At a water pump factory in Mexico, Noel Irwin-Hentschel noted a remarkable difference between two women who were the same age and had grown up in the same village. One, who worked at the factory, "stood tall and had tremendous confidence," Irwin-Hentschel says. "The other hadn't been given the same opportunity, and her shoulders were bent over. She looked as though she'd given up."
Though Irwin-Hentschel brings in about $150 million through her travel business, Los Angeles-based AmericanTours International, her nonprofit organization provides an even greater commodity: hope.
"I've noticed the entrepreneurial spirit in the poorest women," says the founder of The Noel Foundation. "When they have the opportunity to earn an income and have some self-respect, you see a major change in them."
The turning point for Irwin-Hentschel occurred during a speech she heard by Mother Teresa. "She said if each person took the same drive [he or she] used to build a business and used it toward helping others, just think what a force that would be," Irwin-Hentschel recalls. "It inspired me to start a foundation to help women and children who are most in need."
The Noel Foundation sponsors an annual award honoring outstanding women; honorees have included South African activists Helen Suzman and Adelaide Tambo, Margaret Thatcher, Ireland's President Mary Robinson, cancer researcher Christiane Dosne Pasqualini, and Mother Teresa. Using funds raised from the awards dinner, Irwin-Hentschel is able to offer or support educational, entrepreneurial, healthcare and environmental programs in areas ranging from South Africa and Costa Rica to China and South Central Los Angeles. The foundation has also provided a research grant to stop the transmission of AIDS between mother and child.
Though she has greeted many women world leaders, Irwin-Hentschel still derives much of her inspiration from the poorest and most anonymous women in the world. "The women I've met have all had an impact on me," she says. "Women can be influential in their acts and inspire by their deeds. Whether women are known or unknown, it's what they're doing to change lives that continues to motivate me."