What Businesses and NGOs Can Do for Women, and Each Other

International Womens Day panel stresses collaboration

L to R: Susan Davis, Jo Natauri, Donna L. Blackwell, and Umber Ahmad in New York on Mar. 8, 2011.
L to R: Susan Davis, Jo Natauri, Donna L. Blackwell, and Umber Ahmad in New York on Mar. 8, 2011.
NEW YORK, March 8, 2011 - Commemorating the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, Asia Society hosted women from international philanthropy and corporate America for a panel discussion that celebrated the potential for partnerships between these two communities.  

Sponsored by Women's Education Project, the panel discussion included Jyothsna (Jo) Natauri, Managing Director, Investment Banking, Goldman Sachs; Susan Davis, President and CEO, BRAC USA; Donna L. Blackwell, Executive Director, AUDACIA, the Global Forum for Girl's Education; and Umber Ahmad, Executive Director, Platinum Gate Capital Management.

Zoe Timms, founder of Women's Education Project (WEP), kicked off the discussion by speaking to the power of NGO and corporate partnerships, citing the resources corporations can provide to NGOs such as guidance, funds, and volunteers. Such collaborations enable Women's Education Project to offer four facilities in India that serve as study centers with computers and tutors for young women entering the 11th and 12th grades. Many of the centers' students go on to college with the help of a scholarship from WEP, continuing to leverage the center for studying and tutoring resources.

In describing her work, Umber Ahmad explained that the first step in addressing women in the Middle East is to ask, What do you need? "Americans are very good at saying here is what we have to sell you," says Ahmad. "We are focusing on how we can empower women, who hold about 387 billion dollars of wealth across the Middle East, to understand financial options they have for the things that are important to them: security, protection, agriculture."

Ahmad said that 40% of all brokerage accounts held in the Middle East are owned by women, and that more than 1/3 of women-owned businesses make over $100,000 a year—a startling statistic when compared to the average women-owned business in the US, of which only 13% make over $100,000.

Susan Davis unveiled BRAC's newest program at the event: Courage of the Heart, a multimedia storytelling platform that will allowing women around the world to see the work that BRAC does across the world. "BRAC is one of the best-kept secrets," said Davis, adding that the group's low profile is a typical challenge that many international NGOs face. "When Barbara Walters learned about BRAC she said, It can't be true—if I have never heard of BRAC it can't be true," relayed Davis.

Davis reported that BRAC has touched the lives of more than 3 million women across Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and five African countries. "We have taught 3 million women their rights through our work developing a group of barefoot lawyers. These women are actively teaching other women their rights. The result is that women experience the freedom of knowing that their children will have a better life," said Davis.

Jo Natauri talked about her own experiences as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, noting that women need mentors. "Mentoring skill sets is so important for women to accelerate up the corporate ladder. It's really tweaking, learning the small things that make all of the difference. We learned this inside Goldman and we are taking the same idea to the 10,000 Women campaign," Goldman's five-year initiative to provide 10,000 underserved women around the world with a business and management education.

March 8, 2011 marked the third anniversary of 10,000 Women. Natauri reported that over 3,000 women have gone through the program, which is assisted by 30 of the world's top business schools and 3,000 Goldman employees. "We are thrilled with the results .... Over 70% of women who have finished the program are running businesses with positive revenue growth," she told the audience.

Blackwell closed the discussion focusing on her latest venture, AUDACIA, whose goal is help some 90 million school-age girls around the world get access to education.

"We know that 90 million women are denied access to education at this moment. We know that women in emerging economies that are offered education are offered weak options, leading to 500 million women being functionally illiterate across the world .... There are a lot of organizations trying to do something about this. Our goal is to accelerate that progress, because we are not focusing our resources strategically. AUDACIA is looking for a match between ideas and dollars to ensure success. We must overcome the three challenges: poverty, violence, and cultural tradition," said Blackwell.

All the panelists agreed on one thing: Americans can't simply swoop into other cultures expecting that they can solve longstanding problems. They commented on the need to understand the local culture and how to do business there. "Goldman uses local partnerships because business has the same constructs, but is conducted differently around the world," Natauri said. Davis added, "It's not people in US figuring out how to help those poor folks. It's local people working on solving problems."

Reported by Brandi Moore