EP 06: Working to Change the World One Woman at a Time with Karen Sherman

“Women’s ability to adapt, to transform their lives and the lives of their families and communities, I've seen that all over the world.” As an international women’s rights advocate for the last 30 years, Karen Sherman has not only seen women transform their lives, she’s helped them do it. In her latest venture as founder and CEO of Virunga Mountain Spirits, she is creating jobs for Rwandan women as alcohol-makers, a profession women have turned to support themselves since the beginning of time. She has created a sustainable production process in conjunction with a local chip factory to make vodka from the region’s “unloved” potatoes. The process also gives back to the land and to local farmers by turning all refuse into livestock feed and fertilizer.

When a woman earns her own income she gets to voice decisions in her own life and make choices about where her money goes and to whom. Once this level of empowerment is established for women in Rwanda, they have potential to then start their own businesses and to lead their own communities toward change. A large part of Karen’s job as a womens’ rights advocate is to be a humble and respectful champion, recognizing that no outside force can create sustainable change in another country.

Women are survivors–of everything from war to violence to lack of opportunity–and have the power to rebuild their lives, as the title of Karen’s book suggests, “Brick by Brick.” Listeners of today’s episode will learn what they can do to get involved and support global women empowerment, misconceptions about social change and why cynicism and pessimism are luxuries.

Show keywords: #femaleempowerment #sustainablechange #creatingchange #RwandanWomen


  • “Men would come in, and say, ‘I just need a million dollars, because I've got this great idea, and it's gonna be amazing.The women would come in and say, I've got this great idea, and I need $50. And I can run with that. And that is really the fundamental difference.” (2:54 | Karen)
  • “I'm not Rwandan, I can't pretend to be Rwandan, I'm not an Afghani woman. I really feel like the women in their countries should lead. It is really up to them to drive change. Where I feel like I can be helpful and when I'm wearing my development hat, is really as a champion, an advocate, really a catalyst, if you will. It isn't for me to drive change in another society.” (5:59 | Karen)
  • “We've all had to survive something in our lives, whether it be violence, or abuse, or just a lack of resources or opportunity, the lack of schooling. So to me, it's sort of what do you do with that? How do you rebuild your lives a brick at a time?” (8:37 | Karen)
  • 12:25 - "While education gives women voice, it's really the income piece that gives women choice. One without the other is really insufficient for transformation and social change." (12:43 | Karen)
  • “You don't have to do everything, you can pick a thing that really means something to you. And you can start small, just pick something: a place, an area that you feel like you want to make a difference because it resonates with you. And you know, let your passion drive you forward.” (23:13 | Karen)