Sofia Maroudia, COO, ActionAid, on Being the Change She Wanted to See in the World

Sofia Maroudia in Sierra LeoneThe NextWomen Social Enterpreneurship Theme.

Sofia Maroudia is the Chief Operations Officer at ActionAid Italia, the global NGO, which works with 15 million people in 45 countries, for a world free from poverty and injustice.

Born in Athens in 1976, having lived in UK, Cyprus and Italy, Sofia graduated with an MA in Politics and Modern History from Edinburgh and an MA in Law from Cambridge – the degrees which were the first steps in pursuing a career in international policy. Sofia’s career before ActionAid however was anything but ‘Not for Profit’. 7 years in investment banking at Goldman Sachs in London, 2 years at Boston Consulting Group in Italy – a fast paced corporate environment where satisfaction comes with ‘Profit’.

Sofia talks to The NextWomen about the switch from profit to not-for-profit; solutions to power imbalances; and the importance of changing lives.

KZ: From profit to not-or-profit. What made you switch?

SM: My idea was to be in a position to affect policy, whether social or environmental. I had to do something that affects people.

Banking was a great place to start and get fast paced experience, but I wanted to be rewarded in something else than money.

When I turned 30, it became clear that if I don’t do it now, I will become too entrenched. It becomes too difficult to switch and to be credible. I started looking.

KZ: Why ActionAid?

SM: What sets ActionAid apart, is that we look for the core of the problem – society and legislation. We won’t go raise money for a school, which might close as soon as the funds run out because it is not supported by the government. We would work with the community and lobby their local and then national government to make long lasting social changes. Our work changes lives.

KZ: A 'day in a life', what is your role at ActionAid?

SM:

As a Chief Operations Officer I manage marketing, fundraising, campaigning programs. I have over 60 people and a €45million balance sheet to respond for.

Every day starts with planning ahead, reviewing projects and campaigns. It’s important to monitor the temperature on campaigning. I check what our numbers look like and what campaigns we are planning for next year.

People are a big part of my day. Its naïve to think that all people who work at an NGO are motivated. They are professionals and they work hard but I try to have some fun as well as we don’t have things like financial incentives.

KZ: Seeing the results must be a big motivation for what you do. How can one measure ‘changing lives’?

SM: I measure my success on impact. How many people do we reach in a meaningful way, what government legislations do we manage to change, what social injustice is turned around. In ActionAid we have activists who sign up to our campaigns and lobby for a cause.

That’s a big measurement for me. To see how we turn people into passionate campaigners, who care for the world and people around them.

KZ: Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur?

SM: The beauty of what we do is that we have a mission: to change injustice and end poverty. If somebody comes with a great idea, we have no limits in what we can do, we are innovating the environment.

KZ: What are the key problems you are trying to solve? What are the most successful solutions?

SM: Each country in the international ActionAid federation sets their own agenda for in country work and we choose campaigns based on where there is more need, social injustice, what we think we can change both abroad and in Italy. We have a “Right hand” approach, we don’t attack the symptom of the problem, we go to the core. We think poverty exists because of social injustice, hence our campaigns must readdress the power imbalance. One of our current projects in Nigeria is a good example.

In the North of the country girls don’t go to schools because Sharia laws and local customs don’t allow for that. They are forced into marriage by the age of 10 and that is a society norm.

We work with the women who want their rights respected , we work with the local men, so that they can lobby their local leaders, influence the local government to then have a bigger impact on a national level.

The realisation that no religion or culture can infringe on people’s rights can change the lives of million’s of girls.

KZ: What makes you smile and feel that you've achieved what you set out to do?

SM: I’ll give you an example. In Italy we had an earthquake in L’Aquila in 2008, which has since become a ghost town, shut to residents and controlled by the army. Five years down the line and the town is still shut, the local residents still living many kilometres away in places where they were sent off to. There was no transparency from the Government at the time and still no sign of progress now. Most importantly, nobody took into consideration the needs and rights of the residents.

Our role in rebuilding it is to listen to the residents and give them a voice, to create transparency and hold the Government accountable. We are using our campaigning skills to change the governmental approach in the most recent natural disaster, that of the Emilia Romagna earthquake in 2012, to ensure a transparent budget tracking exercise and to involve the residents in the reconstruction. All this can have a life changing effect with investments as  low as €20,000 rather than millions.

KZ: What motivates your job?

SM: Unlike banking, it’s a long-term satisfaction rather than immediate gratification. It’s knowing that the right policies affect people. The most satisfying moment is when I go meet the activist or the people who donate and see how it changed the way people think.

ZK: How is technology helping your work?

SM: 

Simple things make a big difference. Skype alone has revolutionised the way we communicate and wiped out huge costs, enabling us to spend it on campaigns.

The role of social media is significant as well. TV and press used to be a big channel, now social media makes us rethink. You can’t buy a space anymore, you have to create a message, which will inspire people and get their attention. The hashtag we created for the World Food Day was trending in the top 5 in Italy, that means a lot to measuring our success.

KZ: What inspires your work and life?

SM: Travel. This summer I went to Myannmar (Burma) with my husband. It has only just really opened to travellers after a long period of being off limits for political reasons and it was incredible to see a country untouched by globalisation. Usually wherever you are going now you will see Coca Cola in the shops and boys playing football in ManU shirts. Here everything is so fresh and unglobalised.

I went to Uganda for my honeymoon and keep travelling every time I have a spare moment.

I have an unusual passion for urban spaces like LA, Sao Paolo. I like the skyscrapers, it fascinates me that so many people live in one moment.

KZ: What do you value in a mentor and do you have a person that inspires you?

SM: My mentor is my ex-boss from Goldman Sachs. Somebody who really has his feet on the ground, he has inspired me with his simplicity of dealing with things. As a mentor I value somebody who can give me context in any situation as sometimes it’s easy to become too entrenched and forget about the bigger picture.

It’s important to get a mentor outside of your immediate world as I believe it’s far more important to get advice on dealing with people than driving sales, to hear people’s experiences. I respect managers who can be leaders.

Q: What would your tips be to your younger self?

To be really open-minded and to make the most of it. Life is fluid and you can change any moment, you have to go for it and take the challenge.

KZ: What is your greatest achievement?

SM:

I hope my greatest achievements are yet to come, but despite being a very rational person, I’ve not hesitated to change industries, change countries.

I guess it’s not being hesitant, rolling the sleeves and going for it.

KZ: What is your biggest regret?

SM: Towards the end of the period when I was in finance I wanted to leave and had stopped appreciating the good things: the independence, responsibility, great clients and colleagues. I’ve since learnt that you have to make the most of any period.

KZ: What would you like To see happen 10 years from now?

SM: I want people to be more involved in what’s around them.

It doesn’t have to be poverty or NGO, but we all live once and we could have been born anywhere, we need to be more aware of life beyond us.

When I travel to visit a new country, I always try to imagine what life would be like and try to see what can happen to make it better. It would be an easier and fun place to live if people started to care more. No one organisation can change the world, its the people who matter.

Katerina works with entrepreneurs in Tech, Fashion and Education to create long-term growth through branding, partnerships and collaborations. Previously, Katerina consulted P&G on pan-European digital strategy, worked with FIAT, Agent Provocateur, TomTom, Heinz Baby, Red Bull amongst others.

Katerina is a keen mentor for young talent, both in business and in graduate education, through providing strategic marketing advice, practical tips and extending her network. Katerina writes a lifestyle blog on Huffington Post, a style diary on Netrobe and a regular blog for active kids on Yummy and Olympic – a children’s sportswear brand that she created.

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