Women Who Make a Difference: Meet Cynthia Hellen
At Maggy London, we understand and value the power of women—the strength, perseverance and passion of women. Introducing Women Who Make a Difference: a series dedicated to the trailblazing, world-changing, ceiling-shattering women of our communities. Innovators. Entrepreneurs. Warriors. Mothers. Sisters. Daughters. Real women. Stay tuned throughout the month of October as we shine a light on five amazing women fighting to change the world.
Introducing Cynthia Hellen
Meet Cynthia Hellen, a globally recognized Peruvian-American entrepreneur, writer-producer-director, and technologist. Cynthia works to create sustainable products, services, and experiences for people and planet.
- Changing the world: Cynthia is the founder & CEO at SMPLCT Lab (pronounced "simplicity lab"), a socially conscious lab based in New York. Their mission? To improve lives, build communities and protect the environment.
- Speaking up: Cynthia regularly gives keynote speeches and hosts workshops. Cynthia is also a U.S. Expert Speaker at the U.S. Department of State, where she travels worldwide engaging local communities.
- Looking forward: Cynthia is a chapter leader at New York Women Social Entrepreneurs, a nonprofit that hosts a global network of women change-makers and provides training, access to resources, networking opportunities and support.
- Giving back: Cynthia is a mentor at Columbia University, the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College, Harvard University, and Harvard Business School.
cynthia's secret: how to make a difference (in 3 easy steps)
- Step out of your comfort zone: "You don't know where it may lead when you make decisions to remove yourself from what you know"
- Connect with the people around you: "This is reality for everyone. This is the real world. These are issues right now that are happening everyday. It motivates you to keep going...to keep working."
- Believe that you are talented: "Believe in yourself that you can do this. Gather a group of people who believe in you...that you can do this, that you will do this."
Shop Cynthia's Look
An Interview with Cynthia Hellen
Maggy London: Hello. Today we are extremely pleased to present to you our next installment of Women Who Make a Difference. Today we are talking to Cynthia Helen and Cynthia has been doing a tremendous amount of things. She is the founder and CEO at SMPLCT Lab, a socially conscious lab based in New York that creates sustainable products, services, and experiences for people and the planet. SMPLCT Lab’s mission is to improve lives, build communities, and protect the environment. So Cynthia, like I said, we are so pleased you agreed to be a part of Women Who Make a Difference. We’d love to hear a little bit about your background and what led you to do what you do and to occupy the space that you’re in currently.
Cynthia: Sure. It’s a pleasure — thank you so much first of all to Maggy London — team for taking the time and choosing me to be part of this series. I can’t wait to read about everyone else too. I believe my journey started when I was 15 running a business that would make sense to a lot of people. I got a taste of what entrepreneurship looked like but I think at that time when you're in high school and you don't know yourself — and still right now I'm still trying to figure myself out — but at 15 I really didn't know what entrepreneurship was or the power or for me what it can do for communities, for employees, what the end result would look like. I just knew that this was a restaurant that needed to launch, operate, have employees and make money. That’s what I thought my purpose was at 15. You know that changed when I finished high school. I went off to college. I was so consumed and felt very confused. I was trying to build something that I had barely ever known anyone who’s done it — operate a business at this age — or know much about what goes into building a business — what does the culture look like? What is the relationship between the employees and the team? So when I was in college I decided I had to go to the corporate side and get a taste of what it is to be an intern and what it is to get your first job. I’d never done that so during college I took my first internship. It was a WPAX Channel 11 and I was studying communications, marketing with a minor of fine arts — music. I figured this is exactly what I've been questioning as far as dynamics between teams and leadership look like but I wasn’t fulfilled. I was like, this is great, I get to be on set learning, talking, meeting people but I think there’s more than just producing content or putting together stories or just meeting fascinating people with incredible dreams and they’ve achieved it. So that experience led me to get out of the corporate industry. I went off to do my own producing. I did a lot of online work and that led me to meet other individuals who were in the same spot trying to work together — they just didn't know how to. So I figured, I have a talent, I have a skill set, that I know many industries would love to have, but there is a particular industry that lacks it and that is the nonprofit industry. When you start a nonprofit, you start it with a passion, with a fire, but you have zero in your bank account you just have the will to do it. So when you start your nonprofit, you don't have the best design, the best videos, photos so I thought I’m happy to lend my help, I’m happy to partner with someone and start really good work. It didn’t pay much but it was meaningful and that’s when I started figuring out, whatever it is I'm trying to get at, it’s meaningful enough for me to remain where I'm at and that led me to do a lot of various works with a lot of nonprofit. That led me to start a campaign that lasted 2 to 3 years and from there I figured out that I can do much more