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How Maria Conceicao Went From Poverty To Alleviating It

People

Maria Conceicao holds eight Guinness World records. She has climbed Everest. She been to the North and the South Poles. She is the Goddess of the Ironman. And she does it all for one reason – to help those desperately in need.


Conceicao grew up in a small village in Portugal called Avanca. She was only two-years-old when she met a refugee woman named Cristina, who became her caretaker. Cristina had six children and made money as a cleaning woman.

In 1979, Conceicao’s mother left their small village for Lisbon to find work. Although Cristina was poor, she didn’t hesitate to look after young Conceicao to help her mother. They both anticipated Conceicao’s mother to return, but she never did.

The truth was, no one knew where Conceicao’s mother was. Authorities attempted to put Conceicao into foster care, which Cristina fought on her own.

Conceicao explains that Cristina was her inspiration. She would go house to house looking for work, but always found the time to help those in need, even though she was in need herself. “Villagers told me later that I would never leave her side, a tiny little white girl clinging her hand tightly. I was very close to Cristina. I guess that she was my best friend,” says Conceicao.

When Conceicao was a child, all she knew was that she wanted to travel and to be free and independent when she grew up. Cristina passed away when she was nine, and she did not attend school past the age of twelve. She recalls people telling her she would amount to little more than a housekeeper, which she accepted due to the lack of career opportunities for women.

“But, I thought, if I have to be a cleaner, then I will be the best cleaner around,” she says.

Conceicao left Portugal when she was 18-years-old to fulfil her dreams of travel. “Pay was very low in Portugal, and I was a great cleaner. So I aimed high in the cleaning world,” she says. She worked very hard at several jobs and soon learned both French and English, allowing her to seek better work in restaurants and cafés.

While in England, she applied for a position with Emirates Airlines as a cabin crew member and landed the job despite not meeting all of criteria. “I tried really hard through the interview process,” she says. “I researched everything possible about the company.” Conceicao even dressed like a member of the cabin crew to really play the part, buying an expensive outfit from Benetton and then returning it the day after the interview.

In April of 2005, her work with Emirates Airlines took her to Bangladesh. There she was witness to the extreme poverty in Dhaka’s slums. Immediately, she felt compelled to do something about it. After offering her assistance, 101 families came forward to accept her help. So she founded a school.

The program was a remarkable success. Along with educating children, it also provided jobs for their parents; training for adults; daycare for the youngest children; shops; and other services. Maria worked endlessly and focused on breaking the cycle of poverty in which these families were embroiled. In 2010, she arranged for a group of children from the area to attend school in the UAE. They have since finished their schooling and are now either gainfully employed or continuing on to university.

But, in 2013, the charity was forced to fold because of the global recession. At that time, 600 children in Dhaka were relying on her. Maria saw the setback as an opportunity to aim even higher. She invented new ways to raise the money to get the children back into school. - she started participating in extreme physical challenges. She had no prior interest in fitness; but it was a surprisingly effective means of raising funds and awareness.

She desperately needed publicity for her charitable work, and she found online stories about treks to the North pole, mountain climbing, and the like raising a lot of money for charity. “So I trekked to the North pole and climbed some mountains.” It helped, she says, but it was always short-lived.

That’s when the idea of breaking world records came into the picture. “I hadn’t really thought of world records but started running when someone suggested that I should run a marathon on all seven continents to get more global recognition for the cause. It was only after I started planning this that I realized that I could apply for world records for this type of challenge.”

She has since earned eight Guinness World Records thus far for Endurance Sports with challenges including:

6 Full Ironmans in 6 Continents in 56 days (2017)

7 Marathons 7 continents in 10 days 2015

7 Ultra Marathons in 7 Continents in 6 weeks 2014

7 Ultra Marathons in 7 Consecutive days

5 Full Marathons in 5 States in 5 Consecutive Days 2014

5 Half Marathons in 5 States in 5 Consecutive 2014

Climbed Mount Elbrus Aconcagua Kilimanjaro Vinson 2010 - 2018

7 Walked Marathons in 7 days Across 7 Emirates 2010

Conceicao says that achieving her first’s World Record felt like a miracle. And, for most people, that’s what it would take to accomplish it. She ran an Ultra marathon on all 7 continents in six weeks. “The final ultra marathon was in South Africa and crossing that finish line just felt unreal. This little village girl from a poor background doing this crazy challenge.”

