When I first met Maggie Doyne, I didn't realize how much she would impact my life. It was 2007 and I was working in my first reporter job for a small New Jersey newspaper called The Observer Tribune.
During my tenure there, I'd write about such non-events as duck pond dredging, holiday parades, fundraisers, school board meetings and statue dedications. This job might have given me the chops to seek out and write my own stories, but the good ones weren't easy to find.
I heard about Maggie via a spotty voicemail that I'd been left by an anonymous tipster. I could barely make out the message: "Amazing story. You must meet Maggie" along with a 6-digit phone number, and static rather than a final digit. I left messages on multiple voice mailboxes in search of my mystery protagonist, and a few days later got a call from Maggie herself. I was so excited to hear what the story was all about, so we set up a meeting at a local coffee shop, where she promised to tell me everything.
When we met I was immediately struck at how young and bubbly she was. She seemed more like a college student preparing for freshman year than a girl on the brink of changing the world. Just 20 years old at the time, Maggie sat down and unfurled a large sheet of paper, which contained the blueprints for a large building. I was immediately intrigued, and then she began speaking.
Maggie standing in the foundation of what will become Kopila Valley Children's Home
Unlike the other young ladies with similar upbringings to Maggie and myself, Maggie decided to forgo the traditional collegiate path of an upwardly mobile young adult and instead spent a year volunteering in an orphanage in India. There she met a Nepalese girl who asked Maggie to accompany her to her homeland in search of her family, whom she had been separated from due to civil war. Maggie and her new young friend trekked for two full days, eventually landing at the foothills of the Himalayas in a world far from anything Maggie had ever known.
Over our coffees, Maggie's demeanor got more serious, as she told me that what she saw shook her to her very core; orphaned babies, children, and teens alike living on the street, performing manual labor just to survive. She explained that the war in Nepal had left more 50,000 children, including orphans, ex-child soldiers and victims of sex trafficking, to fend for themselves. She told me how devastated she was to see a reality that she never knew existed, and how she felt she could never go back to her old life again.
"I had to do something," Maggie said to me with defiance and certainty. And that she did. Rather than coming back to her comfortable suburban existence, Maggie called her parents, and asked them to wire her the only $5,000 she had (saved from babysitting, pet sitting and collecting birthday checks) to buy a plot of land in Surkhet, a small Nepalese district about 400 miles west of Kathmandu. Her plan was clear: buy land, register an NGO, build an orphanage, and give these displaced children the life that she had enjoyed; one that delivered such basic needs as safety, health care, education, and most importantly, love.
My mind was racing. How could such a young girl accomplish all this? It seemed impossible. And yet I just knew that she would. Maggie went on to tell me that her $5,000 investment had only gotten her so far and that she was in New Jersey hoping to raise $50,000 in order to put a roof on her still-hollow children's home. She also was hoping to register her non-profit (which she called BlinkNow to commemorate the fact that she made the decision to change her life's trajectory in the blink of an eye), and create a board of directors. I looked at her in awe, and realized for the first time in my young reporting career, I had a story on my hands that almost literally wrote itself.
Unsurprisingly Maggie's story struck a chord with the community. After the piece came out, medical companies from the area donated supplies, local artists offered paintings for the not-yet-built walls, and cash began trickling its way in. When Maggie called me and said thanks to the exposure, she was well on her way to her $50,000 goal, I realized the power of storytelling, and became convinced it was my life's passion. The article, of course, was picked up quickly by the press; next by The Star Ledger, and then The New York Times.
Fast forward to now, and Maggie has accomplished more than is fathomable by even high ranking government bodies. She is the legal guardian to 50 children who call her "Maggie mom," and lives in a growing four-level house filled with colorful murals, flavorful cooking, singing, dancing and a host of special family traditions. In 2010 she opened the doors to Kopila Valley School, which is today attended by more than 350 Nepalese children, most of whom are the first in their families to ever be educated. Maggie has become fluent in Nepali and made sure to hire a 90 percent Nepalese staff, in order to help create local jobs. If that's not enough, Maggie has also built a community health clinic, Women's Center, and broken ground on Kopila Valley High School. Clearly there is no stopping the power of this young woman's determination to change the lives of so many children. I to this day well up when I think about the love that will follow Maggie throughout her life, not to mention the sheer number of future adults who will no doubt care for and cherish Maggie forever. The ramifications of her love are widespread indeed.
Since our 2007 conversation, Maggie's remarkable story has won her everything from CosmoGirl of the Year in 2008 to the Forbes Excellence in Education Award in 2013 to CNN Hero of The Year in 2015. She has spoken at various high-profile events, including the Forbes Women's Summit, and in 2014 was presented with the Unsung Hero of Compassion, awarded by the Dalai Lama.
