Women Taking Leaps: Interview with Michaela Cisney

About the Women Taking Leaps series:

This blog - my life - would not be what it is today without the inspiring women in my life. Near and far, close friends and new acquaintances, incredible women have come into my life in my later years and opened a realm of possibilities for me, simply living by example. This blog series is the first of (hopefully) many to highlight the females that are forging onward, creating lives they love, and making a positive mark on this world.

For the grand finale of this series, I'm proud to introduce you to Michaela Cisney, founder of Priyam Global, a not for profit organization equipping mothers of children with disabilities to rise out of poverty. 

Interview: Michaela Cisney, founder of Priyam Global

Taking the leap to create an international nonprofit in her twenties

To start, tell us a bit about your organization, Priyam Global:

Priyam Global is a movement to affirm the value of children affected by disability. We are a registered nonprofit with the mission of improving the quality of life for children with disabilities in poverty by investing in the women who raise them. Currently, we work in Chennai, India, where we are running a comprehensive economic empowerment and family support program for mothers of children with disabilities.

What drove you to create the organization and run it yourself?

In 2009, I spent six weeks with children who were affected by severe developmental disability and living in a children’s home in southern India. That trip was somewhat of a whim, I simply wanted to volunteer in India and I was placed in that children’s home. The children I spent my summer with that year completely dismantled my view of children’s “potential,” and replaced my assumptions about disability with their humanity, beauty, and joy. They really taught me so much about life, love, and the value of every life. Having no previous experience with childhood disability, but being fairly familiar with global development efforts and orphan care, I remember feeling stunned that I had never heard of or seen a child with a disability in my previous travels or in emails and campaigns from my favorite large international nonprofits.

That trip sparked a three-year journey of learning as much as I could about childhood disability in resource-poor settings around the world, particularly in India. This journey convinced me that there was a great need in the world for a global and collaborative voice to affirm the rights and value of these children and to raise global awareness of their strengths and needs. I founded Priyam Global in 2014.

How did those around you react when you told them about what you planned to do?

I felt very supported. My friends and family rallied around the cause immediately, and as we have grown we continue to be supported mostly by family, friends, and friends of friends and family. It’s grown very organically and that has been amazing and encouraging. My fiancé at the time (now my husband), always believed in me and in this cause, while also providing honest (and often quite challenging!) feedback and strategic input. I have also experienced my fair share of skepticism from people who aren’t as close to me and who are aware of the complexities and oft-repeated errors in international development, but I actually welcome that, as it has helped me to continually appraise what I am doing with a critical eye and think about it from all sides.

Was there a person or situation where you received help/support that changed your journey?

In the spring of 2014, before I launched Priyam Global that summer, my husband and I returned to India after 3 years of research for a final learning trip to confirm if our ideas for Priyam Global were relevant and useful. I had sent a proposal for the idea of Priyam Global to the executive director of a global health organization, hoping for input. He forwarded it on to their founder, who called me up, asked me to lunch, and wrote a check that covered half of the expenses of that trip. His belief in me, so early in the journey, and receiving that kind of affirmation from someone I admired (he had direct experience working as a developmental pediatrician with children in India) was incredible.

What’s been your greatest challenge (personal or otherwise) so far?

Our greatest challenge, by far, is attempting to catch the interest of large funders or grant organizations for our work. There is very little global research or literature on childhood disability in low-income countries. As a result, it does not occur to grant-makers to include the topic in their areas of interest.

There is a huge need, worldwide, to bring vital attention to the realities of children affected by disability in poverty.

What advice do you have for others who are considering a starting a nonprofit or startup organization?

Learn. Learn as much as you can before you formally launch or announce your idea, and never stop learning.

Listen. Listen to the people you are serving. Theirs are the most important voices. This may seem obvious, but when funders and donors and aid agencies and your own ideas start chiming in, the voices of the people who are being served often get silenced.

Be patient. Don’t rush into creating an organization. It’s an incredible amount of work, often quite lonely, and a deep commitment. Most nonprofits don’t make it past 3 years. Be realistic about what you can contribute to your cause, what’s already being done, and what would best be done by others.

Be collaborative. Don’t compete with other organizations, and as much as possible use partnership as a method to reduce repetition of work in the communities where you work.

What’s next for you outside of Priyam Global?

Beyond our immediate programs, I’m turning my attention to the creation of a large-scale effort, complementary to Priyam’s work, that will bring awareness to the lived experiences of children with disabilities in existing program areas where leading humanitarian agencies work.

Who is your biggest inspiration in the community where you work?

My biggest inspiration is a toss-up between the mothers enrolled in our program, and our programs director, who has single-handedly created so much positive change for children with disabilities in her community in India. I have spent a fair amount of time with people in international development organizations, hard-working people who are dedicated to creating positive change in the world, but have never met anyone more inspiring than the people who live in the neighborhoods where they were born and who transform very limited resources into a force for good for their communities.

That kind of dedication, usually never noticed or awarded by those in “power,” is one of the most inspiring things in the world.

Get to know Michaela & Priyam Global better:

Instagram - @saltwatermocha

Michaela founded & writes for: Quiet Traveler

Website: Priyam Global

Instagram - @priyamglobal


Thank you so much for joining us for the final of four in the Women Taking Leaps: Interviews & Inspiration series.

Be sure to check out the full series, featuring: 

Manuela Baron of The Girl Gone Green 

Livia Gil, Professional Ballerina 

Arielle Zadok, World Traveler - Media Producer, Powerful Do-er 

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With gratitude,