A Walk Across Two Continents

Kathleen Matthews

I’ve just returned from a power walk with Sbusisiwe Myeni, a dynamic Zulu woman I met in South Africa when we were paired as mentor and mentee by Vital Voices, the global women’s empowerment organization. Sbu, as she calls herself, was chatting away from her home in KwaZulu Natal where it was pouring rain, and I was walking under blue skies in Washington, D.C. But through the power of FaceTime, we carried on a conversation as if we were walking together side by side.

Over the past year, through technology, we’ve had many of these chats, and deepened our friendship, which began during our first walk together in a Johannesburg park on Global Women’s Mentoring Day in March of 2015. Sbu, a former banker in Johannesburg, had been selected as a promising young African leader to be part of the Global Ambassadors Program, a Vital Voices-Bank of America partnership, and I was working at the time as head of global communications for Marriott International, the world’s largest hotel company. The program matched a diverse group of American women who had reached a certain point in their careers with talented African women aspiring to make a difference in their continent.

Kathleen Matthews and Sbu Myeni in Johannesburg, South Africa 2015

Both of us had come to the Global Ambassadors Program with certain expectations about mentoring. Sbu had recently left her banking job and was looking for tactical advice on how to expand an after-school program for disadvantaged youth in her community. I was hoping that I had some helpful ideas from my career as a journalist and global business executive on how she might get funding and visibility for her worthy project. Neither of us imagined the electricity we’d generate that would jolt both of us in new and exciting directions.

As Sbu described her project, I was entranced by her storytelling about the Valley of a Thousand Hills, where she and her twin sister had grown up in a nurturing environment. Her goal was to restore a quality of life for children today who face a different landscape with dream-shattering youth unemployment, HIV-AIDS and lack of access to higher education. The TV journalist in me visualized the narrative with wide shots of the beautiful landscape, cutting to the faces of young children who saw no future, as they were rescued by Sbu’s vision. The business executive in me saw the opportunity for compelling new branding, marketing, and a development strategy.

The more we brainstormed, Sbu’s ideas expanded from the after-school program to include a tourism business that would provide sustainable jobs to youth in the area. Her enthusiasm for creating and leading a project like this was contagious.

Unexpectedly, I was swept away with a desire to do something on my own to improve the lives of children and hardworking families in my own community, whether it was making college more affordable, tougher gun safety laws, immigration reform, or equal pay for equal work.

By the end of the weeklong program, Sbu was fired up with a new and bigger purpose, and I was on my way to running for U.S. Congress, an opportunity that had surfaced with an open seat in my home congressional district.

Neither of us could have imagined how two women, from opposite sides of the planet, would find themselves, at the same moment, compelled to take all that they’d learned in their previous careers and put it towards service in their community. Both of us were being held back by an abundance of caution, and needed the other to propel the leap forward.

My take-away was the realization that you need to be open to new possibilities no matter what stage in life you find yourself. Even after 40 years and two fairly distinguished careers, I realized I could continue to improvise and reframe my life, if I was purposeful and fearless. Most importantly, I had found the confidence to risk failure, something I had cautiously avoided my entire life, in order to keep learning and growing.

Sbu Myeni and Kathleen Matthews reunited in Half Moon Bay, California, October 2016

18 months later, Sbu and I will be together this week in California when Vital Voices reunites 100 of the accomplished women leaders that they’ve honored and mentored over the past decade. All of us will have new stories to tell and advice to share as the roles of mentor and mentee. Sbu has broken ground on three buildings to house her growing program, including a guest house for visitors to stay when they walk through a Valley of Thousand Hills. Each one of those hills represents the 1000 children in her community she will serve with new jobs or scholarships, and she’s well on her way.

After leaving my position at Marriott last year to run for Congress, I lost a close election four months ago in a hotly contested Democratic primary. Every day on the campaign trail I improvised and stretched in new ways to connect more deeply with my local community as an advocate for women and children. For me, running and honing my political voice as a candidate was a victory.

With no regrets, I’m paying it forward by helping other women get elected in November, including Hillary Clinton, who is one of the founders of Vital Voices. Every day I look for the right opportunity to make a difference, and I know I’ll get more inspiration from Sbu and others when we walk together again.

Originally posted on The Huffington Post on October 10, 2016

Follow Kathleen Matthews @KM4MD