Vital Voices Global Partnership was born out of a worldwide challenge. “Women were not at decision-making tables,” says Alyse Nelson, the organization’s co-founder, president and CEO. “They were not heads at major companies, they were absent in the political space.” Add to that critical issues such as violence against women and limited access to education and healthcare, and the organization’s mission was clear, she says. “We knew there were these extraordinary voices of women leaders around the world, so we wanted to create a place for those leaders to come together.” Access sat down with Nelson to discuss her organization’s secrets to success and to learn more about the Vital Voices GROW Fellowship.
ACCESS: Since you co-founded Vital Voices 20 years ago, you’ve helped more than 15,000 women around the world grow, which is no small feat. What have been some of your challenges?
ALYSE NELSON: One of the big challenges we faced early on, even though it was only two decades ago, was that we had no data that showed it was smart economically to invest in women leaders or bring women into the economy or educate girls. Now, of course, anecdotally we knew this was true. Women are 51 percent of the world’s population; they’re 51 percent of the natural resources or talent or energy of any community or country. But we needed that data. Over the years, we’ve gathered that data, but we need more. So that’s definitely one of the challenges — making the case that investing in women is a very smart investment, from her leadership potential to her entrepreneurial growth and development. The other challenge we’ve faced is that our model is very, very cutting-edge. It’s different than a traditional model of development. So we don’t go into a country or community and say, “Here are the 17 problems, we’ve brought 17 solutions from outside, and we’re going to serve the masses through a sort of mile-wide, inch-deep approach.” What we do is we find the leaders, the entrepreneurs, those who are on the front lines of change, those who are lifting hundreds if not thousands of people out of poverty. And we invest in them and support them to really realize their full potential and their vision.
ACCESS: Tell us more about that personalized model.
A.N.: What we know and what we’ve done with the Vital Voices GROW Fellowship is we’ve focused deeply in a very individualized, personalized way to give that businesswoman or that leader what she needs right now to grow her business, to grow her organization, to have impact. And what we know is it’s not a one-size-fits-all, one-experience-fits-all model. This is a very different model for the development space — but I think it’s the way the world is moving. Everything is becoming more personalized and individualized. It’s what people in the marketplace are responding to and, quite frankly, expecting. And so we like to think of ourselves as ahead of the curve. But in many cases it’s been harder to convince people that this model works. One of the things we’re doing this year, through support we recently gained from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Melinda Gates’ new venture, Pivotal Ventures, is to really look at this model. To look at how investing deeply in a smaller number of people over a longer period of time means that ultimately you will have more impact. These women leaders will build their businesses and impact others in their communities. It’s a real multiplier.
ACCESS: How exactly do you invest in women leaders to have that impact?
A.N.: With the Vital Voices GROW Fellowship, for example, one of the things we did is in our work we really began to see that women who are running SMEs, or small or medium enterprises, we’d see they were able to succeed for a few years, but then they were sort of stagnating and weren’t able to leap into that next area of growth. We started to look at the missing link between these women starting their businesses and actually growing them to a level where they could be exporting, where they could be hiring more people. And we asked ourselves: Is there potential there, in that sort of “missing middle”? And what we found is that women lacked mentors; they lacked access to training and capacity building. If they had networks, their networks were smaller and less effective and less diverse than the networks men had.
We also found that they often would have barriers in terms of gaining financing for their business. And so we built a program that really looked to address that issue — that missing middle. And we developed a comprehensive one-year program that speaks to the skills and needs of women entrepreneurs to grow their business, so much so that we call it an accelerator program because that’s ultimately what we’re trying to do. We’re not just providing training that’s nice to have, but something that’s really needed in order for women to really take their businesses to the next level.
ACCESS: Give us a sense of how that one-year fellowship takes shape for these women.
A.N.: The first time I went to a Vital Voices GROW Fellowship, one of the women said to me, “I didn’t realize I was a real entrepreneur or a real businesswoman until I came to this program. And then I really recognized that OK, wait, I must be because I’m surrounded by these other women.” So they begin to self-identify, and that’s one of the most powerful things that happens when they first get there. But then I think the other thing that happens is they come in thinking they’re in such a rush to move to the next level. But then they begin to realize it’s OK to slow down, take a step back. Sometimes there are inefficiencies within their organizations. Maybe they realize, well wait a minute, I thought my CFO knew what he was doing, but now I’m realizing as I’m learning these financial management skills that he actually doesn’t. And I need to get someone new, or I need to do it myself, or I don’t need that many people doing that job. So they get rid of those inefficiencies. They pull back, and I’d say they almost shrink, to be able to grow and move forward.
ACCESS: Moving forward today also means innovating, right? How do you help on that front?
A.N.: One of the fellows I remember meeting from Saudi Arabia owns one of the first health websites in the country. As part of her growth journey, Vital Voices facilitated a connection to an organization that was able to help her in building a mobile app to help her increase accessibility. And that’s one of the big things we see with a number of our fellows — that they really want to bring in technology. Within the fellowship program and even after it, there’s training around technology. And we also see a lot of our fellows learn from each other when it comes to technology and innovation.
We’ve actually had discussions about how it’s very difficult to do business in a lot of parts of the world, where there’s a lot of uncertainty and instability. How do you do business in an environment where there’s so much that you can’t predict? In cases like this, technology and innovation are critical. We’ve found that for women, particularly in the Middle East, technology is huge. And it’s because it has to be. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. And I think sometimes innovation as well. If you think about women in business there, they’ve maybe had to work through more difficult barriers to their success, and they’ve had to be more creative. That’s sort of the upside of barriers — that you have to be more innovative and think about how to move around them.
ACCESS: After working through those barriers, these women often take their successes a step further — the multiplying effect you described earlier. Tell us how that helps you reach your ultimate goal.
A.N.: Here’s one example. We have alumnae of our Vital Voices GROW Fellowship who participate in annual mentoring walks. We had 86 walks all over the world last year, where alumnae commit to walking with and mentoring one or maybe a group of young, emerging leaders in their country for the day. It sends a message that women are giving back, that they’re supporting others.
I remember this wonderful woman, Nadia from Dubai, who I met at the first Vital Voices GROW training program. She said to me, “I don’t really understand this — you’ve invited me to this year-long intensive training program and you’re giving this to me for free.” And as she was starting to talk, more women started to huddle around me, and they said, “Yes, we don’t understand. Why are you giving this to us for free?” And I said, “Well, it’s not free. Because what’s going to happen is you’re going to want to pay this forward and give this back to other women in your communities. I’m not going to tell you how, but it’s going to happen — trust me.” And Nadia called me a few months later and said, “I want to let you know, I figured out how I’m going to pay this forward. I’m going to host a mentoring walk in the UAE.” It’ll be the first mentoring walk they’ve ever done.
These are the stories that are so gratifying and heartening for us. Women aren’t only growing their own businesses, but they’re becoming significant leaders in their communities. Their success ends up going beyond their own businesses. Once they gain that confidence, they look around and realize, OK, I’m a role model, and it’s time I give back as a leader.
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