March 27,

What happens when you take one part entrepreneurialism, one part psychology and combine them with a splash of salty water? A magical mix of strength, perseverance, and self-empowerment. When entrepreneur Isabelle Delfosse met psychologist Catalina Chacon, a special kind of alchemy happened. They fused their respective passions to bring the historically male-dominated sport of surfing to girls in Las Salinas, Nicaragua. What happened next went beyond learning to swim and a new embrace of nature—a generation of girls were introduced to a whole new set of opportunities that life has in store.

Read on to learn more about Isabelle (Bella) and Catalina (Cata) and how their experience in the VV Visionaries Program, a partnership between the Estée Lauder Emerging Leaders Fund and Vital Voices, is helping them take their surf school, Sirenitas de Popoyo (the little mermaids of Popoyo) to the next level.

What is the inspiration behind Sirenitas de Popoyo?

Bella: I’m from Belgium and have been living in Nicaragua for 10 years. The inspiration started from surfing. There were no local women surfing here. A lot of local boys and men, but no girls or women. After a while, I started to question that. But in living here, I began to understand the very male-dominated culture. I got the idea for a nonprofit from a friend who did a lot of “charity surfing”—he teaches veterans, blind people, disadvantaged children for free. It made me want to create something for local girls, but I didn’t know where to start.

Cata: Bella has this amazing background of being an entrepreneurial woman in Nicaragua. I have a very different background—I’m a psychologist, and I did my Master’s in gender and peace studies. We live in the tiniest of towns, and it’s impossible for us not to know each other. I had always been obsessed with the idea of surfing, but it was never attainable. I didn’t have the finances and just didn’t think it was for me. But there was a day when Bella invited a bunch of us to go surfing, and it was a day I’d been working on a really tough case. Having that session with Bella in the water was so magical. Something clicked, and it really helped with the pain I was feeling that day. So when Bella said that teaching surfing to local girls was something she’d been thinking about, I said, Let’s do it.

I’m extremely passionate about anything that has to do with closing the gender gap. The community of girls that we work with, it’s only a generation away from what could have happened to me. My mom was very low income, and I see myself very clearly in them. Our work is really trying to show them that there are so many different paths in life that they can achieve—it’s just helping them to open up new options for themselves.

What have been your biggest wins and challenges since getting started?

Cata: Surfing is a very male led sport, and even more so in Latin America. One of the biggest challenges was just getting the girls to go out surfing by themselves. And now we have them walking to the water with their surfboards by themselves. It took 5 years—they’re the first. That kind of thing has never been seen before in our area. It’s an incredible feat for them that they now have both the knowledge and trust that they are OK in the water, plus the self-confidence to be seen doing it.

Another huge win is now that we have girls graduating from the program, we are starting to see the true fruits of the very long roads we’ve taken. One girl is applying to study to become a nurse. We also sponsor girls to take classes, and one competed in tae kwon do and won first place. She’s also going to advanced English classes. We see now that the way they think about their futures and the options they have is so different from where they were when they came into the program.

Bella: It’s incredible when we ask the girls how the project has impacted them. Hearing it in their own words, hearing a 12-year-old girl say, “I used to think surfing was for guys, but now I really enjoy it and we can do anything in life.” Because of the macho culture here, women work, but it’s all in service industry jobs where they make very little money. So to see that confidence and belief in themselves—to hear a girl say that she can continue her studies and do any kind of job—is groundbreaking.

What impact did the VV Visionaries Program have on your work?

One huge challenge is stretching ourselves very thin. We don’t make any money off of this—it’s a full-time job balanced with our real full-time jobs and families. In VV Visionaries, they reiterated every single time—take care of yourself; think about how you’re going to treat yourself so you don’t burn out. To hear that from someone, and to get that permission, showed me that it’s possible.

Cata: As women, we’re just handed a bunch of responsibilities in life and we just deal with it and assume it’s because we’re women. Gender studies has been my whole life, and I’ve never been able to step into that role to say, “I’m a leader.” Even now, it’s still tough for me to see myself as that. But I’ve realized now that being a woman is a super strength. I can take on anything and problem-solve and I will make it happen. I’m assuming that now as my super power—but I’ve learned that while it is something I can offer you, it’s not something to be taken advantage of. It's our superpower, but it shouldn’t be our kryptonite either.

Bella: Being surrounded by all of these other inspiring women in the program and hearing their stories and struggles, I felt supported. We’re in 27 different countries, but our experiences are so alike. Hearing a story from another Fellow who went through a similar situation teaching a co-ed classroom in Africa, it hit me—if she can do this, we can try that too!

What kind of leaders are you? Or how would you describe yourselves as leaders? Do you each have different leadership qualities?

I feel like I’ve always been a natural born leader, and I feel bad saying that. In my school, I was always the leader of my classroom, the leader of my group in Girl Scouts, the lead singer in a band. But it’s kind of unconscious—it’s not that I decide, “I’m going to be a leader,” it’s just what I do, and it feels right or natural to try to get people together and accomplish things. With the Sirenitas, it just kind of happened. But being invited into a space [like VV Visionaries] with other women was a crystallizing part of seeing myself as a leader.

Cata: And I’ve never had that experience in my life! I have never once said, “I am a leader.” But I will say, after becoming a mother, it changes your life completely. It’s a full on mirror to the ugliest, prettiest, and most difficult parts of you. I said to myself, “I’m continuously talking the talk, but I’m not walking the walk with myself.” I’m trying to teach my daughter to be the person she wants to be, but I’m shying away from what I know is who I am. With the Sirenitas, being able to do this and know that we’re creating an impact helps me see that people are seeing me and coming to me as a leader. It hasn’t been an easy route; it’s still a process, but you have to say it to believe it. So—I’m a leader. I believe my answer more now as a result of the VV Visionaries program than I did before.

How do you plan to pay your experience forward for other woman leaders?

It goes back to our leadership qualities. We’re great at listening and we’re great at being honest. Something that I’ve learned is that there is so much value in sharing experience. We are extremely open with both our wins and our losses. Paying it forward, to us, is continuing the network that we have, so that for all of the people involved, we really try to make them understand the huge impact they’re creating. There’s an undervalued resource of being able to just ask any question, so that’s how we pay it forward to anyone who comes in contact with us. Easy resources. The basics of networking and sharing experiences. When you’re walking, you need to take a step and a step and a step. And that’s what leadership growth is.

Bella: I want to invest more in storytelling. Sharing experiences, sharing stories. We already have almost 6 years of experience now, growing from this teeny tiny thing to this little bit bigger thing. If me sharing my story can inspire someone else, I would love to do that. Sharing tools, sharing experiences. The Sirenitas wouldn’t be what it is today without all of the women who have helped us. Friends, volunteers, our advisory council, etc. If I can be that person for somebody else, that’s what it is to be a leader—to help other people and to lift them up along your path.