Gigot Center

Stories of Impact

Elizabeth Scharpf

ND ‘99


President and CEO,
Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE)


Rwanda, Africa


2009 Notre Dame Social Venture Plan Competition Winner

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Notre Dame Alum Planting Entrepreneurial Roots Across the Globe

Elizabeth Scharpf is familiar with making a lot out of nothing. Her grandmother, Mary King Murtagh, hailed from Roundstone, a poor Irish village in Galway County that had a population of about 300. Mary immigrated to the United States through Ellis Island in 1921. The oldest (and only female) offspring of a family of eight, she used the talents and energy she had to piece together a living, cooking for rich New Englanders and tailoring clothes.

Eventually, this entrepreneurialism paid off as she and her husband, a self-taught gardener, raised four daughters, each a college graduate. Two generations later, Elizabeth, Mary’s youngest grandchild and a graduate of Notre Dame and Harvard universities, is applying the very same entrepreneurship that got her grandmother out of poverty. Elizabeth’s social venture, Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), is seeking to not only improve the health and lifestyles of women in Rwandan villages, but also to provide the means to lift them from poverty.

SHE operates as a platform that spins out entrepreneurial businesses, rather than donation-only charities, to address some of the world’s most difficult and widespread socio-economic problems such as poverty and lack of education. Its first spin-out business focuses on a simple, yet common problem in developing countries that has significant implications for the educational and economic future of women: their lack of access to affordable sanitary products and services for menstruation. The problem is particularly acute since water and electricity are usually luxuries in those countries. Currently, girls and women miss school or work – up to 50 days per year – due to lack of affordable products.

The venture’s business model is entrepreneurial, involving the teaching of entrepreneurial/business skills, rather than operating with solely with donations. SHE intends to establish franchises globally that manufacture and distribute the products through a sustainable, market-based approach, by utilizing local, inexpensive raw materials such as banana fibers. The venture currently is rolling out operations in Rwanda by training women in sales, marketing, inventory management, and manufacturing, so that they can eventually own the business as SHE exits and replicates the model in other locations.

Elizabeth’s interest in international issues began at Notre Dame. After living in Germany the summer after her freshman year in Lyons Hall, she went on to study for a year abroad in Austria. This one year turned into three as she stayed on to become a Fulbright Scholar, studying social welfare policies of the European Union (EU) right at the time the EU was expanding to include Eastern Europe.

Her concern for international issues continued over the years, but her approach evolved based on her experiences, especially in East Africa. Elizabeth went on to become a strategy consultant for the pharmaceutical/biotech industries, helping to launch drugs and medical devices globally. She used this experience to become part of the first Clinton Foundation Team to negotiate affordable HIV/AIDS drug prices in China for those in developing countries. By ensuring a level of customer volume, the Clinton Foundation Team could successfully negotiate a drug price of 95 percent cheaper than the multinational brands. It was this idea of marrying entrepreneurship with social good that inspired Elizabeth’s approach to international development.

Although a village in Rwanda may seem a long way from her home, Elizabeth views her present living conditions in east Africa differently. The foundation of what she is doing now – training struggling people (especially women) in poverty with entrepreneurial and/or business skills – is very close to her roots in that small village in Ireland, with Mary King Murtagh leading the way. Notre Dame, Harvard, Germany, Austria – these were just stops along her route.

About Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE)

SHE, as highlighted by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times, is an organization using innovative market-based approaches to address socio-economic and public health problems. Founded in 2007 by Elizabeth Scharpf, Notre Dame graduate and Harvard MBA-MPAID, SHE is establishing sanitary pad franchising in East African villages as its first venture.

In the short time since its founding, SHE’s accomplishments include:

  • Echoing Green, the premier seed funder of innovative social change organizations, chose to support SHE as one of 19 ventures out of approximately 1,500 applicants worldwide.
  • Harvard Business School named SHE founder Scharpf as its first Social Entrepreneurship Fellow (2009).
  • Notre Dame and Stanford Business Schools awarded SHE 1st and 2nd places respectively in their Social Venture Plan Competitions.
  • SHE conducted global needs assessment with 500-plus girls and women, and 80 global organizations.
  • MIT, North Carolina State, Rwanda’s Institute of Technology, and PATH are collaborating with SHE on product development using local natural fibers from Rwanda as well as future SHE sites.
  • The Rwandan government is incubating SHE and providing assistance in workforce training.
  • Multiple Rwandan parliamentarians are championing reduction of the 18 percent value-added tax currently applied to sanitary pads.
  • SHE is training its first franchise employees in health and hygiene education and business management in Rwanda.