In this episode of the Partnering Leadership Podcast, Charito Kruvant, Founder & Board Chair Creative Associates International, talks about her childhood, what inspired her to focus on education and conflict resolution, and leadership lessons she has learned on her journey.
Charito Kruvant’s pride in being different
The difference between schooling and education
How being dyslexic helped Charito Kruvant discover her ability to learn, to listen and to connect
Charito Kruvant's mission of educating youth and women
The accomplishments of Creative Associates
Creative Associates’ role in providing support to community building
Leadership advise from Charito Kruvant
Also mentioned in this episode:
Connect with Charito Kruvant:
LinkedIn: Charito Kruvant
Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:
More information and resources available at Partnering Leadership Podcast website:
Mahan Tavakoli: Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be speaking with Charito Kruvant. She's the founder and chairperson of the board of Creative Associates International. For more than four decades, Charito and Creative Associates have had a significant influence all across the globe, specifically focusing on education and in post-conflict environments.
The stories are magnificent. I feel like I could have spoken to Charito for hours, but there are lots of leadership insights in this conversation. Listen to it. You will also hear about James Brown, Nelson Mandela and get some perspective from Charito that is unique to the kind of leader that she is.
Now, if you enjoy this podcast, make sure to tell at least one other person about the podcast, get them to listen to it. You can send them to their favorite app. But the easiest thing is to send them to partneringleadership.com, where there is a link to 15 plus apps that carry the podcast. Now, here's my conversation with Charito Kruvant.
Mahan Tavakoli: Welcome to Partnering Leadership. And I can't tell you what an incredible honor it is for me to be interviewing you for this podcast.
Charito Kruvant: Oh, you're so wonderful.
Mahan Tavakoli: Charito, for all these years, I've seen your contributions, not only to the Greater Washington community but to the global community. And can't wait to hear a little bit about your leadership journey, your experience, so the listeners can benefit from it.
So to start us off, I do believe that where we grow up has an impact on who we've become.
Whereabouts did you grow up and how did that impact the person that you became?
Charito Kruvant: Well, it's a beauty because I'm so old, that is wonderful to remember, years, years, years back. I was born in Bolivia in pretty much the Highlands of Bolivia.
And my parents were kind of the old fashion landowners. And so we used to go usually from one farm to another, and as a child. I just remember like very, very, very large extended family. And the extended family always included all the support that a farm requires. So in many ways, I've always felt like a very special person, because we were always with lots of people.
When I was about, I think, eight or nine, the civil war started in Bolivia. And then my parents were kind of in between that, that process because they were believers that , land ownership we belong to the people, and the indigenous people. On the other hand, they have a lot of land. So there was a lot of tension and controversy, which made my parents not be in total relationship with the rest of the family.
And so my father was very much the changemaker at that time. And so we enjoy the process of understanding that people belong to the land and the land is not owned by people. And it was something very special to me at that time, because I was a little one. But we went through those experiences of civil unrest and the fears of relatives disappearing or dying out of war, and also kind of having to be sometimes afraid of all kinds of crisis. And so then my family moved from Bolivia to Argentina. And when we moved from Bolivia to Argentina and I remember my close family, we were 32. We were 32, in one plane from, from Bolivia to Argentina and still with me because my family was, also the nannies and all of that, was the family.
We stayed in Argentina for, I think, about three months in a little hotel. And we were in hiding and it was just wonderful.
Mahan Tavakoli: You know, Charito, it takes someone like you to take what for most people would seem as the traumatic experience and see a wonderful element to it. So this relocation first to Argentina and sort of the turmoil that you and your family were facing in Bolivia, how did that shape the woman that you eventually became?
Charito Kruvant: Yeah, the biggest issue was that my parents and all my so-called close family really made us understand that whatever actions you have, that's who you are. And so it's very important to be kind, be loving, be respectful.
And the other part of my father, always used to insist that you can lose your land or you can lose your money, but you can't lose your education. And so that then it became a big issue that no matter where you are in life, you have to do both, have enough knowledge and it doesn't matter if you were well off or not, you have to be self sufficient and be able to have a job. And in that time, this is really way way back when women didn't even think about working, but my dad always insisted that I had to learn enough. I’ll still be able to be on my own.
