Zillow Speaker Series: Suzanne Sinegal McGill, Rwanda Girls Initiative President & Co-Founder

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide. Suzanne "Soozi" Sinegel McGill shares the story that has led to the Rwanda Girls Initiative, an organization committed to Rwanda's development through girls' education.

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When Suzanne “Soozi” Sinegel McGill learned about Rwanda, one of the world’s poorest and most densely populated countries, she felt inspired to do something.

“Maybe we could take some computers or soccer balls — that was the scale we were thinking,” she recalled during a recent visit to Zillow’s Seattle headquarters.

Little did McGill know her desire to do something would lead to co-founding the Rwanda Girls Initiative and building an all-girls secondary school in Rwanda’s Gashora Sector.

“Rwanda is trying to define themselves as something more than a genocide,” she said. “But to have a country build its own development, they have to have an educated population.”

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide, the mass slaughter of Tutsi and moderate Hutu by members of the Hutu extremists. “Nearly 1 million people were killed,” McGill explained.

After the genocide, the remaining population was 70 percent women. It’s more gender balanced today, but women continue to be seen as a key player in Rwanda’s development.

When the Initiative asked how they could help the recovering nation, the answer was clear: focus on secondary schools and, please, focus on girls.

For every year of secondary school a Rwandan girl receives, she increases her earning power by 15 to 20 percent, McGill explained. Girls reinvest 90 percent of their income back into their families, as opposed to 30-40 percent reinvested by men.

The problem is so many girls drop out of school for different reasons, falling further and further behind.

“About 750,000 girls are out of school in Rwanda,” McGill said. “…We needed to build a boarding school to keep them there, give them nutritious meals and have the whole focus be on study — not chores at home.”

The Gashora Girls Academy, a secondary boarding school for 270 Rwandan girls, opened in February 2011. Last fall, the school held its first graduation ceremony for 85 seniors. About half will end up at a national university in Rwanda; 21 girls are headed to top U.S. schools, including Yale and the University of Pennsylvania, for the fall of 2014.

“I never would have expected where we are today so quickly and how much the girls have achieved,” McGill said. “It’s breathtaking to me to hear what [the graduates] want to do. …They’re so excited to go get the best education they can and come back [to invest in Rwanda].”

Want to hear more of McGill’s inspiring story? Watch the video above or check out Zillow’s job page to hear more guest speakers in person; we’re hiring!

Previous Zillow Speaker Series guests include: