Seattle Foundation Blog

Powering Change with Soozi Sinegal McGill

Soozi McGill is a philanthropist at Seattle Foundation and co-founder and president of the Rwanda Girls Initiative

August 04, 2017

By Afrose Ahmed. Read this story and more in Volume 3 (pdf) of Seattle Foundation's Heart & Science magazine.

Co-founding a school for girls lacking opportunities more than 7,600 miles away was not an obvious path for Seattle Foundation philanthropist and mother of three Suzanne “Soozi” Sinegal McGill. But developing the Rwanda Girls Initiative (RGI) was born from her own family’s example of giving back. “I grew up with two parents who continue to be dedicated to their community. They have always shown that we have a responsibility, [that we are] connected to the smaller community around us and also the greater community.”

McGill attributes that sense of responsibility for the wider world in part to her father’s Catholic background. During early childhood her family lived a very modest life, while still emphasizing giving to others. “When times changed due to my dad’s hard work, along with luck and chance, we were able to do a lot more, but with a sense that it is a great privilege and responsibility to give back,” she said. “That is where the heart [of charitable giving] comes from for me and my family.”

Along with her business partner and friend, Shalisan “Shal” Foster, McGill was drawn to Rwanda partly through that country’s critical efforts to rebuild and redefine a national identity after the horrific genocide of the early 1990s. “We had the kernel of an idea to support education as the foundation of all other development. We felt that educating a population to build their own solutions and create capacity is, at the end of the day, what is going to create change,” McGill said.

In 2011, Rwanda Girls Initiative opened the Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology, an uppersecondary boarding school an hour away from the capital, Kigali, to increase educational opportunities for girls in Rwanda. Students and teachers work collaboratively to ensure that the 270 students develop the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in life.

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McGill and Foster spent months visiting with communities in Rwanda, listening to stories and hearing Rwandans identify critical needs and visions for the future of their country. “There was so much that we didn’t know. Many people who have far more experience gave us the advice: ‘If you want a sense of ownership on the ground and sustainability, there has to be collaboration with people.’ Our initial ignorance served us well, because we recognized that we weren’t experts. It required us to be very good listeners to determine the needs,” McGill said.

This fact-finding ultimately led to the founding of the Rwanda Girls Initiative (RGI) and the Gashora Girls Academy, a secondary school that provides an innovative, world-class education to high school-aged girls who face barriers to schooling. Many of RGI’s graduates are attending universities in the United States, with the goal of returning to Rwanda to reinvest in their communities. McGill says gender parity is a defining element of all economic development in Rwanda, so empowering girls is key to reaching the country’s development goals. “Though our first graduating class are only juniors in college, the girls are absolutely changing the world around them,” she said.

As McGill’s and Foster’s passion for this project grew, their community in the Pacific Northwest responded with support and expertise. Many of their donors give through Seattle Foundation, which administers and connects engaged philanthropists like McGill with targeted strategies that increase equity and opportunity.

“Kim Wright [Director of Family Philanthropy] has been an incredible resource for us, advising on how to be more sustainable and efficient, how to reach out more effectively and how to cultivate more donors. She has helped us think through strategic challenges and provided many resources that I would not have had access to if I just had a family foundation set up somewhere," said McGill.

The ties between McGill’s Seattle community and her work in Rwanda have strengthened over the years. “I look at our world today as so deeply interconnected. What happens far away from here has a really direct impact here. Everyone being lifted up leads to a safer and more prosperous world for all of us,” she said.

Heart & Science Magazine

Read Heat & Science magazine Vol. 4 for more on how philanthropists, community organizations and Seattle Foundation are working to create a healthy community through supporting education and health & wellness.

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