I was the darkest one, not only in my family, but I also was definitely the darkest one in the city. We were right across from what's called Casa Rosada, which would be like the white house. So when I would go and walk and play with pigeons because the Casa Rosada had a lot of pigeons in the front, I was definitely different.
I was not only super dark and tiny and sturdy indigenous playing with muscles, but I was also happy. And I think that was kind of early in the process just to know that being different was not either good or bad. It was different. And my parents used to, my mom, especially, we used to make a big issue about how our ancestors were from Spain and they used to have these very special docents about how we were from so-and-so from Spain and you'll have the family trees. And then I would go to the mirror and look at my little cheekbones and my nose, “Hey, I'm as Indian as it comes.” And that kind of made me both understand the issue being not only different, but also being a minority within a minority.
Argentina people, at that time, were very much Europeans because they had immigrated after the war. So it was not only a very European society, but it was also very, sadly, not very classist. And because of how indigenous I was, I belong in one group and because how so-called my family and we're so culturally belong in another one and I found what was, felt very comfortable being the bridge, which is probably as of today, that's the essence of myself.
I feel really comfortable with myself, but also, my world is bigger than just myself. And so that's stayed with me.
Mahan Tavakoli: You have made great contributions as a bridge builder.
Well, before we get to that career part of it, there's something that I read about you translating and chaperoning James Brown. What is that all about?
Charito Kruvant: Oh, that's fun. When I first came to the state, I came as an exchange student. My father sent me as an exchange student for about three months in the New Jersey area. And then when I went back and then I went to school, then came back, I had the job.
My father was wonderful. He figured out that if I was going to be here, and he had, at that time, there was this way under which you got your residency by investing and then by being a student. So I knew really well that I could go to school, but it didn't matter what my parents could provide me and money was just not enough.
And so without, I would say, my father's blessing, I found a job in New York. One of the neighbors that my father knew, he encouraged me to take this job. And then, it was in New York, right on sixth street, right in the middle of New York. And I used to go from New Jersey to New York every day. And the main reason why they offered me that job is, one, because I was very proper and I would not take any gifts or did not curse. And I knew English and Spanish. So my job was whenever the different stars, I guess, from Hollywood or other people, I took them around in New York.
And at some point there was this big issue that someone very special was going to be around for more than a few days. I think it was a couple of weeks or so. And so they asked me if I will do that. And I was either too ignorant or too silly. I did not know how special this guy was. He was just this big guy that cursed all the time.
And so my job was wherever, whenever he would come to the place, then I would take the responsibility to walk him all over and translate because there were a few of them, I think they were from Latin America, they were mainly, I think Cubans and Spain. For the record world and I was not into it. So I must say and said ignorance is blessed because he was, I didn't get into an awe for him. And he used to make fun of me because he was pursued by everybody and I was just doing my job and he used to make fun of me. And eventually I realized that the more sisterly I behave the more I could give him directiveness, so he could be on time and he could do what the job called for.
So I did that for a while. He was a very special guy. He was really rowdy.
Mahan Tavakoli: I imagine you balanced him well, Charito.
Charito Kruvant: Yeah, because I think he used to say, "Who the hell is this girl again?" Everybody was just kind of, I would call it a dog, but you know, he had followers all over and I would just kind of make him do whatever he needed to do. And my boss's boss used to kind of make fun of me because they would just rely on me that I would make him be on time, which is, I don't think it was his characteristic.
Mahan Tavakoli: So here you are, this young woman with this wonderful experience, varied experience.
What did you want to be at that point in your life? When you had career aspirations, what did Charito want?
Charito Kruvant: Well, you know, that one to me was like if you work in a supermarket and you get paid by the hour so you can get gasoline. I saw that job as that, but what I really wanted from early in the process. was to be able to be a, and calling at a teacher might be too limited, I always wanted to be involved in learning and the idea of providing learning, and opportunities to others. So from the very beginning I had that experience and the United States was perfect for me because it was the only period, first of all, Head Start was being initiated, and it was also the time when I felt really connected, not only on missions of poverty but through school.
