Some heroes wear capes. Others wear some sort of form-fitting suit. Maria Conceição, on the other hand, sports the apparel of endurance—from mountain peaks to marathon lanes.
Don’t be thrown off by her choice of “capes.” It’s her life choices that’ve gotten her from being a toilet cleaner to an Emirates flight attendant to breaking not one, not two, but 10 Guinness world records.
“Oh wow!” is an appropriate response to this incredible feat. But the mind-blowing, this-is really-what-deserves-the-proper-oh-wow reason behind it all? To lift hundreds of children out of abject poverty from the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh.
“The hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life has been honoring a promise I made to 100 mothers and families in Bangladesh that I was going to take them out of poverty,” she says on stage at Mindvalley University 2023 in Tallinn, Estonia.
That commitment was made in 2005. And it’s one that she’s stuck to like glue, transforming it into a lifelong mission that has reshaped not just her own destiny but the futures of those she’s vowed to uplift.
Watch the full 45-minute stage talk:
The Making of Maria Conceição’s Mission
The hardship and reality of survival that come with poverty aren’t a stark contrast to Maria’s own upbringing. Born in Portugal to a single mother, her earliest memories are of a world far removed from privilege.
When she was only two, her mother, grappling with joblessness, entrusted Maria to the care of Cristina, a kind-hearted Angolan refugee and widow who was also a cleaner. This new home, though crowded with Cristina’s six children, offered Maria a haven of stability and warmth.
Unfortunately, tragedy was not far behind. At the age of nine, Cristina’s sudden death upended her world, thrusting her into an uncertain future.
“Pretty much from that point, I was told the only thing I could expect to achieve in life was to be a cleaner,” she recalls. “At the age of 18, I told myself, if the only thing I’m going to achieve in life is to be a cleaner, I’ll refuse to ‘just be a cleaner.’ I’m going to be the Ronaldo or the Messi of the cleaning world.”
Off she went to Switzerland. Then England. Each move was driven by a desire to transcend limiting beliefs and carve out a different path for herself.
But it was in Dubai, as an Emirates flight attendant, that the Maria Conceição arrived. Little did she know that a routine layover in Dhaka would expose her to the harrowing poverty of the slums—a haunting reminder of her own past and the catalyst for her life-changing commitment to the 100 mothers and families in Bangladesh.
Breaking Records, Breaking Barriers
Here are the facts (as per the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights): By 2022, 20.5% of Bangladeshis living in rural areas were in poverty. In urban areas, the figure stood at 14.7%.
Maria was no stranger to this reality. “I understood what was the meaning of poverty, and I thanked God for everything I had and didn’t have,” she said. “So what did I end up doing? I ended up doing exactly what Cristina had done [for] my mother.”
I ended up promising these struggling families in the slams of Dhaka that I was going to take care of their children until they finished their education.— Maria Conceição
Raising funds for such a cause is not as easy as going door-to-door. Not everyone has the same virtues or values to hand over their hard-earned cash.
So what did Maria do? “I googled on the internet: What is the quickest and most efficient way to make money?”
Short of going to Ellen or Oprah or anyone famous (which she tried, mind you), the digital ether whispered back with an idea as wild as it was daunting: the world of extreme challenges.
This is nothing new; tons of people have undertaken extreme endeavors for noble causes. Environmental advocate Roz Savage rowed across oceans to spotlight the urgency of protecting our planet. Adventurer Erik Weihenmayer, despite being blind, conquered the Seven Summits. Palestinian refugee Mostafa Salameh climbed Everest for peace and unity.
Maria was about to be the next. The thing was, though, she was no athlete or seasoned polar explorer. Yet, she plunged into the challenge with an enthusiasm that belied her novice status, breaking records in her wake.
She became the first Portuguese woman to go to the North Pole. Then, the first Portuguese woman to stand atop Everest. Then, running marathons (“seven marathons on seven continents” was just one of many), followed by attempting to swim from England to France, a climb up Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Aconcagua, Denali, and Vinson, and “the first Portuguese woman to get to the South Pole and to get to Antarctica.”
The path to these triumphs was strewn with logistical nightmares, physical exhaustion, and the constant specter of financial strain. But even in the face of these adversities, Maria’s resolve remained steadfast.
Each record she shattered was not just a personal victory but a clarion call for the children of Dhaka—a signal that their plight was seen and their voices heard.
Maria Conceição’s Undoubtable Ripple Effect
“The society I belong from, everyone says, ‘no, no, no, no, no,’” says Shahin Khan, one of the Dhakaiyans Maria helped. “And [Maria’s] like, ‘yes, yes, yes, yes.’”
Her impact is palpable. Children who once saw no path beyond the slum’s confines now dream of careers, of changing their worlds.
It seems like her aspiration to be a “Ronaldo” came true. “She’s like a ‘Cristiano Ronaldo’ to all of us,” reflects Shoikat, another Dhakaiyan who’s known Maria since 2006. “It’s because all the hard work that she has done for us and is still doing, she is doing it 24/7, never resting on any holidays. We see her every day working just for us to have a better future.”
Shahin and Shoikat are of the hundreds of lives that Maria has changed. The latest? A group of 22, with the help of friends and advisors (including several Mindvalley members).
“We talk a lot about this idea of living your most extraordinary life,” says Vishen, the founder of Mindvalley. Maria’s, as he points out, is the epitome of what this looks like.
[There are] very few people in the world who would inspire you by not only saying but also doing with you, sharing the journey with you… Maria, she has done that. She’s the best woman in the world.— Shahin Khan
She’s planted the seeds of change—seeds now sprouting into young adults. And the rewards are nothing short of outstanding, according to Victoria Alcober, a client relationship manager who’s helped with placing the children. “To see these young people thrive and get further in life, achieve what they would never dreamed of without Maria’s presence.”
These individuals look to her as a role model. And consequently, they carry her legacy forward, spreading the message that from little things, big things grow.
Going Beyond the Story
While her commitment is to the 100 families, Maria’s mission transcends the underprivileged in Dhaka. It’s a catalyst for a broader awakening—one where her work is not an exception but an inspiration for systemic change and to contribute to the greater good.
“I have never met anybody devoted to a goal like Maria is,” Victoria adds. “Whether training for the next adventure, pursuing great positions or internships for her students, or breaking a new record, she gives it all!”
But beyond the tangible goals lies a deeper aspiration. Her aim? To create a self-sustaining model of empowerment where every success story fuels another, creating a chain reaction of empowerment and progress.
As Vishen points out, the goal is primarily to raise funds to help the underprivileged. But it’s also to create more Maria Conceiçãos.
“The goal is to inspire you guys in some way to just think a little bit beyond goals, visions, accomplishments that might simply benefit you,” he says, “but what can you do to create a greater impact on the world.”
That’s the power of Maria’s story. It’s a true reminder of the impact one person can have, of the ripples that a single act of kindness can create, and of the enduring hope that can arise from the most challenging circumstances.
Featured Image: Maria Conceição / Facebook