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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.”

Career

Male Managers Afraid To Mentor Women In Wake Of #MeToo Movement

Women in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.


In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.

What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.

Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.

Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.

While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.

According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.

In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.


Source-Alex Brandon, AP

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.

Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.

The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.