A natural communicator with an insatiable curiosity and all-important sense of humor, Sustainable Health Enterprise's founder Elizabeth Scharpf is inspiring life-changing dialog around menstruation, and developing real-world solutions to the production and distribution of sanitary pads in Rwanda.
“What I didn't anticipate was what would happen when we got people talking about this subject.”
Elizabeth Scharpf is part doctor, part entrepreneur, and part confidant; the conversations that her work facilitates are as important as the health implications and the jobs created. At its heart, Sustainable Health Enterprises (nicknamed SHE) is a force for breaking barriers and taboos, encouraging open and informed dialog about challenging subjects, and then devising tangible solutions to address them. As Chief Instigating Officer, Elizabeth's work deals specifically with the taboos around women's menstruation held in rural communities of Rwanda, and challenging the centuries-old misconceptions that keep girls from attending school and women from maintaining employment.
Elizabeth brings to her work a lifetime of curiosity and the determination to discover what lies beneath the surface of our understanding. "I was the kind of kid that went to the butcher shop to get a cow heart in order to learn how a pacemaker was inserted for a 6th grade research project," she recalls. She went on to a magnet high school for medical science, and later the biotech industry. Today, that curiosity means working beside MIT and North Carolina State graduates to run Rwandan banana fibers and other raw materials through blenders and paper-pulping machinery to find the most efficient and sustainable methods to make sanitary pads; or brainstorming with farmers and women leaders in the region to piece together a production and distribution model that fits each community's needs.
By approaching the task candidly, and with a sense of humor, Elizabeth is changing more than just the conversation around pads. "What I didn't anticipate," she says, "was what would happen when we got people talking about this subject. People started opening up to me about all sorts of things that were taboo, and not just to me — but will all of the women we work with, and with each other. A whole dialog around taboo subjects, around health and family, has risen up around us."