Driving Women’s Empowerment through Global Value Chains

As consumers become more socially conscious, they are drawn to companies that pursue purpose, not just profit. Investing in women can serve as a promising way of optimizing business operations, attracting new customers, and improving livelihoods. When women prosper, local communities and businesses prosper. During the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Corporate Citizenship Conference: Opportunity Forward, leading experts from diverse sectors convened to discuss how to drive women’s empowerment through global value chains.

Realize Economic and Social Benefits of Investing in Women’s Health

Deputy Director of the Universal Access Project at the United Nations Foundation, Robyn Russell, described how investing in women’s health is the right thing to do and the smart thing to do. The UN Foundation has been empowering women and girls for over 20 years. The Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) were a wakeup call for the need to engage with companies to achieve scale in achieving gender equality and advancing the rights of girls and women. Supply chains are a key point of intervention. From technology to textiles, women are disproportionately employed in manufacturing.

Robyn described how for many women, factory work is their first formal job. In the factories, women lack basic access to healthcare including family planning, menstrual hygiene management, and maternity care. Available at a low cost, providing healthcare to women achieves high economic impact. Providing on-site health services has been demonstrated to increase productivity, reduce absenteeism, and improve worker satisfaction, which translate into an overall return on investment of 3:1. Furthermore, women demonstrate a 41% increase in knowledge of maternal and child care, a 32% increase in adoption of reproductive health practices, and a 26% improvement in maintaining a balanced diet. These promising results have led to the implementation of women’s health program HERhealth in 26 companies across 19 countries.

Since 2009, Jabil, a U.S.-based global manufacturing services company, has implemented HERhealth in six factories in China and one in Vietnam, and will be expanding the program to India. Vice President of Social and Environmental Responsibility Eric Austermann was first introduced to HERhealth by a strategic customer. He explained that due to manufacturing’s low margins, before investing in the program, HERhealth needed to make business sense. After implementing the program, operations managers realized the benefits. Thus far, they have educated 60,000 employees and 240,000 community members on key aspects of women’s health. Jabil strives to expand the program to two factories a year. Eric emphasized the importance of incremental progress; to ensure the success of the program, he needs operations managers’ support and establishing this support takes time.

Diversify Sourcing to Support Women Entrepreneurs and Drive Competition

ExxonMobil Foundation also realizes the value of investing in women. In 2005, ExxonMobil launched the Women’s Economic Opportunity Initiative to enable women to fulfill their economic potential and foster economic and social change in their communities. Working with local and global partners, ExxonMobil has invested over $100 million in improving the lives of tens of thousands of women in over 90 countries. Category Family Manager – Transportation and Logistics at ExxonMobil and Board Vice Chair at WEConnect International, Natalie Stirling-Sanders, emphasized ExxonMobil’s commitment to supplier diversity and women’s economic empowerment. She explained a key partner in this effort has been WEConnect International, a global network that connects women-owned businesses to buyers around the world.

By identifying, educating, registering, and certifying women's business enterprises that are at least 51% owned, managed, and controlled by women, WEConnect International increases the access of women-owned businesses to opportunities in global value chains. Connecting women-owned businesses to corporations, delivers value to women entrepreneurs and companies seeking to expand their global supplier diversity programs. Women invest in the health, education, and well-being of their families creating a multiplier effect. ExxonMobil actively sources from underutilized suppliers, which benefits these suppliers and increases competition, driving down prices and increasing performance in global value chains. As 34% of businesses are owned by women, this presents a huge opportunity.

Connect with Millennial Consumers through Socially Conscious Labels

Kate Spade has taken yet another approach to empowering women to achieve economic and social returns. Founded by a woman entrepreneur, largely run by women, and producing products for women, women’s empowerment has been at the core of Kate Spade since the beginning. Four years ago, Kate Spade launched the on purpose label to support women in Masoro, Rwanda.  Through on purpose, Kate Spade established a factory in a marginalized community, provided training and employment to female artisans, and offered millennial consumers a high-quality product they can connect with on a deeper level. Senior Manager, on purpose at Kate Spade New York, Taryn Bird, described how the factory provides full-time employment to 173 women and produces over 8,000 handbags every 50 days. Women have the opportunity to enroll in a life skills empowerment program during production hours and participate in HERhealth. The factory boasts a 98% retention rate and has stimulated the local economy; 88 new businesses have opened in the community since the factory began production.

Whether investing in women’s health across your global supply chain, sourcing from women-owned businesses, or developing a socially conscious label that employs female artisans, opportunities abound for realizing economic and social returns. As consumers’ expectations increase, companies and society stand to benefit from supporting women and girls. Empowering women makes strong business sense.