After seeing Maggie's social media announcement that she is expecting a baby with her fiancé, filmmaker Jeremy Power Regimbal, and realizing it's been a full decade since we've spoken, I thought it would be a good time to catch up with my lifelong inspiration. Here, Maggie shares what life is like today.
Why did you decide to launch your own charity initiative rather than becoming part of an already existing one?
I was young when I first started and I had this vision for what I wanted a children's home and school to look like. My vision was different from all the existing charities I had come across, and that's why I decided to create my own.
You started when you were just 19, did you know what you were getting into, and how have you navigated seeing through such a huge goal?
When I first started, I don't think that I fully realized what I was getting into. I always say that I had the benefit of being young and naive. It was simple, I saw a problem that I wanted to fix, so I got to work. This isn't to say that it was all easy. There were many setbacks but I was resilient and focused - two other benefits of being young.
Can you speak about winning the hero of the year? What did it mean to you, what did it mean to your kids?
Maggie winning CNN's Hero Of The Year award
Winning the CNN Hero award was such an incredible moment for all of us in Nepal. I think we were all so proud of our work and so happy to have an opportunity to share our story with the world.
With over four dozen children who call you mom, do you you ever feel overwhelmed? How do your spread your time?
I think all moms get overwhelmed, whether you have 1 or 50. I do have moments, but I have a great team that supports me. We have Nepali caregivers, aunties and uncles who are always there for the children. It's not just me, it's a big team, and we all raise the children together.
You've created such an amazing family, can you talk about some of the family traditions that you have?
We've developed so many great traditions over the years but one I am most proud of is our nightly satsung tradition. Every evening after dinner we all meet for a family meeting where we sing songs, talk about our day, and discuss plans for the week. It's our family ritual and I am always amazed to see my youngest, just as engaged as my oldest. It's a special time.
Maggie and her fiancé, Jeremy.
Do you teach English or Nepali in the school?
We teach both Nepali and English in our school.
What subjects do you teach in the school and who are the teachers?
We teach the traditional courses math, science, social studies, language etc. We also offer extracurricular activities like dance, music, art and computer skills. We have an amazing team of teachers. Our principal has done a great job of finding wonderful Nepali teachers from all over the country.
Can you speak about some of the ways you integrate the Nepalese culture into the home and school?
The Nepalese culture is a huge part of life at the Kopila Valley Children's Home and School - from the food we eat, to the games we play, the holidays we celebrate and the curriculum we follow.
Has it been hard to learn the language?
I learned Nepali pretty quickly out of necessity. It was how I was able to communicate with my team and the community where I started the Kopila Valley Children's Home and School.
In a nutshell can you tell us a day in your life.
My days in Nepal are pretty busy. I usually start by waking the kids up and checking on them as they get ready for school. I sit with them as they eat breakfast and then see them off to school. Once they are at school that's when I start my work - checking email, taking calls, touching base with the US team. I usually have meetings at the school, the new campus or at the women's center. After the kids get home from school, I try to spend time with them before they have their quiet reading time. After dinner and our daily family meeting, I read to the kids before bed and if it's not too late, sometimes we can sneak in a dance party.
Congratulations on your upcoming wedding, how did the kids react?
Thank you! We are so excited. The kids knew before I did! My fiancé, Jeremy, asked the kids for permission during his last visit. They are all so happy - they love Jeremy as much as I do.
Being that your fiancé is a filmmaker can you tell us a little about the project you're working on?
We are working on a film called Love Letters For My Children. It's a documentary about my journey and the special relationship I have with my children. We are really excited about it and can't wait to share it with everyone.
What piece of advice would you give yourself if you were starting the journey all over again?
I think I would tell my younger self that there is nothing she can't get through when she has the support of family, friends and community.
You're living such a different reality from a 30-year-old woman in the U.S, do you ever miss it at all?
My life's journey has been different from the average 30-year-old woman in the U.S., but I wouldn't trade it for anything.
Sweaty Palms & Weak Responses
Early spring 2018, I walked into the building of a startup accelerator program I had been accepted into. Armed with only confidence and a genius idea, I was eager to start level one. I had no idea of what to expect, but I knew I needed help. Somehow with life's journey of twists and turns, this former successful event planner was now about to blindly walk into the tech industry and tackle on a problem that too many women entrepreneurs had faced.
I sat directly across from the program founders, smiling ear to ear as I explained the then concept for HerHeadquarters. Underneath the table, I rubbed my sweaty palms on my pants, the anxiousness and excitement was getting the best of me. I rambled on and on about the future collaborating app for women entrepreneurs and all the features it would have. They finally stopped me, asking the one question I had never been asked before, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".
