Accelerating Impact through Partnership

March 6, 2013

[Editor's Note: Alyse Nelson will keynote at BCLC’s International Women’s Day Forum.]

The way we do business and approach international development has been shifting in recent years. As we try to navigate a world in economic recovery and spark resurgence, we need new thinking and innovative partnerships.

I see a solution in women. Women make up half of the global whole and control $20 trillion in annual consumer spending. Our contributions and decisions have a measurable impact on local businesses, regional economies and the transnational marketplace. What’s more, women are now universally recognized as a force for economic growth.

Studies from the World Bank, Ernst & Young, and others indicate that the real drivers of the economy are women—as business leaders, employees, consumers and entrepreneurs. Research just released from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) shows that women’s participation in the economy is rising, and in some countries, including Nigeria and Panama, women are even starting businesses at a higher rate than men. Moreover, we’re seeing that investing in women produces a significant multiplier effect, bringing not just increased revenue to local economies, but better educated children, healthier families, and more stable, secure, and prosperous communities.

From international development agencies to multinational corporations, those in leadership and policymaking positions are devoting time and resources to women’s advancement, many initiating programs to enhance women’s skills and leverage their unique contribution. It’s become clear that investing in women is a new standard in both public and private sectors.

At Vital Voices, we invest in women business leaders to grow their businesses, improve the enabling environment for women entrepreneurs, and increase their positive impact on their societies. Despite the proven benefits of women’s economic engagement, women face more relative barriers in starting and growing businesses: they have difficulty accessing credit, training, technology, markets, business networks, and sharing equal protection under the law. Through our economic development work, we address these barriers by leveraging our global presence to sustain and grow a network of high-impact women business leaders. We offer women in our global network opportunities to receive critical business development training, exchange information, obtain resources and tools, and mentor and be mentored.

We’re living in an increasingly interconnected world, and we know that we cannot do this work alone. Our model of programming is built on our recognition of the power of networks and the value of partnerships. Since 2008, we’ve partnered with the ExxonMobil Foundation to build innovative regional networks for women business leaders in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East and North Africa. With funding of more than $5million from the ExxonMobil Foundation, together we’ve enabled the creation and expansion of 20 country-level networks with a combined membership of more than 5,000 women. What began as an untested vision for economic growth has emerged into a truly global network that connects businesswomen from Tunisia to entrepreneurs in Nicaragua, facilitating unique exchanges on market access and best practices for start-ups.

In these last five years, we’ve seen the impact of these networks, with 478 new businesses started through our Middle East and North Africa network alone. Our results are confirming new findings that indicate that networks boost women entrepreneurs’ growth, linkages to suppliers and investors, participation in policy-making, and access to markets, financing and technology.

Behind the numbers are stories like Kenyan Jennifer Mulli’s: when Jennifer joined our Africa Businesswomen’s Network in 2010, she was looking for guidance on record keeping and product development for her handcraft business Katchy Collections, which had 15 employees. Today, Jennifer is a supplier to Wal-Mart. She has hired 76 additional employees and credits our programming with providing critical skills and connections that have enabled the expansion of her thriving business.

Through partnership, we’re able to collectively leverage our resources to have a measurable impact, realizing our shared goals to create new opportunities for women and leverage women’s economic power as a force for development and positive social change.

If we want to see real, sustainable change, we need to encourage creative partnerships that connect public and private interests—because it’s clear that in today’s world, the public and private conception of progress has merged: doing well in business while doing good in our word is not only possible, but necessary to further our collective, global endeavor for development.