Investing in Women in Supply Chains

March 22, 2018

From major global retailers to rural cooperatives, businesses are investing in women in their supply chains. Opportunities abound for companies to drive business value and make a positive impact in the lives of women and their communities. Speakers from Amway, ImpacTree, Shea Radiance, Southwest Airlines, and Walmart discussed how their companies are empowering women in their supply chains at the International Women’s Day Forum

Strengthening factory performance through training and development programs

As a global retailer operating thousands of stores in the United States and overseas, Walmart has a significant opportunity to empower women in their supply chain. Jenny Grieser, Senior Directory, Women’s Economic Empowerment at Walmart, Inc. described how Walmart is making a difference through the power of the purchase order. Through their Global Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative, they are providing over 60,000 women in factories across Central America, China, Bangladesh, and India with basic life skills training, including health and literacy, and equipping top performing participants with leadership and management skills.

She emphasized the importance of training women and men to optimize success. In collaboration with the Tufts Labor Lab, Walmart has been assessing the impact of their factory training programs. Their research found that when workers of both genders are trained, business productivity and efficiency increased while employee turnover and absenteeism decreased.

To share best practices, Walmart established the Women’s Economic Empowerment Resource Center. Through the Global Business Coalition for Women’s Economic Empowerment, Walmart is working in collaboration with nine of the world’s biggest companies to explore how to better include women in the world economy. Lessons learned from these companies are available in the recently published report Private sector engagement with women's empowerment by Oxford Professor Linda Scott.

Delivering value to customers and communities by sourcing from women

Shea butter is known as “Women’s Gold” in West Africa. More than 16 million African women who produce shea butter use the proceeds to provide for the health and education of their children. Funlayo Alabi, CEO and Co-founder of Shea Radiance was inspired to start the business to alleviate her son’s eczema. Empowering women is central to her company’s mission. By connecting women in rural Nigeria and Ghana to global consumers online and at Whole Foods, Shea Radiance is improving the livelihoods of women and their communities.

Unlike cocoa, the shea butter value chain is underdeveloped. By sourcing directly from women-run cooperatives, Shea Radiance cuts out the middleman. This puts more money in the hands of the women who collect shea nuts and produce the butter.

Funlayo has cultivated relationships with her suppliers and trusts her supply chain. Yet, she has encountered challenges in ensuring her suppliers have access to capital and are able to scale. She pre-finances orders because her suppliers don’t have access to financing. To create and sustain a thriving million dollar skin care company, Funlayo worked in collaboration with the Global Shea Alliance, USAID, local governments, and German NGO GIZ.

To address financing and scale issues of  women-owned businesses in their supply chain, Walmart piloted the Supplier Alliance program. Walmart worked with banks to enable businesses to access low interest loans to bring in purchase orders. The pilot was so successful that Walmart expanded it to other smaller suppliers.

Another example of how the private sector can deliver value to communities by sourcing from women is demonstrated by Southwest Airlines’ Repurpose with Purpose sustainability initiative. Through this program, Southwest Airlines is connecting indigenous artisans in Mexico to global consumers. Christine Ortega, International Senior Advisor, Community Affairs & Grassroots at Southwest Airlines described the multi-year collaboration with designer Carla Fernández that will transform leather from airplane seat covers into unique products. Rather than filling landfills, the upcycled seat covers will help women in Mexico generate an income.

Enhancing market share and women’s livelihoods by supporting women entrepreneurs

One of the highest revenue generating multi-level marketing companies, Amway, enables millions of people around the world to start businesses. Comprising over 80% of entrepreneurs, women are a significant constituency for Amway. Jeff Terry, Global Head of Corporate Social Responsibility at Amway, is actively working with the company’s global strategic planning to ensure the company is empowering women within their global supply chain.

As the largest distributer of vitamins in the world, Amway strives to improve the health and nutrition of its distributers and their communities. Jeff said that Amway leverages partnerships to better understand the markets in which the company operates. In India, Amway is working with Opportunity International and Healing Fields Foundation to develop methods to improve health and work opportunities for women. Amway India has also partnered with NGO Deepalaya to establish a sanitary napkin facility in a Delhi slum. The Sanitary Napkin Project enables Amway to source affordable sanitary napkins while promoting menstrual hygiene and women’s entrepreneurship. The project is anticipated to reach 24,000 underprivileged women and girls.

Also featured on the Empowerment in the Supply Chain panel was founder of ImpacTree and Partnerships Advisor at Swayam Shakshan Prayog, Rajashri Sai. Rajashri works to support women entrepreneurs and promotes rural livelihoods, health, and sanitation in India. Already touching the lives of 6,000 women, Rajashri aspires to reach 10,000 in the next three years. By leveraging technology and banking partnerships, she enables women to enter the retail sector and helps them to achieve scale by engaging in training and capacity building. Instruction on how to display and brand products has helped women in India increase sales. To share best practice, more experienced entrepreneurs and women from corporations mentor new entrepreneurs.

Whether equipping women factory workers with the tools to excel in the workplace and their communities, or sourcing from women-owned businesses, there are endless opportunities for companies to advance women’s economic empowerment. As demonstrated by the panelists during the Chamber Foundation’s International Women’s Day Forum, investing in women in global value chains improves operations and communities. Simply put, empowering women in supply chains makes good business sense.