Growing Up Poor in Forbes Park Inspired This Harvard Graduate to Help Create an Equal Future For All
The World Economic Forum projects it will take the world 217 years to reach gender parity at the rate it’s going now.
Analisa Leonor Balares, recognized by the same organization as a “Young Global Leader,” knows this well. She's spent the last ten years trying to size down that statistic through a non-profit global community geared toward empowering and training women. She’s called the brainchild of her days at Harvard Business School, “Womensphere.” On its tenth year, it's heading back to its roots in the Philippines.
Analisa Balares on the podium of a Womensphere summit
An empowering childhood in the Philippines
The first 16 years of Analisa’s life were spent in the Philippines. Originally from Leyte, her family moved to Manila. She and her parents lived in Forbes Park, as her father was employed by the Burridges, a prominent American family whom Analisa describes as “loving and egalitarian" who "embraced us into their home.”
Analisa's father, Remy, served as the family’s driver. Her mother, Mely, was a household helper.
Analisa (center) with her family during a Balares reunion in Leyte with (left to right) her father Remy, mother Mely, nephew Ivan, sister-in-law Che, and brother Arvin.
During this time, Analisa attended public school at Guadalupe Elementary School Central, where the socioeconomic disparity between the lives of those in Forbes Park and those outside it became apparent to her. "It gave me an understanding early on of how reality can be different for Filipinos depending on where you are economically and socially," she says. But it was also then that she received love and kindness from people from all walks of life.
Analisa says her parents had stopped their own schooling and started working while they were still in their teens so they could help their widowed mothers send their sisters to college. But despite their being poor by economic standards, Analisa says she never felt her life lacked anything.
"My parents may not have finished high school, but they are among the most noble, compassionate, and amazing people in this world. Character, values, compassion, faith, purity of soul—the most precious aspects of oneself that can't be bought, nor obtained with an Ivy League education, my parents have in great abundance," says Analisa. "I wouldn't be who I am if it weren't for them, for the values they've inspired in me, their gifts of love and faith, their unconditional support and encouragement. Our families make such a huge difference in our lives, more so than economics."
She says her unusual situation gave her the ability to discern which gaps needed closing in the country.
Analisa Balares with Laura Burridge, the daughter of her father's employer.
She quotes U.S. President John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
She says these were the words that resonated with her and were the messages reinforced by the schools she attended during Cory Aquino’s presidential term.
“We need to take greater ownership of the problems we see in society and come up with solutions,” Analisa says. “That was a message I took to heart.” From then on, she took part in countless government programs. She had her first taste of public service when she became junior barangay captain at the age of 12 and as a senior high school student was youth mayor of Manila, where she created executive orders that became laws in the city.
From an early age, Analisa excelled academically. She received her secondary education at Manila Science High School, which taught her to see science and technology as solutions in creating a more sustainable world. She worked with a team of students and together they innovated an anaerobic system that reduced the pollution load of effluent that went into the Pasig River. In their junior year, that same group worked on extracting collagen from fish scales and tannery wastes and in their final year of high school, they converted the high-sugar waste from soda production into ethanol and methanol.
The goal at that time was to help the Philippines become like Japan, she says. Analisa said it took many years to realize we do not necessarily want to be like Japan.
“We have our own history and we need to take greater leadership in how we steer the country,” she says.
We need to take greater ownership of the problems we see in society and come up with solutions.
These projects, and others
Analisa credits all the support that their group received all those years—from the teachers and mentors who took time to hone their skills and walk them through methodologies, to companies such as Shell, who recognized Outstanding Junior Scientists.
One by one, the scholarship offers came, and eventually she chose to attend university at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, studying economics and mathematics. The Burridges later became her host family while in the U.S.
A global success
It was during her later studies at Harvard Business School that Analisa crafted the plans for Womensphere. It made perfect sense for her to retrace her roots and tie up all the issues she had been addressing since childhood. Its vision morphed into a combination of empowering women, addressing the issues of sustainability—again through science and technology, and innovation as a key to growth.
