Extraordinary things are possible. As tough as the world looks—and the global scene has seemed particularly daunting of late—the potential for radical collaboration and bright new hope is always there. I am particularly mindful of improbable possibilities this morning because a crazy idea I had back in 2013 is, against all odds, about to bear fruit.
This notion of mine seemed, back then, like a huge reach. I wanted to gather in one room the major corporations who had begun women’s economic empowerment programs around the world. I did not want a show for the sake of press. I did not want a “meet and greet” to build partnerships for non-profits. I did not want a panel for students. I did not want a recruiting event.
I wanted to create a quiet space where these companies could share with each other what they had learned from their efforts to economically empower women from all parts of the world. And, I hoped, they would then decide to share that wisdom with the rest of the international community. I felt strongly that such a strategy would help women’s economic empowerment to pick up efficiency, speed, and adoption.
When I first told folks around Oxford about my idea, I met considerable skepticism. People did not seem to think that corporate types would come to such a gathering. I began to feel a little shy about bringing it up. Then, one morning I had breakfast with Noa Gimelli, who is now at the World Bank but was then heading up women’s economic empowerment at the ExxonMobil Foundation. We were at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York and we were both really excited by all the stuff that was happening. Caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment, I told her my idea.
And wow! She “got it.” Noa suggested that I put together a proposal that ExxonMobil could consider funding. So Cindy Drakeman (who was then with Oxford North America and is now at DoubleXEconomy LLC) and I worked together all through the fall of 2013 to produce the proposal. And it was a photo-finish. Even after the University closed for Christmas, Cindy and Noa and I were going back and forth to put the finishing touches on the proposal. We had to rush, you see, because Noa was about to have her first child any minute. We finalized the proposal just in time. I love to tell that story now.
The grant was approved. So, in 2014, I began working to bring this idea into reality. I was very strategic about the companies I chose, selecting only one from an industry and choosing just companies that I believed to be making a significant commitment. If, in a given industry, no corporation was yet working on relevant programs, I just left that industry alone.
I was gratified that most of the companies I contacted were eager to meet with others from the private sector who were doing the same kind of work. We had our first meeting in Oxford, at Rhodes House, in early December, 2014.
The group of people in the vestibule at Rhodes House that day was a little nervous. I am sure they did not know what to expect. Though Pegram Harrison and I had put together some ice-breakers and exercises that have made the Said School’s executive education program one of the best in the world, we, too, were pretty nervous and did not know what to expect. But as soon as these folks started to get to know each other, the potential for great things to happen became evident. By the time the meeting ended two days later, we were all really excited about what we might achieve.
Over the past three years, this group has coalesced into what will now be called “The Global Business Coalition for Women’s Economic Empowerment” or the GBCforWEE. They have formed strong bonds with each other based on their mutual commitment to women’s economic inclusion and the potential for the private sector to play a game-changing role in this historic global effort.
Under an Oxford research grant, I have now written a report distilling those three years of conversation. I make an argument for the centrality of private sector engagement to the economic empowerment of women. I talk about the benefits such programs bring to businesses specifically, not only the growth potential women’s empowerment promises the economies of their nations. With concrete examples from the discussions among the GBCforWEE, I can make that case authoritatively. I point up some of the challenges that companies new to the effort can expect, as well as share some of the problem-solving already underway. I talk about interventions on the local level, with small groups or individuals, but also the way that system-level change is being fostered.
Importantly, I also show the scope of the work already undertaken by the corporations who form the GBCforWEE. While everyone working in this space has seen the reports of individual projects from individual companies, I think very few appreciate what this private sector effort looks like from an aerial view. I think this information alone will surprise many readers: we are talking about programs in 132 countries that have already reached 18.5 million women. This group of companies collectively has more than 50 years of experience in women’s economic empowerment and, together, they touch nearly every aspect of business and most industries you can think of.
I end the report with an appeal to plan for scale—because, realistically, the only way that women’s economic empowerment can be sustained is if it is hardwired into the world system, primarily via the private sector. A key intention for both the report and the launch is to recruit other companies into this important work.
This report, called Private Sector Engagement with Women’s Economic Empowerment: Lessons Learned from Years of Practice, will be launched at an event hosted by Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, at their offices in London on November 30—almost exactly three years from the day of the first GBCforWEE gathering at Rhodes House. The members of the GBCforWEE will all be there to discuss the findings and answer questions.
When I think back to that first breakfast with Noa and that funny last minute rush to finish the proposal, when I think of all the doubtful looks that met my first idea, but then all the fabulous instants of connection as the GBCforWEE found its feet—well, it does seems incredible that this day has actually come. But it is becoming real, on November 30, in a way I could only have hoped back in 2013. And the possibilities are still extraordinary.
The event at Chatham House is by invitation only. If you are interested in coming, please contact Roxanne Bildan at RBildan@chathamhouse.org. You can also click through to the events page at Chatham House, as well as the announcement and description on Oxford’s site.