How Maria Conceicao Went From Poverty To Alleviating It

Serving Others By Completing Summits:

How Maria Conceicao Went From Poverty To Alleviating It

Maria Conceicao holds eight Guinness World records. She has climbed Everest. She been to the North and the South Poles. She is the Goddess of the Ironman. And she does it all for one reason – to help those desperately in need.

Conceicao grew up in a small village in Portugal called Avanca. She was only two-years-old when she met a refugee woman named Cristina, who became her caretaker. Cristina had six children and made money as a cleaning woman.

In 1979, Conceicao’s mother left their small village for Lisbon to find work. Although Cristina was poor, she didn’t hesitate to look after young Conceicao to help her mother. They both anticipated Conceicao’s mother to return, but she never did.

The truth was, no one knew where Conceicao’s mother was. Authorities attempted to put Conceicao into foster care, which Cristina fought on her own.

Conceicao explains that Cristina was her inspiration. She would go house to house looking for work, but always found the time to help those in need, even though she was in need herself. “Villagers told me later that I would never leave her side, a tiny little white girl clinging her hand tightly. I was very close to Cristina. I guess that she was my best friend,” says Conceicao.

When Conceicao was a child, all she knew was that she wanted to travel and to be free and independent when she grew up. Cristina passed away when she was nine, and she did not attend school past the age of twelve. She recalls people telling her she would amount to little more than a housekeeper, which she accepted due to the lack of career opportunities for women.

“But, I thought, if I have to be a cleaner, then I will be the best cleaner around,” she says.

Conceicao left Portugal when she was 18-years-old to fulfil her dreams of travel. “Pay was very low in Portugal, and I was a great cleaner. So I aimed high in the cleaning world,” she says. She worked very hard at several jobs and soon learned both French and English, allowing her to seek better work in restaurants and cafés.

While in England, she applied for a position with Emirates Airlines as a cabin crew member and landed the job despite not meeting all of criteria. “I tried really hard through the interview process,” she says. “I researched everything possible about the company.” Conceicao even dressed like a member of the cabin crew to really play the part, buying an expensive outfit from Benetton and then returning it the day after the interview.

In April of 2005, her work with Emirates Airlines took her to Bangladesh. There she was witness to the extreme poverty in Dhaka’s slums. Immediately, she felt compelled to do something about it. After offering her assistance, 101 families came forward to accept her help. So she founded a school.

The program was a remarkable success. Along with educating children, it also provided jobs for their parents; training for adults; daycare for the youngest children; shops; and other services. Maria worked endlessly and focused on breaking the cycle of poverty in which these families were embroiled. In 2010, she arranged for a group of children from the area to attend school in the UAE. They have since finished their schooling and are now either gainfully employed or continuing on to university.

But, in 2013, the charity was forced to fold because of the global recession. At that time, 600 children in Dhaka were relying on her. Maria saw the setback as an opportunity to aim even higher. She invented new ways to raise the money to get the children back into school. –  she started participating in extreme physical challenges. She had no prior interest in fitness; but it was a surprisingly effective means of raising funds and awareness.

She desperately needed publicity for her charitable work, and she found online stories about treks to the North pole, mountain climbing, and the like raising a lot of money for charity. “So I trekked to the North pole and climbed some mountains.” It helped, she says, but it was always short-lived.

That’s when the idea of breaking world records came into the picture. “I hadn’t really thought of world records but started running when someone suggested that I should run a marathon on all seven continents to get more global recognition for the cause.  It was only after I started planning this that I realized that I could apply for world records for this type of challenge.”

She has since earned eight Guinness World Records thus far for Endurance Sports with challenges including:

6 Full Ironmans in 6 Continents in 56 days (2017) 

7 Marathons 7 continents in 10 days 2015

7 Ultra Marathons in 7 Continents in 6 weeks 2014

7 Ultra Marathons in 7 Consecutive days 

5 Full Marathons in 5 States in 5 Consecutive Days 2014

5 Half Marathons in 5 States in 5 Consecutive 2014 

Climbed Mount Elbrus  Aconcagua Kilimanjaro Vinson 2010 – 2018

7 Walked Marathons in 7 days Across 7 Emirates 2010

Conceicao says that achieving her first’s World Record felt like a miracle. And, for most people, that’s what it would take to accomplish it. She ran an Ultra marathon on all 7 continents in six weeks. “The final ultra marathon was in South Africa and crossing that finish line just felt unreal. This little village girl from a poor background doing this crazy challenge.”

She is also the first and only Portuguese woman to do the Last Degree to the North Pole (2011, 2018) and to summit Everest (2013). She also swam across the English Channel (2016) for seven hours.

