For this year’s celebration of Women’s History Month, we take the opportunity to reflect on the history of EnCompass, a business founded, owned, and led by women. This month, we want to share the way our organization has been working to #BreaktheBias and rewrite conventional business wisdom, engendering what it means to be a well-managed company in more inclusive terms.
We know the world is not led by women today. Not yet. And even when women are in leadership positions, they have to work within the rules of business, which remain founded on competition with an adversarial hue; in spite of rhetoric in support of cooperation, the business world’s incentives remain as they always were. So, in the midst of business expectations as usual, what might it mean to manage with a gender-inclusive mindset, how much of it has been possible to date, and what’s next?
EnCompass was founded at the end of 1999. For us, being a women-owned company meant having a workplace that features collaboration rather than competition, an appreciative mindset that builds on strengths, and the belief that when employees can determine where and how they work, they will be both happier and more productive.
Setting out with a new business model, we began by establishing flexible work hours and the practice of working remotely. We were immediately met with disbelief from colleagues at other organizations who insisted this would be chaotic; 20 years later, COVID-induced virtual work has proven that it is the way of the present and future. Our decision to design our own appreciative, strengths-based dialogue in lieu of the typical performance review process was met with skepticism, and our practice of considering equity as a key factor in determining salaries was seen as naiveté.
We persisted. We named the company “EnCompass” to emphasize that inclusion and co-creation are at the heart of our work, and that by collaborating, using evidence, deepening learning, and developing leadership, we build a “compass” that helps each of us separately and all of us together, to move toward desired outcomes and a better future for all.
EnCompass’ founding values have been strengthened by colleagues who have joined and breathed life into our dream all along the way, enabling EnCompass to grow, build strong systems, and increase transparency and accountability while remaining employee-centered and inspired by its mission to bring positive change to the world.
In our first years of operation, we were fearless about embracing the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI) community, exposing discrimination and violence against members of this community and making it possible for others to empathize and become champions of LGBTQI rights. Parallel to our work with clients, EnCompass wrote LGBTQI inclusion into its code of conduct in 2006, and our staff include LGBTQI colleagues who have defined our approach to personal leadership, inclusion in evaluation, and the leadership of our company.
In 2011, we conducted early research on the intersection of HIV and gender-based violence (GBV) under the PEPFAR-funded AIDSTAR-One project. In our annual strategic planning that year, our 20-member team made growing our gender portfolio a top priority. Since then, we have worked on strategies to combat GBV in health, education, and agriculture.
A couple of years later, we founded the EnCompass Gender and Inclusive Development team, a unit that leads our client services in gender and inclusive development, hosts a monthly Gender Forum to build our internal capacity as an inclusive workplace, and is responsible for our compliance with the Minimum Standards for Mainstreaming Gender Equality.
Over the years, we have been lucky to support work in gender equality and gender integration that both inspires and humbles us.
Our growing experience and contributions resulted in EnCompass being chosen to support the USAID GenDev office as its gender training partner. We have cherished this role, designing and delivering a suite of gender learning courses for the Agency, including Achieving Development Objectives through Gender Integration (the ADS 205 course), the Advanced Gender Integration and Leadership course (AGILE), and Preventing and Responding to Gender-Based Violence through USAID Sectors, among others. EnCompass has just designed a new “GBV and the Environment Sector” module with a focus on the impact of climate change on gender-based violence, and strategies to prevent or address GBV through the sector.
Our TRANSFORM program has implemented an appreciative gender assessment approach in the USAID Transform: Primary Health Care Project in Ethiopia that engaged Ethiopian colleagues in roles of influence on the questions and findings, and ultimately contributed to the development of the strategy to pursue gender and health transformational agendas focused on reproductive, maternal, newborn, child, and adolescent health and nutrition.
Our new program in Jordan, the Women’s Economic Empowerment and Leadership Activity (WEELA) aims to (1) transform socio-cultural norms at the household and community level that impede women’s labor force participation and advancement, (2) improve workplace and employment policies through a policy lab research and advocacy, (3) provide key workplace and leadership skills, (4) create a conducive environment within champion firms for increased participation of women in the private sector, and (5) support safe transportation solutions for women to get to work.
This work kept informing our internal gender-inclusive practices, and our internal practice gave us confidence to support gender-transformative approaches around the world as we served clients in the U.S. Government, United Nations, and foundations.
We believe that, if we want to speak about inclusion with authenticity, we need to keep working on it internally as well. The more we worked in gender, the clearer we saw the critical importance of intersectionality. Our support of the Global Action on Disability (GLAD) Network’s annual partners meeting for the U.S. State Department was a chance to consider inclusion of women with disabilities.
As we grew, we longed to deepen and expand our own diversity and continue to co-create a place where our colleagues of color feel a sense of belonging. As in all parts of our organizational life, we have walked this journey together—listening to and learning from each other, recognizing our strengths and our need to stretch further. In 2016–2019, several staff led discussions focused on racial diversity and inclusion. Diversity was the theme of our 2017 all-staff retreat, which was led by a prominent racial equity educator. In 2019, we had a racial inclusion and unconscious bias session led by a team of colleagues from the Gender and Inclusive Development practice. Meanwhile, in 2017, we began hosting interns of the Graduate Evaluation Diversity Internship (GEDI) program (an American Evaluation Association’s initiative) in their annual visit to Washington, D.C., and then became a host site for a GEDI scholar. By 2020, we laid out a DEI strategy, which we continue to renew and expand.
We are not alone in this learning journey, and we continually connect with colleagues who are also working toward a more inclusive world. Through the EnCompass Learning Center, we have held special events spotlighting the role of women in leadership and inviting speakers from across sectors and around the world to come together to share their thoughts.
We have also developed the first in a series of courses at the EnCompass Learning Center. The Gender Transformative Design and Evaluation Course (to be offered in April 2022) was born out of a need to support the efforts of colleagues and organizations interested in creating a world built on gender equality. And as we teach, we learn.
Defining what women’s leadership means is a lifelong endeavor, and we are thirsty to keep learning and sharing. Interestingly at EnCompass, when we think of women’s leadership, we think of shared leadership. It is not about having a woman in charge—although many women are—but the way we work with each other to make decisions, support one another, brainstorm, disagree, and move forward. We are always learning from one another.
History is created by individual actions, no matter how small, and by the storytellers who interpret them. Today, we add our small contribution to women’s history by telling our own story, a story written by the founders, leaders, and colleagues who work at and with EnCompass.
The next chapter of EnCompass is being written by the upcoming generation of leaders and partners in the space where we work. We applaud them as they step forward to redefine new ways of working and behaving. In spite of the steps backward we experience in our social and policy contexts, we feel confident in the new generation—in their passion, energy, respect for our planet, and commitment to inclusive practices.
As our story unfolds, we open our arms wide to share and learn together with all of you, our colleagues and partners, who are redefining what it means to run organizations from the appreciative lens of collaboration, empathy, responsibility and respect.