IWD2015: How Business Empowers Women

As participants filed into Microsoft’s New York offices last week for the start of the 5th Annual International Women’s Day Forum, they followed in footsteps made just earlier that day by young women who visited the building to explore just how big their worlds could become. In Civic Hall, girls were given opportunities to learn more about careers available to them in fields of technology, and to see women who have gone before them to pursue computing and engineering opened them up to new visions for their futures.

This example of women empowering women that greeted Forum attendees at the door was coupled with story after story over the course of the conference of ways that women and men are working together to ensure that future generations are able to seize any opportunity that comes a girl’s way. From the personal success story of two women entrepreneurs from the favelas of Rio de Janerio mentored by Endeavor Global into a $100 million dollar business with 3,500 employees, to the national victory of how Abbott Laboratories’ investments in Afghanistan’s health care sector have helped contribute to a 70% reduction in the maternal mortality rate, these testimonies demonstrate the power of the private sector to change individual lives in a way that leads to the betterment of entire countries.

The 5th Annual International Women’s Day Forum - The Empowerment Bridge: Building a Lifetime of Opportunity for Women and Girls - allowed participants from corporations, non-governmental organizations, and multilateral institutions to be exposed to what their cross-sector colleagues are doing to improve lives. Sponsored by U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, UN Women, the UN Office of Partnerships, and Microsoft, the Forum was a two day gathering held at Microsoft New York offices and United Nations Headquarters.

Over two days packed with reports of new innovations, key themes emerged for conference participants to take back to their own work:

Technological Innovations are Improving Lives at all Levels of the Economic Pyramid

In the developing world, technology is allowing those with the lowest income on the planet to tap into new revenue and build all aspects of small and medium enterprise development. SABMiller’s video showing Colombian shop owners utilizing tablet technology to order supplies for their products demonstrates how even the most basic and far-flung businesses can now be effectively linked to corporations. No longer for only high-income countries, technological innovation in the developing world is moving beyond simple SMS technology and is bringing greater prosperity with it.

Investing in Women is a High-Success Bet

Deploying capital in a way that it brings equality to women and girls not only is a high social value proposition, but also is increasingly demonstrating a higher returns for investors. US Trust cited the fact that their gender-lens investments yielded a 3% higher return than the rest of their portfolio. Through adding gender analysis to evaluations of proposals and investment opportunities, greater data can be generated that continues building the case for engaging with women and girls as full partners in economic growth.

We All Need Each Other to Continue Forging Forward

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has said, ““it’s time to marry the private sectors’ greatest strengths with the public sector’s greatest needs.” Conference attendees noted that whereas the mindset of many in business (and particularly finance) was in the past more of a “let me do your social change for you” mentality, corporate leaders are increasingly recognizing the value of partnerships with nonprofits who are going to provide the relational influence necessary for transformation.

As Sakeena Yacoobi said, “You must gain the trust and you must LOVE the people you work with…When you have recognition – you mean something. That’s what empowerment is.” As we go forward armed with these learnings from this year’s Forum, perhaps this is the greatest concept we can take back to our work—continuing to develop and grow the programs that will bring recognition to the least, the last, and the lost that empowers them to transform into the most, the first, and the determined.