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How She Got There: Maz Kessler, Founder of Catapult

Posted Jul 8 2013 - 12:00pm

Name: Maz Kessler
Job Title and Description: Founder of Catapult
College/Major: London School of Economics/Law (I left before the end of my first year to join a band and write songs in NYC!)
Website: www.catapult.org
Twitter Handle: @wecatapult

What does your current job entail?
Maz Kessler:
Being the founder of a tech/philanthropy startup basically entails working on all aspects of the organization. There’s the fun creative stuff (code, design, grant making, social media and communications), and the not-so-creative tasks [such as] including admin and fundraising.

The team at Catapult is small but insanely productive. While everyone’s responsible for their own specific areas of expertise, we all move pretty fluidly between tasks, both creative and strategic.

Is there such a thing as a typical day?
MK:
Startups are incredibly fluid and dynamic. It’s impossible to know what’s coming down the pike. So days tend not to be typical, or predictable.

Catapult was only nine weeks old when our current partnership with the Chime for Change appeared on the horizon. We were suddenly playing a key role in a highly visible global campaign. The results have been fantastic. Catapult powered the first global concert for girls and women’s rights on June 1st in London, which raised millions of dollars for almost 100 organizations.

A lot for a tiny startup that’s less than eight months old.

What is the best part of your job?
MK:
First, knowing there’s real impact. Because of Catapult, over 100 organizations working on the frontlines for girls and women will get funding for their work from people all around the world who are excited to create change. That’s awesome.

Second, at a more personal and creative level, it’s the intense excitement of getting to solve problems that have never been addressed before. No one ever tried to crowdfund equality for girls and women, and there’s no roadmap. We work incredibly hard every day to figure it out.

What was your first entry-level job in your field and how did you get it?
MK:
I was a musician and songwriter first, then had a technology company for a decade. One of the incredible things about the way we live now is that it’s increasingly normal to have multiple and varied careers – and all of them can be important and worthwhile.

After working in the tech sector, I wanted to make my commitment to social justice. I’d sold my company and was looking for a way to help make positive change. I reconnected with an old friend from the music business who had become an important HIV/AIDS activist. She’d seen the devastation that HIV/AIDS was wreaking on families and children in Sub-Saharan Africa first-hand, and was compelled to take action. This was in 2001, before the international community had mobilized, before PEPFAR. That year, a major UN policy-maker declared that it would be impossible to provide life-saving treatment to people in sub-Saharan Africa because they wouldn’t be able to take their medicine on time. Really.

So I jumped at the chance to be involved in starting an organization. Keep A Child Alive was born, and it was basically my Ph.D. in Global Development. We fundraised to help provide treatment and support to families and children suffering from HIV/AIDS. As a co-founder, again, I did absolutely everything – helping to invent the organization from the ground up. Made very little money, but learned a huge amount. I guess I’m a serial entrepreneur.

Why did you decide to create Catapult?
MK:
At the age of 12 years old, I read Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and from that moment on, I was a total feminist. Feminism is fundamental to who I am and has been a guiding principle throughout my work and personal life. So of course I was thrilled to start working with gender justice organizations. Through that work, I was confronted again with the horrific obstacles that continue to oppress girls and women worldwide: domestic violence and rape; child marriage; sex slavery and trafficking and so many other injustices that destroy lives and potential.

But in spite of the obvious need for support, girls and women are actually the losers in the global fundraising game.  According to recent reports funding for girls and women’s causes does not rise above six percent of total grant making. This lack of funding threatens to close 1 in 5 wonderful organizations fighting on the frontlines of gender justice.

I started to think about how to address this gap, what I could do to help mobilize new funds for girls and women – and came up with Catapult.

Who is one person who changed your professional life for the better?
MK:
Catapult owes its existence to Jill Sheffield,  [who is] the President of Women Deliver. Jill is a bold innovator and visionary. She exemplifies the role of positive mentorship – elevating her young staff and colleagues, and putting them on the world stage. For Catapult, Sheffield put both her reputation and her organization on the line and took a huge risk to incubate a new idea.  

What words of wisdom do you find most valuable?
MK:
I’ve worked with SO many amazing people in my three careers who have so many great words of wisdom to live by.

Here are a few:

Madonna on self-esteem: “Why should I doubt myself? Everyone else will do it for me.”
Jill Sheffield on dealing with adversaries: “Kill them with kindness.”

What is one mistake you made along the way and what did you learn from it?
MK:
I’ve made so many mistakes, it’s hard to choose just one! But the older I get, the less I fear making mistakes. In fact, I almost welcome them. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks. Innovation requires constant mistakes and course-corrections as we keep trying for the solution.

The good [thing] is that there’s currently a real climate for understanding the benefits of blunders and elevating the lessons learned.

Where do you see you (and Catapult) in 10 years?
MK:
I see Catapult as a huge fundraising machine for girls and women’s equality as well as a key part of the movement for social justice around the world. Because when you invest in girls and women, everybody benefits.

What do you look for when considering hiring someone?
MK:
After the usual things—such as whether the person is qualified—I look for intelligence, flexibility, boldness, humor and passion for the issues that we’re working on. [Since] there is no road map for what we’re doing, it takes a combination of openness and also intense goal focus, which might seem at odds with each other.   

What advice would you give to a 20-something with similar aspirations?
MK:
Say YES. Commit and be bold. Make mistakes early. Keep moving forward.

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