpring, being aware of the power dynamic is a daily exercise. When I first joined the organization, we were 70 people in 2 countries. Today we are 320 people in 9 countries. We have grown from 6 full time people to 12 in NYC . All of the rest of our growth is close to customers. We don’t put expats there. We purposely invest in local talent there, and think of NYC as a support office, not headquarters.

For VS, I would want us and my legacy to be about globally distributed leadership. This means that expertise and decision-making is closest to the customer. Most importantly, that we would have fully internalized customer feedback, as well as the insights of our teams into continual learning, improvement, ideation, innovation, and then back to the customer for a fully improved product/service offering.

One of our core values is to advance equity. Equity assumes you need an unequal or unjust set of circumstances to be able to right the wrong. Ultimately, justice eradicates the underpinning, but on the path to justice, you work hard at equity.

VisionSpring has equity as a core value.

We look to empower women and girls, but to hear all voices. Hearing all voices — customers, gov’t , etc — is the same as all voices on our team. That requires practice. That doesn’t just happen.

It is particularly important in context that prides hierarchy and patriarchy. What I love about selling glasses, it makes us accountable to the customer. They are parting with income (they live in less than 4 dollars/day) to purchase a product in the context of a service we provide, so we have to deliver value. We have to offer something that is worth their time. That makes us accountable to hundreds of thousands of people at a time.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

  1. Be willing to give up power — see above
  2. Actively listen
  3. call BS and be uncomfortable in it. Sometimes it shouldn’t be smoothed over. We need to live in the discomfort. For sis-gender women running non-profits, ‘clear is kind’ nice is not kind.
  4. Eradicate the word beneficiary from int’l dev — beneficiaries they are customers — people who are voting for the product, service and intervention
  5. Get rid of unpaid internships. Somebody, a young person, is paying that bill. We structurally exclude people with the lived experience from entry level opportunities. International development will require someone to have experience. For those who are privileged to have studied abroad, great, but this just reinforces a single perspective.

The foundation world is very white and very elite. They are in the best positions to pay for entry level interns who don’t have this experience. But they are have not been doing that.

In terms of leadership. We have a ten on our board, including two person of color, 6 women and 4 men.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

There is a much higher level of consciousness and participation than BLM in 2013. The reality is that there is local work to be done with police, unions, and it has to be a sustained effort. And so, we can hope that young people who don’t currently have jobs can continue, then perhaps we can go from protest to policy. This could bring about lasting change. We all bear this burden, but the unique dynamic of COVID-19 with this continued effort, is what is more likely to make it happen.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to bring my daughter to meet Malala.

How can our readers follow you online?

https://www.linkedin.com/in/ella-r-gudwin-66542a/

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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