Her fame may be tied to the glamor of modeling , but that’s not why supermodel Christy Turlington-Burns was named one of Time Magazine‘s 100 Most Influential People this year.
She’s emerged as a globe-trotting social entrepreneur as a result of founding the nonprofit organization Every Mother Counts in 2010 to help make pregnancy and childbirth safe for mothers around the world.
The organization’s work includes funding programs that link women to essential maternity care in Haiti, Uganda, Malawi, Indonesia, and the U.S. And it’s a deeply personal project for her.
The guiding force behind Turlington-Burns’s leadership is the importance of personal experience. Her own complicated pregnancy opened her eyes to the scope of the problem and gives the cause that much more of an emotional resonance for her.
Turlington-Burns says she became a maternal health advocate when she became a mom, a process that included some unexpectedly harrowing circumstances for her. After giving birth to her daughter Grace a decade ago, she says she hemorrhaged, which she later learned is the leading cause of maternal deaths globally. And while she had access to the best health resources to help her recover, too many other mothers around the world, she learned, don’t.
A couple of years after her daughter’s birth, Turlington-Burns was traveling with the humanitarian organization Care on a trip with her mother to visit El Salvador.
“I was pregnant with my son Finn, and we were touring a village where women received prenatal care in a makeshift clinic set up at their water source,” she says. “That’s when it occurred to me that if I’d had my birth complication in that village, I probably would have died. I came home from that trip thinking about how I could make a difference for mothers in countries where lack of access to health care and other issues prevent them from getting the essential life-saving care they need.”
She completed and debuted a documentary about the state of global maternity care, No Woman, No Cry, at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2010. It was later screened on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network and at other locations around the country.
The film inspired people to ask how they could help, and from there, Every Mother Counts was born, first as a resource for the film’s audiences to learn more about how they could become more engaged.
“Every two minutes, a woman dies bringing life into the world,” Turlington Burns tells Fast Company, explaining how that statistic equates to over 700 women per day.
Her organization is hard at work to make a dent in those numbers. And it’s doing so within the context of some guiding principles that become clear when Turlington-Burns talks about her philosophy behind the creation and leadership of Every Mother Counts.
Near the top of that list of principles is a focus on storytelling. It’s an indispensable tool, Turlington-Burns says, for helping lead a nonprofit like hers that’s focused on the tough work of pursuing global change.
“One of the biggest challenges of our issue is awareness,” she says. “People just don’t realize the startling statistics, but once they become aware of the challenges and realize that there are solutions, they become inspired and we can ultimately engage them in a more meaningful way.”
An example of how Every Mother Counts is spreading that message–and telling its story in the process–is the organization’s “Every 2 Minutes” campaign. Turlington-Burns’s nonprofit is asking all mothers to help raise awareness to support mothers and mothers-to-be around the world by taking “two minutes to take two actions” that come from a list the organization has prepared.
“We hope to accomplish two things with this campaign–to educate people about a global tragedy that we know how to solve, and inspire more people to join in our efforts,” Turlington Burns says.
The message she has for anyone considering launching or becoming similarly involved in a social entrepreneurship mission is that it starts with a purposeful vision of how you want to change the world. And it’s helped along by the people you encounter along the way.
“If you truly want to change the world, set an intention, and the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ will present themselves. When you’re dedicated to making a change, and you believe deeply in what it is that you care about, you will make it happen.”