She is also the first and only Portuguese woman to do the Last Degree to the North Pole (2011, 2018) and to summit Everest (2013). She also swam across the English Channel (2016) for seven hours.

She had never participated in sports before and said she was definitely not considered athletic. She incurred several injuries throughout the challenge and said mental strength was what got her through in the end. Plus, she says, I am sure that Cristina was watching over me.

One of the greatest challenges Conceicao has faced in her athletic endeavors is that her training is always fast-tracked because of her lack of athletic experience. “With that comes the risk of injury and getting an injury while preparing for a challenge puts it all in jeopardy. But what I have learned is that any sort of physical training, the quality of training is more important than quantity.” Since discovering this, Conceicao says she has learned to train better, “always finding good coaches with specific knowledge for the type of challenge to help me along the way.”

Conceicao has received numerous awards for her work, which, she says, still surprises her. In the early days she used to stay away from media and publicity as much as possible. “I didn’t need publicity for fundraising at the time and so just wanted to get on with my work in Bangladesh.” So, when she would receive news that she was to receive an award for her charity work, she could hardly believe it. “The fact that people were even noticing what I was doing amazed me.” The honors she has received include:

Barbie Role Model Award Portugal (2017)

GQ Portugal Women of the Year (2016)

Cosmopolitan Female Role Model (2015)

Cidadao Nobre Portugal (2015)

Louvor Nobre Casa da Cidadania (2014)

Humanitarian Women of the Year by Inspiriting Women Belgium (2014)

Inspiring Change Award International Gulf Organization (2014)

Sustainability Leadership Award (2013)

The Special Mention for Child Welfare by Petrochem (2012)

Most Inspiring Women of the GCC by Kraft (2010A

Voted Alhan Hot 100 Entrepreneur in UAE (2010)

Emirates Women of the Year (2009)

Emirates Humanitarian Women of the Year (2009)

Most Exceptional and Innovative European Women of the Year (2007)

These days, Conceicao is working towards completing the seven summits. “That’s climbing the highest mountain on each continent,” she explains. “I have two more to go.” As for her charitable work, the project in Bangladesh is almost completed as the primary goal was to “educate a generation from a slum community up to grade twelve. We are seeing some great results with our students on full university scholarships all over the world. Conceicao says she believes in constantly challenging herself, whether it through helping others or taking on a physical challenge to raise funds for that work.

These days, Conceicao is working towards completing the seven summits. “That’s climbing the highest mountain on each continent,” she explains. “I have two more to go.” As for her charitable work, the project in Bangladesh is almost completed as the primary goal was to “educate a generation from a slum community up to grade twelve. We are seeing some great results with our students on full university scholarships all over the world. Conceicao says she believes in constantly challenging herself, whether it through helping others or taking on a physical challenge to raise funds for that work.

She says it has always been a challenge “to be taken seriously in countries or societies where woman are not supposed to be strong or taken seriously as leaders.” In Bangladesh, she says, you really have to “prove yourself, prove that you are right. You have to be a woman of action, and I think it’s the same in the rest of the world. Action is what gets things done.”

Many of the physical challenges she undertakes are male dominated, like mountain climbing. So, that means dealing with a lot of oversized egos, she explains. “I have really been put-down and bullied so much by men who for example claim that I slow down the team, that I shouldn’t be there, but you know what – I may climb mountains at a slower pace initially because I’m 5’2 in a team on 6’ plus guys, carrying the same heavy backpacks, but I have endurance, stamina, and mental strength.” So, she says, a few days later when they are struggling and she is strong (as well as supportive of and encouraging to them) they get very quiet, very quickly.

This certainly isn’t how Conceicao imagined her life. None of this was planned. But, she says, “I just keep pushing higher, to do more, and I’m still young. So have a long way to go.”

As for the future, Conceicao says she will always work to help others because “this is what gives me my drive and purpose.” She is starting to do more and more public speaking now, telling her story to order to inspire and motivate others to reach their goals. “I’m still shy and introverted. So public speaking isn’t a natural career move, but I have found that people like to hear my story, and I am surprised at the amazing feedback that I get, that I inspire people. I really had no idea that I could have this effect just by speaking to people to I have to do more of it to see where it can take me.”

Through all of the physical challenges and the charitable work, Conceicao says the primary thing she has learned is that by helping others, she has also helped herself. “When I first went to Bangdlesh and saw children living in poverty, I decided to help them. I didn’t have any big plans for a charity it just grew and grew.” She soon saw that she could make a big difference in their lives. “By that point, I had a vision and decided to transform their lives, lift them out of poverty forever through education.” But in the process, she says, it is really her life that has transformed more than anything. “I never would have achieved the things I have accomplished.”

