Sheila Herrling: A Curious Mind & Systems Change Agent for Equality
Updated: Feb 26
We all know a picture is worth a thousand words. It can also change a child’s outlook and trajectory in life. Growing up in a loving family in a sheltered, conservative, predominately white community outside Hartford, Connecticut, Sheila Herrling wanted desperately to believe there was something else…something different…something more. The arrival of a National Geographic Magazine with a cover of a strikingly different, beautiful and proud African woman opened up the world that was out there. Inevitably, this curiosity to learn about other countries would be the catalyst for Sheila to discover ways in which diversity of culture, perspective and experience could potentially drive better and more impactful decision making.
As a college student, Sheila majored in economics at William Smith College and later received her Masters’ Degree in International Development at American University. She studied how finance flows through the systems that support economic development in poor nations and, importantly, who controls the decisions and levers that dispensed the funds. In essence, she became a student of the world bank system.
Sheila’s passion for international economics led her to the Department of Treasury where she spent 15 years, including stints with the U.S.-Saudi Arabian Joint Economic Commission and as the Deputy Director of the Office of Development Policy. During her tenure, she would even move to Cote d’Ivoire for five years as the Advisor to the U.S. Executive Director of the African Development Bank. Sheila would visit different countries assisted by the Bank and observe conversations between finance ministers on how they would deploy development funds within countries. With this continuous exposure, she could not help but realize how far the financial and development systems were from the average citizens it was supposed to be helping. She had a front-row seat to the power dynamics of the development finance game — rich countries telling poor countries what they must do to receive assistance; poor country governments often taking the assistance and serving their own national power bases; and nowhere did the poorest have influence or voice in the process. This discovery created a fire in Sheila’s belly and would shift her moral and professional compass squarely on systems change that could massively drive social impact and more equitably distribute power in the world.
One of her proudest moments at Treasury was working on the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative operated by the World Bank. The main focus of the initiative was getting rid of debt in poor countries that became unmanageable while building resilience and social infrastructure so that they could be self-sustaining. Sheila’s team worked to disrupt a system that was lacking “intentionality” with how the funds would be distributed to the poorest countries. The changes introduced to the initiative would create systems change, voice, and scalable social impact for the most vulnerable groups. Before the HIPC Initiative, eligible countries were, on average, spending slightly more on debt service than on health and education combined. Now, they have increased markedly their expenditures on health, education, and other social services. On average, such spending is about five times the amount of debt service payments.
From these early Treasury days throughout her career, Sheila has earned the reputation of fearless change-maker and systems disrupter. Yet she would be the last one to describe herself as fearless. She talks openly about battling through imposter syndrome in every job she’s taken. At the modest age of 29 in the role of Advisor to the Presidentially-appointed U.S. Executive Director to the African Development Bank, she found herself navigating an incredibly intimidating Board culture that was extremely sexist and ageist. She fought through an overwhelming sense of imposter syndrome, steadily tackling the demands of the job and developing skills in negotiation, empathy, trust between people and transparency — skills that have become her trademark management style. She learned when to show her hand and when to hold her cards close. Sheila pushed through her own discomfort which enabled her to thrive in a role that played a part in redefining the governance structure of the Bank and many of the financial assistance programs to African countries. Sheila claims that the narrative repeated itself at every next professional move.
Sheila has had many career phases including a chapter at the Center for Global Development focusing on rich country policies in relation to the poor, joining the Obama transition team as well as Vice President of Policy and Evaluation for the Millennium Challenge Corporation where she is embarrassed to say the CEO had to call her nine times to convince her to join him and where she would go on to lead the organization to its first-place standing of most transparent in the world and serve as its interim CEO for a year.
Ever curious, as Sheila spent more time traveling the U.S. with her international development mindset and experience she began questioning why international spending was isolated from national spending and saw opportunities for the two worlds to intersect. For instance, as thorough evaluations would be performed on international cities like Nairobi, Sheila couldn’t help but reflect that “There are a lot of similarities to New Orleans. How can we combine resources and use international and national comparisons to make a bigger overall change?”. Instead of following her initial feeling of, “Can I do this?”, she leaned into her intentions and curious questions and turned them into action.
With this newfound curiosity to learn about economic inequality and social impact in her own back yard, Sheila pivoted and became Senior Vice President of Social Innovation at the Case Foundation. Here she was able to weave her background of economic development, politics and entrepreneurship to drive change and create a more inclusive environment for minority and women business owners. She would focus heavily on the current data that proved minorities and women were not getting access to financial and social capital that white men were and drive change in the marketplace.
From the SOCAP16 stage, Sheila Herrling (Case Foundation) moderates a conversation with Tony Tolentino (Blackstone), Kelechi Anyadiegwu (Zuvaa), and Monique Woodard (500 Startups & Black Founders) focused on inclusive entrepreneurship and investment.
After three robust years with the Case Foundation, Sheila decided to pivot and take all the incredible knowledge she has acquired and sat still for a moment to write about her adventures and spend a little more time with her kids — a point worth recognizing — Sheila has also managed to have four children alongside her career! Presently she is a fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation and enjoying being an advisor to social impact companies such as EnrichHER. She was on the selection committee for EnrichHER to be part of Halcyon Cohort 8 and has become a mentor and official advisor to EnrichHER. We are grateful for Sheila’s outspoken need for access to capital for people of color and minorities and using her expertise to propel our companies forward.
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