I have aim to be able to do some voluntary work or an internship. And I was given the opportunity to go to Hoboken. Hoboken, New Jersey is very fancy, but at that time it was totally dilapidated. You know, 'cause culturally and it was one of those experiences where to me, poverty was you don't have shoes and you don't have a refrigerator. But when I went to Hoboken, kids had cars, shoes and refrigerators so it was the understanding that I got from the levels of poverty, which is what I call the poverty of the soul, which is more corrosive than the lack of money or economic means when you feel that you're already unable to make it through the possibility of defeated. So the possibility of success becomes much more complicated. So that was a good learning for me because of my faith and my commitment to be sure that those kids have to have a better life. And it was not only exclusively economic poverty. It was a whole systemic issue that needed to be resolved. So I've learned a lot about how it's not just the schooling component but it's the difference of schooling and education.
Education includes a lot more than schooling where you are actually learning something and integrating. And then you are part of a system in which you're able to apply your learnings and to give back. I found myself comfortable being in that world. And since that time, that became my calling.
Mahan Tavakoli: So you picked up that calling in Hoboken, New Jersey. What gave you the idea to take this mission of educating, especially young girls around the world worldwide?
Charito Kruvant: By that time, I had this great joy of my boyfriend that had been in my exchange student time when I was 15. By that time we got married. So, he was going to go to school in Wisconsin or in Massachusetts and it was too cold. Well, I do remember looking at the map and saying, "All right, if you are going to go to school. We're going to go to a place that is warm."
And so we looked at the different places where he could get a scholarship or a good school for his PhD in economics. So American university was both a warm place and international. So we came here and I have this wonderful opportunity to work at the University of Maryland one more time in issues of education. And then, because of my ability to do both cross-cultural learning and translation, there was a wonderful dean, it's Dr. Lauder, who was the Dean of the school of languages and linguistics. He hired me to be part of a team, to be a part of a research team on how children learn best. And because I'm dyslexic, I sometimes I'm a dumb person. So on one level, it's hard for me, like a bumblebee,I go from one thing to another, but in another one I can make connections.
And most of the time people go through the steps of logic and they don't get to the level of connectivity that I do. So that research allowed me to know that I have much more ability to learn. Something that my learning preference was more auditory than the ability to read. And, you know, I was lucky because it's that time I've learned I didn't have to over waste my time on trying to read carefully, every word. And so I learned to always find the most knowledgeable people and learn from them. So my memory and my ability to listen and to connect information comes from auditory learning. And you're one, I've learned so much from you.
And so I'm still reading the book I might spend some time learning about an individual and then learning from the visual. I know that's a gift that I was given because throughout the years in the world that I lived, where mainly men that were the leaders in both in the region and in the world.
I searched for them and the things they were doing and I listened to them and asked questions. And so I did a lot of learning that way. And there was also a thing that I would have made me to figure out that their roles were changing. And many of them started to understand that women were supposed to be part of a more equal society.
And these men have daughters or wives at home that were giving them a hard time, so they could connect with me and I could connect with them and figure out how they could be greater men. In Washington, where the reach of power sometimes, it's so isolating. Some of them were having a hard time sharing those things from home and they could share things with me and I thoroughly appreciate it and learn from them.
Mahan Tavakoli: Well, you actually built on whatever people chose to share with you, Charito, to share a lot with people globally. Now I know Creative Associates has had a presence all across the globe from Central and South America to conflict regions in Africa and Middle East.
What would you, as you reflect on your career of building this wonderful organization with a wonderful legacy. What do you see as a couple of pride points of impact, of you and Creative Associates?
Charito Kruvant: First of all, I think as time goes by, that sense that I had about myself that I couldn't do anything alone by myself. I'm just sharing with you my dyslexia, inability to do basic things, then the opportunity to identify myself on some common issues with other women that we can work together. So the team building became critical to me. And so my process of leadership, instead of doing it alone, was always finding those who are the best and we can have a common goal or common mission and then go for it.