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Business

Kegs, Cans And Sustainability: How These Women Are Making Billions In The Wine Industry

Universally loved, and, (especially at this time of year) drunk merrily and in excess, wine is the answer to much if not all our prayers, on a regular basis.


The wine industry also happens to be home to some major female leaders, and it's become apparent, that the barriers to entry women face in almost every other industry don't apply here, as long as you've the work ethic and brains behind your operation.

"This is a people's business," says Delia Vader, CEO of Viader Wines, who's vehement about the gender neutrality of the wine industry, and hopeful for it's future, (even with the hefty factors of global warming, and recent wildfires, contending with the grape-producing vines).

Naturally, we were all too excited to sit down with five leaders in the industry working throughout the globe, that are innovating and shaping the future vintages from California to Italy and beyond. Below are five such women, ranging from vineyard to store owners, and one woman who's completely shifting the way we think about wine consumption.

Francesca Planeta

Francesca Planeta, Wine Director, Planeta Wines

Francesca Planeta has been a rising star on the Sicilian wine scene for the last few years. Planeta is devoted not only to promoting her own vineyard, but promoting all the wines of Italy's largest island, which is most famous for the wonderful, Nero D'Avola.

Sicily's wine scene veritably boomed around Planeta as she was growing up. So when she finally began working on the Planeta Wines vineyard in her early twenties, she quickly learned the nuances of the land and the grapes she would ultimately come to produce. “I had begun to help out at the winery, using a graphics studio to create the logo and the first labels, and then I returned to Sicily, during the time of that first harvest. (This) was the moment when I decided that I would take on the challenge of working with the business that bore our family name."

Given that the business was family owned, Planeta did not encounter any barriers to entry because of her gender, but instead made sure that women are integral to the process on the vineyard. “Women have a fundamental role in our business," says the winemaker. “They are entrusted with many responsible positions; from wine making to directing exports and from the hotels to the entire marketing and communications office."

A worrying factor for both Planeta and the women at the vineyard however is global warming, something which has plagued wineries across the globe in recent years. Given that the taste and production of wine depends heavily on its “terroir" (or, surroundings), changes in environment are immediately a factor for anyone in the industry to consider when its coming to harvest season. “It generally seems to us that global warming presents not only a problem of warming in itself," she comments. “But in extremes of weather phenomena, with heavier rainfall – when it occurs, and rather longer periods of drought. (However), living and working in the centre of the Mediterranean gives us better conditions and the last twenty years have shown greater climatic stability."

Selling upwards of 2.3M bottles of wine a year, her chief markets (apart from Italy), are the United States, Germany, England, and Russia, followed by Canada, Switzerland and Japan. And she recommends that for the chillier months, if you're drinking a Sicilian wine, to go for Merlot, Syrah, or Burdese.

Delia Viader, CEO, Viader Wines

Argentinian-born Delia Viader was in the midst of an M.I.T degree, with three children at home, when an opportunity arose to purchase a vineyard in Napa Valley. “The timing was perfect for relocating my very young family," she says, who quickly got to grips with their new surroundings as their mother began constructing a powerhouse wine team to launch Viader Wines.

It hasn't always been easy for Viader and her team however. Before the financial crash of 2008, Viader was sold in every state throughout the U.S, and exported to 24 countries abroad. Since the crash, and an arsonist fire at a warehouse of theirs containing the entire 2003 vintage, they've changed their business model drastically. Now, they sell 90 percent of their collections direct-to-consumer, with the remaining 10 percent sent abroad or to the bigger markets of New York, California and Texas.

She has also become naturally concerned by the Californian wildfires of late, and their threat to both the vines, and the warehouses where the barrels are kept. “The biggest impact on our vineyard has been the change of weather pattern we have been experiencing for the past 35 years that we can speak of," says the CEO. “We are learning a lot about how resilient affected vines can be, and how wine made from those grapes needs to be processed to perhaps reshape stylistic performance of the resulting wine. The winegrowers as an industry will be learning a lot from this."

