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Coffee with Fiona Macaulay, Founder-CEO of WILD Network

Mitigating gender bias and discrimination is a topic close to my heart. As a continuation of the conversation on allyship, I sat down with Fiona Macaulay, the Founder-CEO of the WILD Network, to learn how she is supporting women in the global development sector.

Fiona Macaulay: I'm Fiona Macaulay, and I'm a serial social entrepreneur. With my first business, I focused on creating economic opportunities for low-income people in developing countries. I grew that business to a size where I was one of America's top 1 percent of women entrepreneurs. And I feel very proud about that. The current company I lead is called the WILD Network - the Women Innovators and Leaders Development Network. WILD is elevating leaders at every level in organizations in the global development and humanitarian sectors. WILD helps leaders who are solving some of the world’s most pressing problems. If the leader working to end child slavery becomes just 20 percent better. If the person bringing clean water to her community is just 20 percent more effective. That’s a big impact! We also address the organizational piece. It’s not enough to support women to be outstanding leaders if they are going into an unreceptive environment. Every year at our annual Women in Global Development Leadership Forum, we invite companies in and outside the global development sector to share their best practices at creating inclusive cultures where everyone’s talent is being fully unleashed. For example, this past year, the former CEO of Best Buy spoke about the very specific things he did to address issues of racial and gender equity. Alongside him was a regional director from Amnesty International. And this pair spoke honestly about the challenges their organizations were facing and the job of leaders to address them, people were at the end of their seats. And they left with concrete takeaways to take action.

Founder Lessons

AltCap: What are the key lessons you've learned from building and leading these organizations? Fiona: One of the things that I talk about is the importance of leading yourself first. So every morning, think about how you can be the best leader possible. Before you start looking at others and what you want from others, consider how each of us can be the best leader possible. Let’s be honest. Always being the “perfect leader” is something we strive for. I don’t know a single great leader who has always been their best. Let’s consider what triggers us to behave in ways we wish we hadn’t. Number one, good leadership is not something that we're born with. It's something that we develop over time. Recognize that you, me, all of us are on a journey to be great leaders. There’s always room for improvement. Celebrate your successes. Be aware of your blind spots. Always try to move forward on your journey. Secondly, leaders face a lot of demands. If they are social entrepreneurs, in addition to pursuing their vision, they are also worried about making payroll and having a lot of responsibility—that pressure often triggers poor leadership behaviors. Lesson #2: Business is about people. It's about the people who work for you, the partners you are working with, and the clients you're serving. Finding the right people in all of those roles, from employees to vendors, to customers, is critical in the longevity of our businesses, projects, impact.

AltCap: What's the secret recipe to finding great people? Fiona: Being very clear on what your company's values are is a great way to select people. It also helps to make it clear to help others select you as the right employer, the right vendor, and the right partner. If your values aren't aligned, that's a great opportunity to say we're not the right fit early on. AltCap: How do you determine your organization's values? Fiona: The reality is that a lot of it does start with the founder. And as organizations grow, there is an opportunity for others to contribute to and shape the values as well. We want our companies to be bigger than we are and to grow beyond ourselves. We want the people in them to be shaping them. So work with the team of employees you feel are also a good fit to harvest their ideas and vision for what they think the company values are.

Social Impact at Work

AltCap: Why is impact so important to you? Fiona: People are capable of incredible things. That’s what drives me. And to elaborate, People are capable of incredible things, given the opportunity. And my purpose is to help create, open up, foster those opportunities for people. That’s what drives me as a social innovator. I am committed to doing really good quality, demand-driven, and innovative work. I have a particular focus on supporting women leaders at all stages of their careers. I want to help them achieve their bold and ambitious goals. Whether it is for them, their organization, their community, and hopefully, all three! AltCap: What advice would you give your younger self in starting a career in social impact? Fiona: When we start, either leading a project or an organization, there will always be many sandpits in the way. Having people that you can go to and support you is very important. For many impact entrepreneurs, one of the great characteristics is a strong belief in ourselves. We need that, and I celebrate that because that's why you felt that you could make positive change on an issue. The flip side of that strong conviction that we can be changemakers in the world is that it sometimes means that we think we need to do it all by ourselves—we're not great at asking for help. Taking on some of the big challenges in the world means that we need to ask for help.