than what I’m allowing myself to do but I have to understand first and foremost what the issues at hand are. I’m 24, 25 living in New York maybe visiting a few times my home country, Peru. I didn't get a sense of the need, the poverty, the challenges other people have every day so I left New York in 2012 right before summer. I quit my job, I told my friends I have to leave, I have to do this for me — there’s something else I know I have to be doing — something meaningful I just don't know what that looks like right now but this trip is coming up and it’s such a good time to take a step back and figure out my next steps. I went off for 3 months to Peru. I landed in Lima. At the same time, I decided to make it interesting enough for me and I gave myself a challenge. There’s a nonprofit called One Days Wages and this nonprofit does this campaign every few months. It’s called the One Dollar a Day Challenge. So the challenge for me was to live in Peru, a country that I only visited one, two weeks and live on a $1.50 which is the norm of what an individual would be living on in a third world or in a very low-income community. So that’s what I did for the remainder of my three months stay in Peru. I was able to travel through Peru on a dollar a day, I was able to come up with ways of how I was going to feed myself and also find a place to live and also have some water at the very end. Obviously, food is important and a roof over your head is very much important so I was very lucky to be very tactful and resourceful. That experience led to many encounters of what the issues on the ground were and that was the big connection — the big “Aha” moment for me to figure out, I have a talent, I’m in front of these individuals who never went to possibly college or even high school however they have a talent and drive as well. What if they were to connect themselves with individuals — my friends — back in New York? What if we were able to work together? So SMPLCT Lab was created with the simple way these communities live in. So they may not have much, they don't have the best clothing, they don't have the best accessories or technology for that matter but what they do have is the desire to just live simply but live a meaningful life and that was the most important thing for them. They wanted to know that everyday when they woke up, they were making a difference in their community and that to me was so inspiring — to be present, to have a chance to work with them. Now, how do we work with them? I have the opportunity to do so because I come from New York. I come from a place where I have resources or I can get them or find a way while they don’t. It only took about a few weeks to figure out the strategy — to figure out the mission behind SMPLCT, who I was going to partner up with — obviously it took a lot of research and we partnered up with two different organizations in Lima which is a nonprofit and a social impact which is a social enterprise. They work within the agriculture, farming, and sustainability industries and we’ve started designing a lot of the products that a goat herder — perhaps a woman goat herder — would need when migrating between different communities which would take 12 hours to migrate between communities selling their goat cheese. So how do we make this feasible, possible for this woman farmer? What does that look like? So that takes a lot of research, a lot of understanding and meeting and talking to them. So that was the mission behind SMPLCT: working with these individuals but connecting them with other individuals who were also wanting to do something meaningful, something powerful but those people just happen to have more resources than those who are actually living a sad truth but not a very unlikely chance for them to turn it around if they wanted to and they do.
Maggy London: Wow, that is impressive. Your journey, how you got inspired from age 15 and how you really were aware, present, and made a decision to change your life and move to Lima and connect with people there and then figure out how you can make a wider impact but one that would be meaningful for people living there. That’s really powerful. And with SMPLCT Lab you’re doing tremendous things and your dream come true to some extent, would you say?
Cynthia: Yes and no. Operating a restaurant at age 15 which I barely remember nowadays. Now when I think about it, it only served one purpose: to make profit and to make really good food obviously, but make profit at the very end. But with SMPLCT, we want to go beyond just making profit and that means making sure not only our team is happy but also the people we’re serving. The products we’re putting out there, or the content whether that looks like an event, an experience, or the events and experiences we support or sponsor. There’s much more work when you allow yourself to care more. I want to help everyone and I want to partner with everyone but sometimes I can’t and it’s not because I don’t want to — I care deeply — it’s because a lot of the time I know saying no will be much better to really understand — to ask yourself, is this exactly what you need to do in order to meet your goal? I think having your goal in mind every time you’re about to make a decision or have a challenge, helps you make a better decision.
Maggy London: So tell us a little about… Here’s an example: imagine meeting a woman who is passionate about social good and wants to create a legacy and wants to make a difference and change the lives of people who may not have the same fortune situation she does, or skill set as you did and do. How would you encourage her to get started? How would you encourage her to, in the space that she lives perhaps or wherever her sphere of influence would be, what would your encouraging words be to her so that at the end of the day, she would feel like she made a difference?
