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Ep. 125 Building Organizations that Matter

What does it take – as a woman – to build a business from the ground up? Are there special challenges that women face?  Our guest today, Maya Ajmera, started her first organization, the Global Fund for Children, shortly after she graduated from Duke University with a Master of Public Policy degree.

To date, the organization has invested nearly $50 million dollars in over 725 grassroots organizations, reaching 11 million children and youth worldwide.

She’s now the President and CEO of the Society for Science and Publisher of its award-winning magazine, Science News. The Society for Science is best known for its world-class science competitions and its suite of outreach and equity programs.

She’s the recipient of leadership awards and fellowships, including the National Science Board Public Service Award. She also serves on numerous boards including Echoing Green, Kids in Need of Defense, and the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics Foundation.


Conversation Highlights

On the best advice she’s received along the way

One big piece of advice I learned was to stay away from people who sucked the passion out of you. And I found some of those. They were just naysayers the whole time. And I basically learned very quickly to stay away from them or you just won’t be able to do your work.

And it’s not that you don’t want to get challenging responses from individuals because you do. You want people to challenge you. You want people to deconstruct your argument. But what you don’t want is for people to say you can’t do this.

On her leadership style and pivoting during COVID

If you have a really extraordinary team, it’s so much fun to support their initiatives and to back them and to see them thrive and to see their teams thrive. I’ll give a great example. In my current work, the Society for Science founded the International Science and Engineering Fair in 1950, and we’ve built local science fairs throughout the world from the grassroots. We now have a 400 affiliated fair science fairs in 80 countries, regions and territories. We have been in person every year since last year.

Before Covid hit, we had to pivot very quickly of how we were going to do in international science fair. This year, we are going to have the largest fair ever, we’re going to have over fifteen hundred projects from over 2000 students from 65 countries, regions and territories. Each project will get four video interviews with two judges. And we’ve had to build these digital platforms, right, to be able to do all this. We’re going to be awarding five million dollars in awards virtually to these students. And they are the most powerful STEM visionaries in the world. Half of them are young women and a quarter of them are coming in with patents or patent ready. These are high school students. They are the next Bill Gateses and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world.

So that’s what leadership is about. It’s about how well do you pivot in a crisis? And we were able to do that. And we’ve now become sort of a role model for others of how we’re doing this work.

On making it work with little funding

My first seed grant was $25,000 dollars. That supported me through Echoing Green. Not a lot of money in this day and age, I guess, but it’s really about setting the vision. Where do you see the organization going and what did you want to do for children? And for me, it was very clear that there was a large population of children that were invisible to government and the only way to reach child laborers and street children and girls and minority populations and children with disabilities and street children was really through grassroots organizations and local leaders. And I think that really took people’s imaginations saying, wow, a small amount of money targeted well and locally can do very big things in the developing world and even in the United States.


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