Photo by Samantha Garrote from Pexels

I invite you to view asking for help as a strength, not a weakness. Help comes in different forms. So I'll speak about myself. Maybe there's a key person that I know would benefit from being linked with my work. So I might need to ask someone for a warm introduction. Sometimes, I need my kitchen cabinet of girlfriends. Cheerleaders who allow me to claim, who celebrate my successes and can give me a hard or soft piece of advice when needed. Sometimes, there's someone in a position who might be new to me and who could offer me key guidance. That would save me time, money, and offer me peace of mind. Another way is to ask people to give you honest feedback. It is very hard for us to see our blind spots. Tasha Eurich talks about the importance of having loving critics. Who can be a loving critic for you? Can they give it to you straight? I think an employee who is also your loving critic is like gold.

Growth Journey


Talk about a pivot point in your life and what tools were helpful to frame your decision.


In the first decade or so, after I founded my first company, people would talk about when you exit or sell your company. In that first decade, when I was still building the company, something that was so central to my life, I used to wonder how anyone could ever sell the company they built.

But at the eighteen-year mark, I began to feel itchy to do something new, work on new issues, spend time in different professional circles. At that time, I was named one of the top 1 percent of women business owners in America. I had positively impacted millions of people around the world. And, it was time to move on.

I worked on new issues, met new people, moved into new professional circles, and gave up some old ones. In short, I “disrupted myself”.

One of the things that I wanted to do was to teach entrepreneurs and how to foster the next generation of impact entrepreneurs. I wanted to focus on women's leadership.

I was fortunate in that I ended up getting an adjunct professorship at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business School. And, I founded WILD, now the leading organization advancing leadership and inclusive culture in the global development sector.

While there was a period of discomfort as I made such significant career transitions, I have never regretted that decision.

I'm not going to discount some of the challenges that come with leaving an industry, a role that you're so familiar with and well-known in.

For the people out there who are considering a career change: I would invite people to explore new things. Sometimes you can dip a toe into a new area and get some experience in it without leaving what you used to be doing. The journey won't be without its bumps. Change and transition can be challenging and scary, and there are always going to be some unknowns. But if you're looking for a change, I just invite you to explore that in small and big ways, and it's going to return dividends to you.

Women Leadership

AltCap: What are the main challenges that women face in leadership?


The research shows that women face a double bind of being expected to show traits that are more typically associated with women, like compassion and support for others. At the same time, they're also expected to demonstrate traits that are more associated with male leaders, like strength, decisiveness, and charisma.

BUT, women are given a much narrower band to operate in than their male counterparts on these two axes of authority and care for others.

Women may find themselves nodding their heads because they sense this instinctively. They know when they're being underestimated for being empathetic or caring or patient or flexible with others. And maybe they have also sensed when they are being pushed down, pushed away, or given signals of disapproval if they are displaying too many authoritative characteristics. Women walk a tightrope.

It's very useful for female leaders to be aware of this research. I also think it's useful for men to be aware of this research to check their unconscious biases and behaviors.

Remember, leadership is a journey. Looking at leaders, you admire and intentionally think about what you admire about them, and then think about what small behaviors you may want to adjust to emulate the kind of people you observed to be strong and effective leaders. And just know that even those leaders you admire, they're also on their leadership journey. If you see them, observe them leading calmly, confidently, patiently, and with empathy through the chaos. Those are skills that you can develop as well.


Why create a women-only network?


We do have men within the network, and actually, we were very intentional about inviting men in as full participants.

At the 2021 Women and Global Development Leadership Forum, we had a number of male speakers throughout our panels and workshops. We intentionally had an all-male panel, where that panel was hearing from male leaders and what they are doing to promote gender and racial equity. We want to make sure that men are hearing from women and also from other male leaders. Men are important collaborators in this work of gender equity.

Community Engagement


What are some of the examples of best practices that increase equity and inclusion in the workspace?


The most important examples I am aware of, are the organizations that have metrics and they hold themselves accountable to them.

We see organizations changing their hiring processes, from job descriptions to where talent recruitment is taking place. Who gets promoted, what women and men get paid.

WILD’s 2020 impact report captures specific stories about what someone heard, what they learned, how they applied it, and the new and exciting results they are seeing from that. Everything from salary negotiation, to having a 6,000 person organization be gender certified. Learn more here:


How can readers engage with the WILD Network?


If you’re leading a team and looking for leadership team development, that’s an area where WILD and our partners can help. You can learn more at

Our 2022 Women in Global Development leadership Forum is coming up in May 2022. There will be an in-person event in Washington DC and a live, online Forum to serve global development and humanitarian professionals across all time zones. You can learn more at

Across all of our programs that you can participate in, WILD’s promise is that you will leave with concrete and transferable information that you can immediately apply to your life and your organization. And that you’ll meet exceptional people and grow your network.

WILD takes a big tent approach to have strong organizational leadership. We invite people to engage with the WILD Network, whether through free or paid events, and be part of the community.

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