For more than three decades, the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards have recognized and celebrated the strides of Canada’s most accomplished, influential and impactful women. The Awards, which are presented by Women of Influence, shine a spotlight on women who have been instrumental in driving business success in Canada. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we proudly recognize and promote their inspiring stories.
Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST) CEO Shauna Curry was a finalist for the Social Change Award: National Impact as part of the 2022 RBC Canadian Entrepreneur Awards. Her impact, however, is truly international. During her tenure at CAWST, she has led the development and expansion of CAWST’s service delivery, from providing services in only two countries to its current network of 420 organizations in 100 countries. In 2021 alone, these organizations reached more than 5 million people with better water and sanitation.
“CAWST is solving one of the world’s most pressing issues, which is access to safe drinking water,” Curry explains in a recent conversation. “Water is obviously essential for health and our very existence. Around the world, water is becoming more contaminated, and there is less access to water for all purposes.”
Focused on clean drinking water, CAWST has a unique business model; it’s both a professional engineering firm and a registered Canadian charity. This model allows them to provide training, advice and support for organizations as they implement their own water and sanitation solutions. Additionally, CAWST can subsidize their services as most organizations they work with can’t afford to pay them.
CAWST teaches people how to get safe drinking water and sanitation in their homes using simple, affordable technologies. “When people hear about what we do, they say it’s like the ‘teach a man to fish’ proverb, and it’s so much more than that. We help organizations and communities select, build and repair technical solutions enabling them to own, control and sustain their access to clean water,” says Curry.
The power within: Empowered women change lives and communities
RBC’s 2023 theme for International Women’s Day is “Celebrate the Power Within.”
While CAWST works with both women and men in organizations worldwide, Curry notes it’s women who are primarily leading their communities in accessing safe water. “By and large, women are responsible for the home — which means they are responsible for the water in the home. So, when women know that it’s water that killed their children or why their children are sick — and they know there’s a solution. They take action right away.”
She shares the story of six women in Haiti who learned from a local organization trained by CAWST that an infant in their community may have died due to unsafe drinking water. The women approached CAWST and the organization, asking to be trained on the concrete water filters they were building. Once the women were trained, they asked to borrow the mould to build filters for their homes. With the help of CAWST, the women secured $2,000 to build 270 filters for their community.
“These are some of the best filters we’ve seen anywhere in the world. These women have no formal education, yet this is an example of when women know there is a solution, they can take action to change their lives and their communities’ lives. They then start to be seen as leaders in the community, and that contributes to their own empowerment,” says Curry. She’s seen this happening around the world. “Taking action creates confidence to take the next action, which starts to shift the equity in traditionally very patriarchal communities,” she adds.
Celebrating and tapping into the power within others
“The work we’re doing isn’t easy — we’re tackling the global water crisis and building human capacity at the same time. Leading and growing an organization in this sector is not for the faint of heart,” says Curry.
As such, she draws strength from the power within women leading meaningful change in their communities and from others who celebrate the power within her. “One of the things I did when I became CEO was identify people who could fill different roles for me – my cheerleader, my mentor, my guide, my sounding board. I found people who would pick me up when I fell down and surrounded myself with them. It’s advice I would give anyone starting a business.”
Curry also says allies play a vital role in gender equity and empowerment.
“My dad was the biggest support to my mom and his three daughters,” she says. She adds she feels privileged to have been raised in Canada, with its education and health system. “Along with that privilege comes a responsibility to serve. That was instilled in me early and is central to everything I do and who I’ve become. I was taught you can bring your interests, passions and service together to make a big difference in the world.”
Today, CAWST is poised to scale up further, on track to grow its clients, partners and collaborations across every country, with a target of reaching 100 million people by 2030. With her team of supporters behind her and women across the globe discovering their capacity for making changes in their communities, Shauna Curry and CAWST are well-positioned to continue making a tremendous difference.
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