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Lauren van der Walt


United States

Lauren serves as the Executive Director and Founder of Optio and holds a lecturer position in the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley. At Optio, Lauren works with grassroots organizations in Central America to dismantle the multifaceted barriers—political, legal, economic, and cultural—that hinder access to reproductive rights in the region. Lauren is hoping to use the WLW fellowship to transition Optio into an organization that empowers young women to enhance health and human rights within their local communities through independent projects and initiatives."

Lauren van der Walt


What is your story?

What drives your work?

Following my college graduation, I dedicated five years to working on diverse projects around the world. Some of these jobs involved interviewing youth on sexual practices in Ugandan IDP camps, producing a documentary that shed light on the plight of political prisoners in Burma, and designing health interventions for refugees in a rural village in Thailand. These diverse experiences exposed me to the profound injustices prevailing worldwide, while simultaneously introducing me to the remarkable efforts of young individuals in these regions who are actively working to overcome these challenges. Upon returning to school for my master's and doctorate, I was determined to leverage my privilege (as someone living in the US) to advance the initiatives of individuals and organizations operating in restrictive settings, where opportunities were not as readily available.

Describe your biggest strength as a leader

I value the specific knowledge that each person brings to the team, especially my employees in Central America, who have a much more nuanced understanding of the unique contexts in which we operate. I have always worked hard to build organizational structures that are horizontal and encourage collaboration on all levels. Within this structure, I provide guidance without micromanaging, empowering my team members to independently determine the optimal approaches to achieve our desired outcomes. I believe this approach encourages innovation, creativity, and growth. Additional strengths I have include strategic thinking, empathy, and integrity.

Describe your biggest challenge as a leader

Throughout my career, I have had to part ways with several team members. This aspect of my role has always been challenging. I tend to form close relationships with my employees, which sometimes results in individuals staying longer than necessary. Additionally, managing and tracking due dates for my team has been an ongoing challenge. Despite implementing tools such as Asana and, encouraging consistent use among the team has proven to be a significant hurdle.

About the
and the Project.


Fiscally sponsored project

Vision & Mission

Mission: Optio is an international non-profit organization that works with grassroots organizations in Central America to remove the political, legal, economic and cultural obstacles that prevent women and girls from accessing their reproductive rights.

Vision: We aspire to be an efficient and innovative organization, recognized for its impact in facilitating access to reproductive health and justice for all women and girls in Central America.

Year Founded


No. of Employees


Years in the Organization

4 years

Annual Budget (USD)


Geographical Area Served

Central America

Organizational /

Project Description

Throughout this fellowship, I aim to reshape my organization from being a frontline NGO working on reproductive rights into an incubator for NGOs.

My specific goals for this initiative include:
1. Creating a new mission and vision for the organization.
2. Deciding on the specific topical and regional scope of our work. For example, will we continue to work only in reproductive health/rights or broaden our focus to encompass broader areas, like health and human rights? Should I support projects that are in the same field (reproductive health) and then broaden my scope later? Should I work only in Latin America and the United States, or expand our reach to other regions?
3. Finalizing the operational structure of the incubator. For example, how will we recruit new projects? What kind of support will Optio offer these new projects? How much seed money will we provide? Note: I've already thoroughly considered many of these questions and have even started a new class at Berkeley to generate projects, however, I hope to use this fellowship to further refine these ideas.
4. Design and establish a sustainable funding stream for both my organization and the projects it generates.
5. Serve as a mentor for a cohort of 3-5 emerging projects by the conclusion of the fellowship period.

Why is this project important and timely?

What is the target population of your project? 

The project aims to empower young women, enabling them to emerge as future leaders who will improve the health and human rights of individuals within their local communities. Currently, our organization serves hundreds of thousands of women throughout Central America. I hope that the projects that come out of Optio will impact an equal or greater number of individuals.

How will you know that you have achieved that impact? What data will you use to assess your impact?

Each project will have its own plan for monitoring and evaluation, a fundamental topic we will teach during our training sessions.

How do you anticipate this unique leadership education impacting you personally? What new skills are you hoping too develop & grow through this experience?

I am enthusiastic about the prospect of connecting with fellow leaders from nonprofit organizations operating in the same and different fields. I look forward to gaining insights from their experiences, engaging in collaborative idea exchanges, and actively working to bring my idea to fruition.

Where would you like to see yourself professionally in the next 3 years?

In three years, I hope to have successfully transitioned my organization into an incubator for projects poised to achieve impact comparable to, or exceeding, that of Optio. I would like my day to day work to focus on guiding the next generation of leaders, empowering them to implement inventive and sustainable solutions to a number of pressing health and human rights issues.

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