Cynthia: Just recently we came back from Harvard. We were mentors over at this new conference that this Harvard student that I’ve known for the past two years and have been very proud of her understanding or at least wanting to put her talents to good use. She’s an engineer over at Harvard and she put together this conference because she wanted to inspire youth, at least other students, to take a look around them and put others first and use their talents for good. As a mentor at the conference, you always get that question, 18, 25, or even my age, 34, coming my way and asking, “What can I do? It looks like you’re doing it and it looks like you did it so easily. At my age I'm 50, I'm 40, 18, how can I make this happen?” There are usually three things I share that work for me — but perhaps may, may not work for you, I can’t say for certain it’s going to tie in well with what you’re going through, with what you have. For one is stepping out of your comfort zone. I had this leave New York, leave the US, and put myself in the worse — well I can’t say worse — in a place where I know I would feel very uncomfortable and I would find huge challenges aside from finding ways of feeding myself but just the challenge of not knowing anyone or not knowing where I'm going for that matter or what my next step is. I think when you remove yourself from a place you know very well and that doesn’t really push you, doesn't really inspire you or motivate you to do more than what you do in your everyday routine. So if you move, if you sit down at a different table and start talking to another group of people whether in your own classroom, school, or even work, that will perhaps inspire or click something in you that you never thought of or figured out that “hey, this is something that I may be interested in learning more or meeting this person or maybe we actually have something alike. You don't know where that may lead when you make those decisions to really remove yourself from what you know. Two would be there are other people doing great work around us. You won't be the first and you won’t be the last so connecting yourself with those and supporting them and their work I think it’s the best way to also understand if that work is for me or maybe it isn't so I usually recommend, go volunteer at a soup kitchen or go run a marathon or maybe are you a designer? Give your talents to a nonprofit who is starting out or maybe a year old, three years old. I did it. I was an intern, a volunteer — I'm still a volunteer and I do the soup kitchen every now and then when I get a chance. To be honest, it shakes you up, it gives you an understanding that this is the reality for everyone. This is the real world, these are issues right now that are happening every day and motivates you to keep going o keep working. Puts a fire under you. And third, it would be to really believe in yourself that you are talented. A lot of the times you go through your life with people telling you that you’re not good enough or maybe you're not qualified or maybe you don't have enough experience. I’ve been told all of that. Even up until now I’m told that I’m either too Spanish looking, or too Peruvian looking, or too bossy, or there’s another word for it that starts with a “B”. There are so many tags and mean calls that people will throw your way so it will be more of a challenge if you start believing it so I think believing in yourself that you can do this and gather that group of people who do believe in you, that you can do this, that you will do this, and we have your back for whatever reason I think that also helps out figure out what you want to do and perhaps if you should be doing that and maybe not.
Maggy London: Awesome. Thank you so much. Two more questions. You’ve had the opportunity to share what you're doing at conferences, interviewing people, meeting people, lending your expertise. Tell us a little bit about what you have on — just piggybacking off one of the last things you talked about in your three points — just how when you're out in the public and you’re putting your best foot forward, what you wear, how you're dressed, how that helps get your message across.
Cynthia: I like to align myself not only with making sure I'm in the right mental state — that I'm feeling positive, feeling good, that I went out for a run, that I worked out yesterday or this morning, but that I like what I'm wearing. I think that also, as a woman, that adds a finishing touch. If you look at me, I don't wear much jewelry so I'm not so much materialistic as far as going overboard and overdoing it but I will be very sentimental with certain pieces. So I know if there’s a piece, a good example is a Maggy London, I know the clothing that I now will wear have such a story behind them because of the people that I've met through the shoot and the laughter that we shared or the stories — that is how I will attach myself so being a woman, we’re very good at storytelling, we’re very good at sharing a lot of things between each other so I think that certain pieces of clothing that we keep around us is something positive to keep and to have. I love stories and I often do a lot of storytelling when it comes to work so if a piece of clothing has a great story or it’s made from a great story, it’s even more special for me.
Maggy London: In closing, Cynthia, tell us what the future holds for you or what you see the future looking like for you?
Cynthia: With love, I will continue visiting and mostly learning and meeting more men and women who are eager to start or connect or grow as a citizen of their country and a citizen of this world. I always go back to my purpose. I think my purpose is not only to connect myself and connect with others, but also connect their talents and help them figure out what is the challenge at hand, and how they can connect their talents their issues and connect that to a bigger picture. So maybe in their neighborhood, they lack a road, or they lack electricity, how can they pull in from different perhaps neighbors or pull in together in order to overcome this challenge. If you take a look at a lot of the nonprofits now, a lot of them are in the same space. There are so many nonprofits working for girls’ education. Imagine if they all pulled together and shared the resources, they shared the data, the findings. The impact that they would have. Because at the end, they're meeting the same goal. That’s how I look at it when it comes to communities when it comes to everyday women — even here at this office. We all share one purpose: to build incredible products that will make a difference in people’s lives and also make profit. That’s the end goal. That’s what my goal is too — to continue doing that through SMPLCT and maybe other initiatives.
Maggy London: Thank you, Cynthia, so much for taking some time out of your very busy schedule. We are just so pleased you took the time to share what you're doing now and share the journey and what the future looks like for moving social good forward as it pertains to you and your skill set and your passion. Again, we can’t thank you enough for being a part of Women Who Make a Difference. We clearly see that your efforts, your energy, your passion, your love for social good really has made a difference, currently making a difference, and will continue to make a difference in the future so we thank you for being a part of our series on MaggyLondon.com.
Cynthia: Thank you so much for choosing me!
Maggy London: You’re so welcome!