Taken back by the question, I responded, "I just know". The question was powerful, but my response was weak. While passionate and eager, I was unprepared and naively ready to commit to building a platform when I had no idea if anyone wanted it. They assigned me with the task of validating the need for the platform first. The months to follow were eye-opening and frustrating, but planted seeds for the knowledge that would later build the foundation for HerHeadquarters. I spent months researching and validating through hundreds of surveys, interviews, and focus groups.
I was dedicated to knowing and understanding the needs and challenges of my audience. I knew early on that having a national collaborating app for women entrepreneurs would mean that I'd need to get feedback from women all across the country. I repeatedly put myself on the line by reaching out to strangers, asking them to speak with me. While many took the time to complete a survey and participate in a phone interview, there were some who ignored me, some asked what was in it for them, and a few suggested that I was wasting my time in general. They didn't need another "just for women" platform just because it was trending.
I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve. I became irritated. Just because HerHeadquarters didn't resonate with them, doesn't mean that another woman wouldn't find value in the platform and love it. I felt frustrated that the very women I was trying to support were the ones telling me to quit. I struggled with not taking things personally.
I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve.
The Validation, The Neglect, The Data, and The Irony
The more women I talked to, the more the need for my product was validated. The majority of women entrepreneurs in the industries I was targeting did collaborate. An even higher number of women experienced several obstacles in securing those collaborations and yes, they wanted easier access to high quality brand partnerships.
I didn't just want to launch an app. I wanted to change the image of women who collaborated and adjust the narrative of these women. I was excited to introduce a new technology product that would change the way women secured valuable, rewarding products. I couldn't believe that despite that rising number of women-owned businesses launching, there was no tool catered to them allowing them to grow their business even faster. This demographic had been neglected for too long.
I hadn't just validated the need for the future platform, but I gained valuable data that could be used as leverage. Ironically, armed with confidence, a genius idea, and data to support the need for the platform, I felt stuck. The next steps were to begin designing a prototype, I lacked the skillsets to do it myself and the funding to hire someone else to do it.
I Desperately Need You and Your services, but I'm Broke
I found myself having to put myself out there again, allowing myself to be vulnerable and ask for help. I eventually stumbled across Bianca, a talented UX/UI designer. After coming across her profile online and reaching out, we agreed to meet for a happy hour. The question I had been asked months prior by the founders of my accelerator program came up again, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".
It was like déjà vu, the sweaty palms under the table reemerged and the ear to ear smile as I talked about HerHeadquarters, only this time, I had data. I proudly showed Bianca my research: the list of women from across the country I talked to that supported that not only was this platform solving a problem they had, but it's a product that they'd use and pay for.
I remember my confidence dropping as my transparency came into the conversation. How do you tell someone "I desperately need you and your services, but I'm broke?". I told her that I was stuck, that I needed to move forward with design, but that I didn't have the money to make it happen. Bianca respected my honesty, loved the vision of HerHeadquarters, but mostly importantly the data sold her. She believed in me, she believed in the product, and knew that it would attract investors.
From Paper to Digital
We reached a payment agreed where Bianca would be paid in full once HerHeadquarters received its first investment deal. The next few months were an all-time high for me. Seeing an idea that once floated around in my head make its way to paper, then transform into a digital prototype is was one of the highlights of this journey. Shortly after, we began user testing, making further adjustments based off of feedback.
The further along HerHeadquarters became, the more traction we made. Women entrepreneurs across the U.S. were signing up for early access to the app, we were catching investor's attention, and securing brand partnerships all before we had a launched product. The closer we got to launching, the scarier it was. People who only had a surface value introduction to HerHeadquarters put us in the same category of other platforms or brands catering to women, even if we were completely unrelated, they just heard "for women". I felt consistent pressure, most of which was self-applied, but I still felt it.
I became obsessed with all things HerHeadquarters. My biggest fear was launching and disappointing my users. With a national target audience, a nonexistent marketing budget, and many misconceptions regarding collaborating, I didn't know how to introduce this new brand in a way that distinctly made it clear who were targeting and who we were different from.
I second guessed myself all the time.
A 'Submit' button has never in life been more intimidating. In May 2019, HerHeadquarters was submitted to the Apple and Google play stores and released to women entrepreneurs in select U.S. cities. We've consistently grown our user base and seen amazing collaborations take place. I've grow and learned valuable lessons about myself personally and as a leader. This experience has taught me to trust my journey, trust my hard work, and always let honesty and integrity lead me. I had to give myself permission to make mistakes and not beat myself up about it.
I learned that a hundred "no's" is better than one "yes" from an unfit partner. The most valuable thing that I've learned is keeping my users first. Their feedback, their challenges, and suggestions are valuable and set the pace for the future of HerHeadquarters, as a product and a company. I consider it an honor to serve and cater to one of the most neglected markets in the industry.