With Purpose: Transforming Economic Opportunity for Women

What do women need to gain skills to be economically empowered?  This was the first question asked at the breakout session on Developing Skills, Financial Literacy, and Support for Women Entrepreneurs which was moderated by Kara Valikai from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and informed by panelists Sydney Price, Senior Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility at Kate Spade and Charity Wallace, the Vice President of Global Women’s issues at the George W. Bush Institute.  

Valikai kicked off by framing the issue. “When we think of women’s economic empowerment, we are talking about changing the world. Changing a woman's economic status changes the economy of a community and a country.”  Valikai also talked about how the societal impact of economically empowering women improves education levels and helps more young girls go to school and avoid early marriages.

Panelists were first asked to highlight the work they are doing to catalyze women's economic empowerment. Price began by highlighting Kate Spade's new On Purpose campaign which takes the company's business acumen and pairs it with the skills of 150 local Rwandan women from the village of Masoro to supply high-quality luxury products for the brand. “This is a for-profit model,” says Price, “and the key ingredients are that it is replicable, sustainable, and profitable.”   

It was intriguing to hear that Kate Spade has integrated this initiative into its company supply chain and uses the core competencies of its employees to create a sellable product that employees feel great about. Price says that many employees regard this partnership as the "most rewarding part of their jobs."  This makes the On Purpose initiative a "huge asset" for the organization as it is a profitable business model that supports social good and employee engagement. She highlighted that research shows that once women are earning an income, they reinvest earnings back into a community, at a 90% rate.

Price also spoke to some of the challenges of working in a context where many of the women have primary-level education. "Transfer of knowledge is complex. We are teaching new skills every day, it requires a very significant commitment”. Price would like On Purpose to serve as a model for other companies in new communities and says above all that companies making these investments should first "do no harm” and commit to a long-term vision for their business model and the partnership.

Charity Wallace,from the George W. Bush Institute, which was founded by President and Mrs. Bush in 2009, and is a public policy center in Dallas, spoke from the nonprofit perspective.

She highlighted the Institute's Women's Fellowship Initiative which brings local leaders from developing countries to the U.S. for a year-long mentorship and training. "The best indicator of a woman's success is her network”, Wallace says. “The goal of this exchange program is to give women practical skills to enable leadership and equip her to cascade those skills to other women.” As a result, she can expand her network and have resources she can call on when needed. Wallace also highlighted the First Ladies Initiative which convenes and partners former First Lady Laura Bush and the Institute with other First Ladies around the globe to help create change for women in their countries.

Both panelists then discussed the importance of partnerships in their work. Wallace stated that partnerships, both public and private, were critical to sustaining their programs. Price emphasized that using a company's skills and acumen to enhance opportunity is key, and that partnerships with employees were the number one asset.

Panelists concluded that resilience and flexibility in women’s empowerment work is key. There has to always be willingness to change, improve and innovate.