It always allows the need to do more than I could remotely do myself. And so that's something that became very, early in the process, important to me. Even before Creative Associates, the full foundation used to fund us doing some work in the Washington area which, connecting African American teachers, which at that time they were called black. Luckily, now they're called black again but for different reasons. But now black are black.
Teachers who were part of the private schools with them would be white women, very well schooled and educated and black teachers that were very good teachers, but did not have graduate degrees.
It's a part of my job to be part of the team that identified some of those African American of black teachers and be able to go to graduate school and be what was called masters of masters. And that was a wonderful time for me because one more time, I was able to do part of that connecting world and I had a wonderful - both worlds served, just terrific.
At that time, for most of the metropolitan area, the region, it was very intense. There were fires and all kinds of really stressful moments in the same way that we're feeling right now, that stress of protests and you don't know that if the issues will become much more virulent and violent..But being part of that sense that either we can be angry or we could do something both for ourselves and others, became my mantra. And since that time, every day, when I wake up, I will pray, that may God allow me to be able to do something both for myself and for others. And I become useful if I can be myself doing something for others in which they can do better. And so that became very important.
In Washington, as it is around the world at that time, women were very limited, both in their professions, and in their ability to feel a level of connectivity to a larger, not only a larger cause, but in a larger business. So I never shied away from the risk of knowing that to do more, you have to have more so that you can have the resources to be able to plan and do more in the future.
So that became the kind of the entrepreneurial side that I have where I'm comfortable building for the mission, but also pursuing enough resources where I can have a larger impact. In a different times when the United States was in a very difficult time, I call it proxy Wars, in central America, and other places. It was important to be sure that the United States was beyond just lethal aid, that we were able to provide some support.
And I think I did beyond lucking out, with pursuit of those activities and we worked in areas where the combat was ongoing and our job was to work with civilian society so that the kids would be safe, which is what I feel so strongly that no matter where in the world we have the responsibility to make our children safe. Then provide them with some way that only schooling can provide a sense of normalcy, not only for the child, but for the community so we can plan for the future.
Later on, when I think one of the greatest joys for me, this was a long time ago, but when the war Nicaragua was ending, the Senate said that they would stop lethal aid, but they were going to provide support to the combatants. And there were all kinds of really fancy companies that were bidding. And we won this contract to be able to go to the mountains in Honduras and to bring the people who were there, bring them down back to their communities.
And when we went there, there were about 10,000 young people, which they were just extraordinarily disciplined. They had been fighting for so long. And you know, when I connected with them personally, we realize that most of these youngsters, they have been child soldiers. They knew life and death, but they didn't know how to read and write.
And there was no greater joy in my life, that in three months, we figured out a way in which all that discipline and all the learnings to be soldiers that they have gone through. We transferred that. From that to being able to read and write. And after three months, they could not only read and write, but they could pass tests and go through from first grade, third grade to fifth grade.
Mahan Tavakoli: That is absolutely incredible, Charito, because you establish the pillars of what a normal society needs for these folks to be able to transition back into their communities, into their villages and cities.
Charito Kruvant: Yeah. And you know, since that time, we literally became experts at that, knowing that for different reasons around the world, war exists.
And so we could figure out where the next conflict will occur, but also the amount of young people and families - we could call them victims but they are not, they're part of the society - how to be sure that they can continue either not only being educated, but that their lives, it could be at least hard.
I know it's been very special for us to get extraordinarily good experts who are knowledgeable from scientific and in a professional way, how to work through these issues. My role and our role of creative is to be able to bring this extraordinarily expertise that they usually are in opposite ends of their thinking, the political thinking sometimes, to bring them together to be sure that the task occurs.
So there will be people retired from the military who know every possible issue about weaponry and others that come from the best teachers, whether it was social workers or the best workforce experts to figure out what to do. So while there is an ongoing conflict there, we support those families. Or when the conflict is about to end, that we help everybody else to go through a transition so that they can have the opportunity to succeed.
