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West Bank Program for Children Takes Holistic Approach

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West Bank Program for Children Takes Holistic Approach

An investment banker looks to build a sustainable model for alleviating poverty in a Middle East village.
Lola Grace
Lola N. Grace

After a successful career as an investment banker, Lola Nashashibi Grace decided it was time to use her business skills to help Palestinian children and women.

Grace chose the West Bank village of Beit Rima for her pilot program, which began in 2007 as an afterschool program for girls. A boys' program followed. Today, the Middle East Children's Institute provides meals, arts, tutoring, athletics, and health care for 750 kids, or 90% of the children who live in the village.

As a result, anemia, once widespread, has been eradicated. Tutoring has led to improved academic performance. Arts and crafts and sports provide the children outlets they never had before in the impoverished West Bank where the conflict with Israel looms large.

Speaking to Stanford GSB students on a visit to campus in February, Grace stressed the value of thinking holistically when trying to address the problems of communities plagued by violence and poverty. For Grace, that meant empowering women, many of whom never worked outside the home. Today, the institute is staffed by 150 local women, many of whose children attend the program.

"I remember having meetings with [these women] and they couldn't even look up," Grace said. But during a trip last December, "these same women were asking me for raises."

What sets Grace's program apart from the multitude of other donor-based charitable endeavors is both its comprehensiveness and the way she applies her business acumen to philanthropy.

"If I hadn't had the project management skills I developed as an investment banker, I really don't think I could have done this," Grace told the business students. Being able to do "action plans and hold people accountable has been really helpful."

The daughter of a Jerusalem-born Palestinian, Grace grew up in Latin America. She later moved to the United States, where she worked as an investment banker for both Morgan Stanley and First Boston and then as managing director of Sterling Grace Capital Management in New York after receiving a bachelor's degree in economics in 1979 and a master's degree in business and food research in 1983, all from Stanford. Today, Grace runs the Middle East Children's Institute and a related foundation from her home in Geneva.

A little over a decade ago, Grace commissioned a study to assess the state of Palestinian children in the West Bank. At the end of the study, it was "pretty obvious the problems were extremely widespread," she told students who attended a talk she gave at Stanford GSB on Feb 16.

"No one was taking a holistic approach," she added.

Grace recalled the skepticism she faced when she set out to launch the program in the politically fraught West Bank. Many people told her that, with Israeli restrictions over the territory, it would not be possible. Her program, people warned, would be deemed political, not humanitarian, a charge she rejects.

The current program is a model that Grace hopes can be replicated elsewhere in the West Bank and perhaps in other places. She has received requests to build the program in Africa and Latin America.

But first she wants to perfect the model: With all its success, the Beit Rima program still cannot survive without donations — Grace herself has contributed $1 million.

She's hunting for a way for the community to earn enough money to cover the annual budget of $300,000. To that end, she is looking to hire a Stanford MBA student this summer to travel to Beit Rima and "conduct a feasibility study for a social enterprise."

Helping children remain healthy, engaged, and happy, she says, "is the way to keep peace alive."

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