Analisa figured she had already been actively participating in these advocacies all through the years. All these aspects came to play when she decided to take the plunge into social entrepreneurship.
Analisa Balares opens the Womensphere Emerging Leaders Global Summit at Columbia University.
Aside from the much lauded Womensphere summits that empower women to create the future, there are three major projects under the Womensphere umbrella.
The New Champions Womensphere Incubator Network (WIN) is a global network of ecosystems and incubators built to educate and train women in the fields of leadership, management, entrepreneurship, and more.
The Womensphere Innovation Leadership Lab (WILL) runs a global digital program that encourages women to create solutions for the Global Goals for Sustainable Development.
Lastly, there’s the New Champions 5050, an initiative for gender equality and empowerment for the members of the Young Global Leaders, Global Shapers, Schwab Social Entrepreneurs, Tech Pioneers, and the Foundation communities of the World Economic Forum. This collaborative project sponsored by Womensphere brings leaders together to advance these shared goals.
Balares presents a Womensphere Global Award to Dr. Kathleen Sullivan, former U.S. astronaut and head of the agency NOOA, together with New York University dean of science Michael Purugganan.
To catch up on local affairs, Analisa recently spent two years in the rural areas of the Philippines, preparing its launch here and partnering with local government units.
“I was very familiar with the issues here [in the U.S.] but not so much with the Philippines because I left the country when I was only 16 years old and had spent a bulk of my time since then in the U.S.,” she explains.
To learn more about the country, Analisa met 51 barangay captains and leaders in a rural town in her province of Leyte, lending careful ears to not only what the people needed but what their ideas were.
Being comfortable is our default and I like to be comfortable, too, but to realize your vision requires a lot of energy, work, faith, and inspiration.
Womensphere is launching a digital initiative extending to the Philippines in February. The Global Codefest, Global Artfest, and Global Videofest are mentoring programs as well as competitions in the arts, coding, and video. Women in the high school and collegiate levels from various countries will come together to have participants use their skills to express their visions and solutions to world’s sustainable development goals.
Winners will attend an award ceremony held during the weeks of the UN General Assembly in New York next September.
The makings of a leader
Analisa herself shies away from the spotlight. Despite years of collecting accolades and awards—her resume boasts of distinctions such as NASA Datanaut and working for Goldman Sachs in High Technology Investment Banking, and being a UBS Global Visionary—she prefers to stay beneath the radar.
Balares moderates the Q&A portion of the Womensphere Summit in Europe.
As a global leader, she reverts to two thoughts when faced with seemingly unsolvable issues. “First, I think about my parents, my grandparents, and the struggles that they went through and this gives me courage,” she says. “I’m given courage by the fact that I know I come from a bloodline of resilient warriors.” She later admits to having inherited her mother’s willpower and resilience and her father’s zen and diligent work ethic.
She recognizes the role of a divine power in her life, saying that not many leaders talk about the spiritual aspect of leadership. She prays several times a day and seeks wisdom from her relationship with God. "Here I am, Your creation. I want to be the best instrument to do good and spread light in this world," she prays to this source of infinite power and wisdom. This is where she draws her strength.
Her other big secret: She loves problem-solving. She’s been practicing it since high school. Maybe even earlier. She recognizes that in social entrepreneurship the odds will always be against her and the only solution is to overcome those odds. “Being comfortable is our default and I like to be comfortable, too, but to realize your vision requires a lot of energy, work, faith, and inspiration.”
During a personal trip to the Mayan ruins in Tulum, Mexico
Analisa Leonor Balares, Law & Order SVU actress
Mariskay Hargitay, who Balares is a fan of, and CIEN+ CEO Lili Gil Valetta during an event hosted by the Women's Forum of New York, an exclusive society of 500 of city’s most influential women leaders.
In finding inspiration and seeking comfort, Analisa creates spare time for her hobbies. These basic necessities, such as exposure to sunshine and nature, play a huge part in her inspiration-seeking. She rejuvenates by spending time outdoors—touring hiking trails in various states when at home in the U.S., and gardening and visiting the beach during her time spent back in her beloved Philippines.