And then later on, it became clear that what makes you or us to be wonderful insurgents particularly if you're young, you want to change the world. So your skills at doing that are totally different than the skills of governance. And sometimes being angry at something gives you the impetus to change. But then once you get the opportunity for that change, you have to be ready for governance.
And it became clear to us that at Creative, we can provide that kind of support and identify some of the change makers, the leaders in different communities and support them, not so much with the insurgency component, but really pretty much prepare them for the next leadership of governance. And that is just like an extraordinary opportunity that I find myself that I was blessed by being entrusted by both the US government and many international agencies where we could be in different places in the world where it was clear, the change needed to occur and it was going to occur and that needed a change that's positive .
And we actually exacerbate and shift that negative moment into a positive change where then governance can occur. Then that's how I had the opportunity to when we were doing work in South Africa and other places to meet some of those extraordinary leaders who are well known in the history of change, that they were good at throwing the bombs and they needed to be good at doing governance and required different skills.
Mahan Tavakoli: So I understand mentioning South Africa that you were also involved in the release of Nelson Mandela.
Charito Kruvant: We were able to provide support to the leadership of the blacks of Africa on governance issues so they would prepare themselves to be able to be ready for governance. And throughout all those years, we were so involved in the different components of the leadership, we're prepared to be sure that if that shift occurred and was created, it was part of that process. I still, sometimes touch myself and my lucky star.
Mahan Tavakoli: That's wonderful because you had worked a lifetime to get to that point about Charito. When I reflect on leadership, obviously you had to have magnificent leadership to grow your own organization, Creative Associates. But you've also seen and face some of the toughest leadership challenges in bringing together communities and groups that have been fighting over the years.
So as you reflect on leadership advice, leadership lessons that you've learned based on these experiences, what thoughts and perspectives do you have on that?
Charito Kruvant: It's a combination of issues that I think are important. I've learned that from other wonderful leaders, that one is you have to be a commitment to change for a better world, not just for myself, but for others. The other one is you have to have skills to do that. You can't just wish it. And you have to also identify others who are willing to go through that journey with you. And at some point both of you have to trust them to be part of your journey and you have to build the trust from them that their journey will end up in a positive change. So both it's a skill based, it's planning. It's being able to envision.
I mean, when we talk about that, what would happen to this country if there's no change or what will happen, you have to envisual what it would be in the culture in which people live. And go for it. Sometimes it gets scary. Other times, if you just know that you're doing it for a larger cause that that physical moment of stress becomes a physical moment of excitement that allows you to go to the next step. So I don't get frazzled by toughness and you know, when the blood goes all throughout you, that's excitement. The same blood suffering that goes from anger and the fear. Breathe in, breathe out, thank God that you're there and keep on going.
There have been some times in the many years that I've been involved in, they said, sometimes you know that you just lucked out there that the shelling occurred, like not in the front of the car, but I'm in the back of the car or some other times, you know that you just lucked out, that when people were not going to let you leave the place, somehow somebody else comes and picks you up in a truck and you have to trust that that truck doesn't have a bomb. You know?
So there are moments where you're risking something, but it's always for a larger reason and it's not, it's kind of knowing that little balance for me, it was somewhat exciting, but it was also sometimes difficult because my children, particularly when they were teenagers, they understood, we were all together in this process. But sometimes the risk was such that I may not come back. And so knowing that, that I was doing something that maybe was, it's not too much risk.
Mahan Tavakoli: You are a true example of a purpose driven leader, Charito. A lot of organizations now talk about the importance of purpose with their organization, you know, for the team or for the individual.
You're a true example of a purpose driven leader. And when you have that purpose clear in front of you, It gets you through the tough times too.
Charito Kruvant: I think I do.That's probably something that's in me. The other thing that in today's world that it’s not so easy to talk about is the issue of faith. I have faith that both in my world, that God will support me in this process, also that the universe is looking for this harmony and change if you're part of that larger journey and if your path is going through that, it's easier to go through complexities because you move on. And part of leadership is also not to do it alone, but to bring others who are having a harder time walking through that path to come along with you.
And so the idea of I'm not only doing it with them, but giving them that encouragement because so many of them are so much better in school and much more technical, fully competent than I ever was.