She had never participated in sports before and said she was definitely not considered athletic. She incurred several injuries throughout the challenge and said mental strength was what got her through in the end. Plus, she says, I am sure that Cristina was watching over me.

One of the greatest challenges Conceicao has faced in her athletic endeavors is that her training is always fast-tracked because of her lack of athletic experience. “With that comes the risk of injury and getting an injury while preparing for a challenge puts it all in jeopardy. But what I have learned is that any sort of physical training, the quality of training is more important than quantity.” Since discovering this, Conceicao says she has learned to train better, “always finding good coaches with specific knowledge for the type of challenge to help me along the way.”

Conceicao has received numerous awards for her work, which, she says, still surprises her. In the early days she used to stay away from media and publicity as much as possible. “I didn’t need publicity for fundraising at the time and so just wanted to get on with my work in Bangladesh.” So, when she would receive news that she was to receive an award for her charity work, she could hardly believe it. “The fact that people were even noticing what I was doing amazed me.” The honors she has received include:

Barbie Role Model Award Portugal (2017)

GQ Portugal Women of the Year (2016)

Cosmopolitan Female Role Model (2015)

Cidadao Nobre Portugal (2015)

Louvor Nobre Casa da Cidadania (2014)

Humanitarian Women of the Year by Inspiriting Women Belgium (2014)

Inspiring Change Award  International Gulf Organization (2014)

Sustainability Leadership Award (2013)

The Special Mention for Child Welfare by Petrochem (2012)

Most Inspiring Women of the GCC by Kraft (2010A

Voted Alhan Hot 100 Entrepreneur in UAE (2010)

Emirates Women of the Year (2009)

Emirates Humanitarian Women of the Year (2009)

Most Exceptional and Innovative European Women of the Year (2007)

These days, Conceicao is working towards completing the seven summits. “That’s climbing the highest mountain on each continent,” she explains. “I have two more to go.” As for her charitable work, the project in Bangladesh is almost completed as the primary goal was to “educate a generation from a slum community up to grade twelve. We are seeing some great results with our students on full university scholarships all over the world. Conceicao says she believes in constantly challenging herself, whether it through helping others or taking on a physical challenge to raise funds for that work.

These days, Conceicao is working towards completing the seven summits. “That’s climbing the highest mountain on each continent,” she explains. “I have two more to go.” As for her charitable work, the project in Bangladesh is almost completed as the primary goal was to “educate a generation from a slum community up to grade twelve. We are seeing some great results with our students on full university scholarships all over the world. Conceicao says she believes in constantly challenging herself, whether it through helping others or taking on a physical challenge to raise funds for that work.

She says it has always been a challenge “to be taken seriously in countries or societies where woman are not supposed to be strong or taken seriously as leaders.” In Bangladesh, she says, you really have to “prove yourself, prove that you are right. You have to be a woman of action, and I think it’s the same in the rest of the world. Action is what gets things done.”

Many of the physical challenges she undertakes are male dominated, like mountain climbing. So, that means dealing with a lot of oversized egos, she explains. “I have really been put-down and bullied so much by men who for example claim that I slow down the team, that I shouldn’t be there, but you know what – I may climb mountains at a slower pace initially because I’m 5’2 in a team on 6’ plus guys, carrying the same heavy backpacks, but I have endurance, stamina, and mental strength.” So, she says, a few days later when they are struggling and she is strong (as well as supportive of and encouraging to them) they get very quiet, very quickly.

This certainly isn’t how Conceicao imagined her life. None of this was planned. But, she says, “I just keep pushing higher, to do more, and I’m still young. So have a long way to go.”

As for the future, Conceicao says she will always work to help others because “this is what gives me my drive and purpose.” She is starting to do more and more public speaking now, telling her story to order to inspire and motivate others to reach their goals. “I’m still shy and introverted. So public speaking isn’t a natural career move, but I have found that people like to hear my story, and I am surprised at the amazing feedback that I get, that I inspire people. I really had no idea that I could have this effect just by speaking to people to I have to do more of it to see where it can take me.”

Through all of the physical challenges and the charitable work, Conceicao says the primary thing she has learned is that by helping others, she has also helped herself. “When I first went to Bangdlesh and saw children living in poverty, I decided to help them. I didn’t have any big plans for a charity it just grew and grew.” She soon saw that she could make a big difference in their lives. “By that point, I had a vision and decided to transform their lives, lift them out of poverty forever through education.” But in the process, she says, it is really her life that has transformed more than anything. “I never would have achieved the things I have accomplished.”

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