Alumna Empowers Women in Haiti

May 27, 2015

Cherie Abbanat

Cherie Miot Abbanat '90 is the CEO of Haiti Projects, Inc. a non-profit that empowers women in rural Haiti toward self-sufficiency. We asked her a few questions!

What was your major at Simmons and what is your job title?

I was a double major in French and economics. I went on to MIT to do a Masters in City Planning.

Currently, I’m the CEO of Haiti Projects, Inc. a non-profit that empowers women in rural Haiti toward self-sufficiency by providing access to jobs at our sewing cooperative. We make beautiful embroidered products and provide access to heath care services through our women’s health care clinic and to education through our community library. I’m also a lecturer in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT where I teach policy and planning classes focused on post-disaster areas in the world including New Orleans, Haiti and Chile.

What's a typical day like at your job?

Each day is different because running a company and teaching at MIT bring different challenges on a daily basis. However, I try to bring some structure to the day by teaching my classes and working with students in the mornings until 10 a.m. or so. Then, I try to tackle key projects from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. Finally, I round out the day with meetings with my staff, phone calls and conference calls. Some days I’m driving to appointments with architects, builders, designers and donors. Some days I’m traveling to New York, Miami, Port-au-Prince or way out to the provence in Fond des Blancs, Haiti. Every day can knock you off your program, which is why maintaining some daily structure is important.

What's your favorite part of your work?

I love working to empower women and girls in rural Haiti and I also love teach students. Working to empower women is my passion, it keeps me going and it keeps me thinking. How to awaken a powerful women in rural Haiti where there is no electricity, running water and few jobs. Can we create jobs for women, provide access to family planning services and can we build a community library and provide access to educational programming? If we can do this in rural Haiti, we can do this anywhere. Then, can we teach the next generation what we know so that they can carry on the work and take it to the next level?

What woman do you most admire? What has she taught you?

I have two key role models: My mother, Janice Westberg, and a former boss Sue Tierney. Each woman has taught me key life lessons, helped me get over tough challenges and each has let me fail, but stood by to pick up the pieces.

My mother traveled to Haiti as a nurse in her twenties. She tended to the very sick children and mothers who came to see her at the hospital where she worked and where she would meet my father, an engineer working on a dam project in the region. Later, when I was in middle school, and my parents moved back to Haiti, my mother created a “back door clinic” on top of a mountain in Haiti where we lived and where the moms and children would come to her for treatments, teaching and advice. I learned from her how to start and run a clinic, ask for donations of medicines and supplies and really take the time to listen to people and how to see beyond the poverty to the man, woman or child who needed a caring hand.

Sue taught me how to work hard, focus on key technical information, deliver an excellent product and to maintain poise and grace even in the midst of political chaos. People gravitate toward Sue because she is smart, caring and considerate. At the same time, she doesn’t let people take advantage of her and she says no if she can’t commit to something. I still have much to learn from both women and I call on them often for help.

What's the best career advice you've gotten along the way?

I was told that you can do everything, you just can't do everything at the same time. While this may seem obvious, it wasn’t to me, especially when I was raising my two children and my step-daughter and trying to carve out a career. Some things had to be put off and that is okay. Some things I never picked up again, and that is okay too.

Also, I learned that it is important to fail and to fail often, because that is the surest way to really dig in and learn a lesson. I’ve failed so many times at this point, that I’ve come to expect it. Failing often does not mean that failing no longer pinches or strikes at the ego, it does, but I know that I’ll come out on the other side and I will be grateful for having failed.

What social media accounts do you follow?

I use Twitter and Facebook and follow bloggers who do great work. I love the idea of using social media to highlight the great work of my students and others who do work in the developing world -- I’m just learning how to take advantage of this.

The Simmons reunion is right around the corner! What are you most looking forward to?

Connecting with old friends and meeting new ones. Reunions are a time to look back and move forward. To reconnect with people who were part of your life, who hold memories of you that you have forgotten. In many ways it is such an important time.

Do you have a Simmons moment?

I was part of the Economics Club at Simmons and our advisor was Don Basch. Kara Murphy MacNamara and I decided one day that we wanted to create an award for future Simmons grads who were economics majors. We wanted to give away a book each year to a top Simmons economics graduate. We valued our education at Simmons, we valued the field of economics and we wanted to leave a trail of books behind when we left. In other words, we wanted to build a library of books for those who came after, one book at a time. So, we asked Don Bash if we could do this and he was all for it. That was it. We raised the funds, bought the first book and we created the award. Today, the award continues. Each year a graduate of the Economics Department is awarded a book.

Now that I’m working for Haiti Projects Inc, we are working to build an actual off-the-grid library in rural Fond des Blancs, Haiti. It’s a challenging project. We have secured funding from the W.K. Kellogg foundation and we are in the process of raising an additional $500,000. What if I can do this? What if I can build on that moment at Simmons College and not only give away 1 book, but give away an entire library full of books to a community in desperate need? In addition, what if we can connect our new library to other libraries at MIT, at Simmons, and to Mel King’s South End Technology Center, a budding partnership that is in the works. Perhaps my one moment at Simmons could bring a wealth of knowledge to those most in need. 

If you could come back to Simmons and take one class, what would it be and why?

I loved my classes at Simmons -- my French classes, my economics classes with Barbara Sawtell and Don Basch. I also loved my communications class with Bob White where I could explore the creative side of myself by creating slideshows and 8 mm movies. I’m not sure that I could choose just one because all of these classes have made me who I am today.

What advice do you have for current undergraduate students?

Fail and don’t be afraid. When you fail, you teach yourself lessons that others will never be able to teach you. You learn the hard, cold truth about what went wrong, and then you take that information and build it into something that is much more amazing than you could ever have imagined. And, when you do fail, make sure you call that one person you know who can remind you just how great you really are. Because she has seen you fly, she won’t be afraid if you tell her you failed. She knows your potential and she will remind you that you know it too. It’s right inside of you. It has always been there, you just sometimes forget.

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