Investing in Women Advances the World: A Conversation with Melanne Verveer

"Stop looking at us as victims and look at us as the leaders that we are." This was a request made by an Afghan woman in Kabul upon meeting with Melanne Verveer, then U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues. These words have stuck with me from the moment I heard them. While this woman in Afghanistan spoke about advancing freedoms for the women in her country, hers is the voice of women around the world who realize their potential as agents of change.

I feel lucky that I work for a company that has always recognized the importance of women. Gap Inc. was co-founded by Doris Fisher and, over the years, our company has been blessed with many female leaders who paved the way for others that followed. We are now sharing this belief in the potential of women with the women who make our clothes. The Gap Inc. P.A.C.E. program, a life skills education and technical training initiative, has served more than 17,000 female garment workers and has been noted by Ambassador Verveer as the type of program that can help advance women globally.

Recently, I had the opportunity to ask her about progress being made to advance women's rights, the hallmarks of successful programs and what the business community can do to grow women's leadership and open more doors to opportunity.

Q: You've often said the work of advancing women's rights will not be done until the day every woman has the opportunity to fully participate in society. What does that day look like, and how close are we?

A: There has been considerable progress but it's not consistent in all areas and places. When girls and women everywhere have access to an education and health care; when women participate fully in the formal economy as employees and entrepreneurs, and as managers and directors; when women can access the levers of political power at all levels and have the opportunity to compete successfully in elective and appointive offices; when girls and women everywhere are free from violence -- then we will have achieved full participation in society.

Q: You've seen some amazing programs in action. What are some of the most innovative and impactful collaborations you've seen?
A: I think today we recognize that no one sector of society can tackle all the challenges our world confronts, and that it's when we come together -- government, the private sector and civil society -- that we have a much greater chance of succeeding.

I have seen technology partnerships between government and business that have brought women access to mobile phones and empowered them as entrepreneurs, taught them literacy, protected them from violence and even provided safe banking. I have seen businesses and government come together to provide women entrepreneurs with the training they need to better access markets, take advantage of trade agreements, and in the process grow businesses, jobs and GDP. These are partnerships that transform lives.

Q: What is the role of business in advancing women's rights?
A: The role of business in advancing women's rights is growing, particularly in the area of economic opportunity including opening access to training, mentoring, networks, markets, technology and even to capital in some circumstances.

Women are a dynamic economic force. We represent the largest consumer market in the world and are drivers of GDP. More and more companies recognize that when they support women as customers, employees, leaders, future investors and partners they are adopting sound business strategies and advancing social progress. Innovators like Wal-Mart, Coca Cola, Exxon Mobil, Goldman Sachs, and Marriott, to name a few, have recognized the importance of investments in women as well as women as partners throughout business value chains. Gap Inc.'s P.A.C.E workplace education program for women in the developing world is another excellent model.

Q: In business, measurement and evaluation are part of our daily operations. In your experience, why are measurement and evaluation such an important part of program development?
A: Indicators and measurements that evaluate effectiveness tell us if we are achieving our intended results. Take for example one of the largest development initiatives of the Obama Administration -- Feed the Future -- to grow agricultural productivity. We know that women in much of the developing world comprise the majority of small farmers. We also know that when women farmers have equal access to resources -- from seeds and fertilizer to credit and machinery -- their productivity gains are significant. So how do we know the program is reaching women farmers? By looking at key indicators like increases in women's income and improvements in family nutrition. These measurements are essential and have to be factored in early in the development of the initiatives.

Q: What is your advice to businesses -- and in particular women in business -- on actions we can take to advance the rights of women globally?
A: Women in business are talented leaders who can share their skills as trainers, mentors and advocates. I've seen how women in Silicon Valley, for example, are sharing their technology expertise with women in the Middle East; how top women in Fortune 500 companies are providing business training to women in the developing world; and how others have shared their know-how with women entrepreneurs in Latin America, the Caribbean and throughout Africa. And women tend to take the investment that is made in them and pay it forward by investing in others and thereby growing the investment exponentially.

Q: What can each of us do, on the most individual and personal level, to advance women?
A: Each of us has talents, skills, networks and access to decision-makers that when tapped, unleash possibility and progress for women. Several years ago I co-founded an NGO called "Vital Voices" to continue the work that then First Lady Hillary Clinton began to help emerging women leaders in the new democracies take their rightful places "at the table" and do so effectively. Their mentors were American women who wanted to make a difference for others. It is critically important that we lift our voices on behalf of those who can't yet lift their own, but it is also critical that we enable them to raise their own voices.

As we observe International Women's Day, let's celebrate the leader that exists in every woman and remember that we are a powerful force for change.

Bobbi Silten is President, Gap Foundation and Senior Vice President, Global Responsibility for Gap Inc.

Melanne Verveer is the Director of the Georgetown University Institute for Women, Peace and Security