It was an afternoon back in 2009. The world was stuck in global recession and I was stuck on my sofa, eight months pregnant, fat, irritated and tired. My husband suggested I take a few minutes to sit down to watch some television and put my feet up. I didn’t put up a fight. I shuffled into the lounge and plopped down in front of the TV feeling sorry for myself.
A CNN special report about women in Afghanistan flickered on the screen in front of me. I watched a pregnant woman making her way to a birthing centre, through mountainous terrain, on the back of a donkey. The reporter explained how one in seven women in Afghanistan died in childbirth. I was glued to the screen and dissolved into tears as the baby was born but the mother died.
I Googled “women in Afghanistan” and came upon a charity called Women for Women International. After reading up on everything I could find about their programmes to empower the women of war torn countries to take leadership positions in their communities, I emailed via the website and asked if there was a way I might be able to help. I had no experience in the non-profit world and, while my business Aspire was on the way to success, we did not have a budget for donating. Still, I was hopeful there might be something we could do.
I think I doubted I would ever hear from them but the president of the organisation wrote back almost immediately. Her simple reply: “Let’s talk.”
A powerful alliance formed the following day, and from our brainstorming session on the phone I was able to create a pro bono volunteer mentoring programme to provide support for their management team. Growing from a small seed of an idea sitting on my sofa, working with a single non-profit in one country, The Aspire Foundation now works with hundreds of non-profit organisations in over 80 countries. We match women leaders in business as volunteer mentors to aspiring women in the non-profit world. It’s all done virtually, it doesn’t take much time and it doesn’t cost anything. It had to be a no brainer for busy women who wanted to make a difference.
Over the next five years we achieved our first lofty goal, to make a difference in the lives of one million women around the world. We did this through collaboration, support and word of mouth. It was surprisingly effortless. Minimum time, maximum impact is the magic formula we live by.
This year, we set our next somewhat mad goal, to make a difference in the lives of one billion women by 2020. I strongly believe in setting your aspirations high and publicly declaring them, it keeps you to your word. However, it also sets the ground for offers of help – a very feminine form of teamwork and so undervalued by society – that can lead to projects being delivered with ease, speed and next to nothing cost.
Why one billion? We based our goal on the number of women projected to enter the worldwide workforce by 2020, known as the Third Billion. These female employees, employers, producers and entrepreneurs form a group so large that the G20 nations pledged to aid 100 million of them with resolutions aimed at closing the gap in work and wage inequality.
This army, this billion-woman march, will no longer accept the unequal pay, the over-promoted male colleagues or the “queen bee”. There is a new generation of women ready to change the world.
Women don’t need to “man up” or “lean in”, we need to redefine the dysfunctional systems that leave both sexes unfulfilled and unproductive. We must rise to the top ranks of business, politics and community power to provide new perspectives and new leadership. Develop your skills and strengths through training, coaching and mentoring. Find a role model for yourself and be one for those women around you. And always pay close attention to those moments that can come in the form of TV news report, a book you read or a song you hear on the radio – they contain the seeds of greatness.