Delia Viader

Learning and innovating are at the core of Viader's vineyards, where her son, Alan is championing new ways to irrigate their 92-acres of land, and fine tuning an understanding of “the exact optimal time to harvest at each vines' peak ripeness." And while she may be the CEO, she heavily depends on him for his expertise and blending capabilities. “I am the owner and CEO but I call myself the wine mother because I am the mother of the vines (I had them planted myself, my way); the mother of the wine (I 'created' our Cabernet-based wine to be highly influenced by the terroir with a high dose of Cab franc and remain, highly influential at the final assemblage-blend); and I am the mother of the winemaker, my son Alan Viader."

What is Viader most likely to be drinking at this moment? “I am very susceptible to a vibrant Pinot Noir from Burgundy most times," she says. “But my choice really depends on two variables: the food I am going to have and the company, the people I am going to share that bottle of wine with. I love harmony in the wine, the food pairing and the conviviality that springs from sharing a great wine."

Julia Jackson

Julia Jackson, Propietor, Jackson Family Wines

As one of the largest family-run wine groups in the U.S, The Jackson Family has garnered quite a name for itself. Leading the way within the group is Julia Jackson, daughter of mother Barbara Banke and Jess Jackson who built the group up from the ground, which is now worth an estimated $2.3 billion.

Today, their portfolio boasts wines from 52 wineries throughout the world, and integral to that is building relationships from within and amalgamating abroad. For Jackson, that means working in almost every facet of the business in order to cover all the projects she wishes to pursue. “I wear a few hats in my family business," she comments. “I'm spearheading my first acquisition project in another country, (and) I work with our international sales team to be one of the faces for Jackson Family Wines." On top of this, she's also involved with the group's environmental and philanthropic efforts, which, given the wildfire situation in California, will be work much needed in the years to come. “All my philanthropic efforts are focused around our environment and I created a charitable program that gives grants to women within the eco-space through our Santa Maria based winery Cambria."

Jackson's favorite wine at this time of the year? Gran Moraine from Willamette Valley Oregon.

Hortense Bernard, General Manager, Millesima Wines

Hortense Bernard was working with global industry leaders Moet Hennessy Diageo in Paris as a brand manager before she made her big move to the U.S. Now, she stands as one of the youngest female General Managers in the world of a large international firm, atop the Millesima USA group.

Millesima, a leading retailer in Europe, who branched into he U.S in 2006, owns upwards of 2.5M bottles of fine wine that are housed in the company's cellars in Bordeaux, France, (which is also the largest AOC vineyard in the country).

Bernard, who had her first glass of wine at eight years old, works primarily with direct-to-consumer retail and educating the U.S market about Bordeaux wines from their shop on the Upper East Side here in New York. "My goal is to educate as much as I can," she says. "In store, we speak about Bordeaux, and try to explain (because Bordeaux wine can be really complex), the wine."

"When I arrived here, I didn't know anything about American consumption," she laughs. "So it took me quite a bit to learn about it and understand how Americans see wines, and what they mean when the ask for a Chardonnay."

On top of chatting with customers, Bernard plays host to a lot of cultural events throughout the city, accompanying her wines whenever there might be a chance to express the history and significance of the wine for both France, and the industry at large.

So naturally, when asked what she'll be drinking on the celebratory occasions of December, it will be a big full-bodied Bordeaux " because that always takes me back (home)."

Hortense Bernard

Marian Leitner, Founder, Archer Roose

Once it dawned on Marian Leitner that Millennials were drinking more wine than beer, she saw an opportunity to modernise the way we purchase, consume and enjoy wine.

"In the U.S, you actually pay more for the shipping and the packaging than you do for the wine itself," says Leitner. "So I started to ask why and learn more about the alternative packaging market."

Branching away from bottles, Leitner looked to packaging wine in every way beer is packaged - from cans and kegs, and then also, in boxes.

"You have to separate consumers into two buckets - the super high-end collectors, who make up less than 1 percent of the population, and then you have people who are drinking, "value" wines. And then the rest of America are basically beer drinkers."

Upon the realization that Millennial wine drinkers are more than beer drinkers, she also came to understand that they're also very brand-loyal. Brands that represent qualities and values they share, are the ones they're consuming the most. "So we decided to leverage the alternative packaging movement (which is keg, can and box), to cut through all the noise of the bottles in the wine store, and really connect with consumers." In doing so, she launched the company, Archer Roose Wines.

This move means, that apart from the ultra-hip way the wine is presented, you're also economizing. One box of Archer Roose wine contains the equivalent of 4 regular bottles. And inevitably, the kegs contain a huge volume.

Wine kegger, anyone?