It's just that, sometimes, in today's world, these young women in their twenties, they know so much. And so you got to do more. So the idea for me is to be sure that we all get to see a path in which we can have a good picture of what we can do.
At different times, we confront the things like young girls in Afghanistan where they had no opportunity to do something. And if we were part of that process of change, then these young girls, they did so much more.
The ambassador from Afghanistan now is a woman who was a teacher, but before she was a teacher, she was just a learner. And I remember that brilliant, well-spoken young person who now is the ambassador representing her country in the United States. It's a great honor.
Mahan Tavakoli: You have planted many of those incredible seeds all across the globe, giving many of these young people and women opportunities, Charito.
So if I was to ask you sort of one last question and your perspective on when younger people come to you for leadership advice, or maybe leadership resources or thoughts, what is the advice you have or what resources or thoughts do you share with them?
Charito Kruvant: I have always tried to help them trust themselves. And also to get to know themselves. I think sometimes, particularly in today's world, we are so much bombarded with so much information that young people are always being pushed to emulate somebody else. And then sometimes from within, they have so much more to offer. So I have a great opportunity, sometimes, when they connect with me on these issues it’s that building that get to know your strengths.
Also it's good to be impatient, but patience with impatience is that kind of new tension that comes to know that - the other part is the skill set necessary, but there is no perfection. Just go for it, give it your best. And if you're not doing it alone, this will do things with you.
Sometimes you will just not make it. So you get up and do it again. I do see more and more young people who are having the opportunity to envision a larger world because not only have they traveled, but because of information now.
What used to be an acquired issue like, you know, having been involved in Nigeria with the young girls that got kidnapped and then went back to the place that we were part of that process and helping them and seeing them as some of them really went back and really, really damaged. Building them back so that they themselves can become the leaders of other young women in Nigeria.
It's just the joy so that whatever happened to them, they have to accept. They can't just hide it, but by accepting it, it's not their fault they can do, they can do and be more for others. And I just think that, not only younger, I mean, my bias is towards girls, but I think it's not only young girls, but young people in today's world, they have the opportunity to be part of a change which I think can have an impact because through social media and technology and that know how. With our support, they can do it. And I've shared very strongly that that's our responsibility to help them see that path.
Mahan Tavakoli: Charito, I feel like I can go on for hours, which means I am going to definitely continue this conversation with you because each one of these magnificent stories of the impact you've had throughout your life on so many communities around the globe have lots of leadership lessons in them. I appreciate the time that you took to share some of those info insights today with the Partnering Leadership community.
Thank you very much for being part of this conversation Charito.
Charito Kruvant: Thank you. You're terrific. You know that, right? I'm sending you a kiss.
Mahan Tavakoli: Much, much love to you Charito. Thank you.
Founder & Board Chair Creative Associates International,
M. Charito Kruvant is Founder and Chairperson of the Board of Creative Associates International. Under Charito’s four decades of leadership, Creative has grown to become a leading implementer to international agencies including the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Department of State, European governments and The World Bank, among others.
Charito’s vision has led to providing children, youth and adults with accelerated learning and non-formal education; supporting communities and ministries with school reform and development; teacher training, capacity building, school health and nutrition, and enabling equity and access to education in conflict and post-conflict environments. Creative also supports communities transitioning from conflict through participatory programs that help instill democratic values and processes and enable communities to direct their own development.
The United Nations Association of the National Capital Area awarded its 2012 Perdita Huston Human Rights Award to Charito for her exemplary role in educational and technical development, especially with women and girls, and for leading a life of public service.
Charito serves as a member of the Board of Directors of Acacia Federal Savings Bank and Calvert Funds for socially responsible investing, on the board of the Summit Fund of Washington, and on the executive and grants committees of the Venture Philanthropy Partners.
Charito is also a member of the Economic Club of Washington, D.C. and the Executive Committee of the Federal City Council. She is a former chair of the Advisory Council of the U.S. Small Business Administration Washington, D.C. office. She is also a former chair of the Board of Trustees of The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region.