Winner dreaming of blue skies for all

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 October, 2007, 12:00am

Entrepreneur of the Year: Jenny Bowen

Ten years ago, Jenny Bowen and her husband Richard decided to adopt a little girl after reading about the plight of orphaned children in China. The Californian couple were given two-year-old Maya who, unfortunately, displayed many of the ill effects of early institutionalisation.

'There was no question in our minds that she was meant to be our daughter, but we were really scared for her,' recalled Ms Bowen, who had two grown children of her own. 'She was just a beautiful little girl but way behind in every way and she had a blank look on her face. She could barely walk and had no language at all.'

The Bowens showered Maya with love, affection and attention. About a year later during a party at their house, Ms Bowen remembers glancing out of the kitchen window and revelling in the sight of her 'little girl romping around the garden with her friends, completely normal, and full of life'.

'It seemed so obvious that the love we gave her brought her out of her shell. I thought, why can't we do that for all the children we can't bring home?'

That was a turning point in her life. Leaving behind a career as a filmmaker and screenwriter, she devoted herself to improving the lives of China's institutionalised orphans.

The organisation she founded in 1998, Half the Sky Foundation (from the Chinese saying that 'women hold up half the sky'), has become globally recognised for the nurturing and enrichment programmes it provides to some 4,000 children (95 per cent of whom are healthy girls or boys with special needs) housed within 36 welfare institutions in 13 provinces and municipalities in China. More than 12,000 children have benefited over the years.

Starting off as a kitchen table project, the organisation maintains offices in Hong Kong, Beijing and Berkeley, California and operates on a budget of US$4 million a year.

'I was not an early childhood expert, but I got on the internet and started reaching out and looking for child development experts and anyone who had any connections in China,' Ms Bowen said.

'I thought if we could give children some kind of early intervention and nurturing, that what happened to my daughter could happen to others.'

The network of people she contacted mushroomed. She reached out for financial support to families who had already adopted a Chinese child. Her mailing list swelled to about 25,000 households worldwide.

Donations from corporations, especially foreign companies doing business in China or which had their regional headquarters in Hong Kong, were a critical source of funding for the organisation. Ms Bowen believes that the key to the group's success has been its close co-operation with Chinese non-governmental organisations and its partnership with the Chinese government. 'The majority of institutionalised children live inside government orphanages; I knew from the beginning I couldn't do anything without their sanction,' she declared.

The Ministry of Civil Affairs, which has jurisdiction over the country's estimated 573,000 orphans, gave her the green light to set up a one-year pilot programme in 2000 at two orphanages, one in Changzhou (Jiangsu province) and the other in Hefei (Anhui province).

Half the Sky began with an infant nurturing and a pre-school programme at those institutions. The infant nurturing programme puts an emphasis on bonding and attachment. Unemployed local women in their 40s and 50s were recruited and trained as nannies, with each assigned to the full-time care of three to five babies.

'In a lot of welfare institutions, children have multiple caregivers so they never develop a sense of trust,' Ms Bowen explained.

The pre-school programme was designed to develop the 'whole child', while giving young children basic skills, such as counting and understanding basic Chinese characters, to helping them succeed in primary school.

As the organisation expanded, two more programmes were added. One provides learning opportunities and enrichment activities for older children - everything from piano lessons to computer training to university tuition - and the other gives children with special medical or developmental needs a loving home environment with permanent foster parents.

This year, the Ministry of Civil Affairs invited Half the Sky to conduct its four programmes in model 'Blue Sky Centres' in every province in China, after Chinese President Hu Jintao proclaimed in 2006 that orphans and disabled children should live and grow 'under the same blue sky of the motherland', as us all.

For Ms Bowen, it was a watershed occasion. 'Our mission is to ensure that every orphaned child has a caring adult in her life,' she said. 'This opportunity with the government puts that in reach.'

Satisfaction with her professional life mingles with family contentment. She and her filmmaker husband adopted a second baby daughter, Anya, from China in 2000. After relocating to Beijing in 2003, the family has now settled in Hong Kong.

Unlike most entrepreneurs who want to see their enterprise go from strength to strength, Ms Bowen's hope is just the opposite. 'My ultimate professional goal is to go out of business because our mission has been accomplished and every orphaned child in China knows she is loved,' she said.

Judge's comment

'She has created a platform which has scaled and been replicated across communities in China. This platform is multi-dimensional and has a multiplier effect in design, execution, cultural and regulatory complexity and adaptiveness. In partnership with the Chinese government, the 'one-on-one nurturing' platform creates an important 'soft infrastructure' in enriching the lives of orphans through training nannies, teachers and volunteers and in developing educational materials, [that go] beyond food and shelter for orphans.'

Camille Tang, chief financial officer and co-founder, ConvenientPower