Vital Voices: Women and International Leadership Development

On April 19, 2017, an intimate group had a cozy discussion with Alyse Nelson, President and CEO of Vital Voices Global Partnership, on developing women’s leadership.

I was among them, and I had been anticipating this talk all semester. Nelson’s work is much inspired by former American First Lady and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, so I was eager to hear her take on the past U.S election cycle and the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” that remained unshattered.

In addition to students and faculty members, women leaders of nonprofits were also in attendance to hear Nelson’s valuable insight on how to be a better leader.

Nelson shared her story of how she got involved in the fight for gender equality. In the fall of 1995, the 21 year-old Nelson insisted that she needed to attend the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing. With the support of her father, she scraped and saved enough to fly all the way across the world. She didn’t quite exactly know what she had travelled so far for, until Hillary Clinton took to the stage and made the bold declaration that “Women’s rights are human rights.” It was a transformative moment for her, and Nelson asked herself, What can I do? How can I be part of the solution?

Nelson realized that Hillary recognized her own voice and used her position as First Lady as a platform to make change for other women. Then she recognized that she herself had a voice too that could use to make change. She gave up a graduate-level scholarship at Tufts, and instead became the first employee of Vital Voices, an organization that aims to mentor, invest in, and empower women around the world. Two decades later, Nelson became the President and CEO of Vital Voices.

Nelson reminded us that in non-profit work, we need to understand something very fundamental: change does not happen overnight. “Too often,” she said, “people believe that you can see returns in the social world the same way you see them in the private sector.” To see progress in gender equality takes time, patience, and sustained dedication, but what is encouraging is that we are gathering more and more data around the globe that has helped companies and governments realize that involving more women in leadership does have a net positive impact. Women in leadership tend to be more collaborative and cause-driven. Simply by having a different experience than men, they have much to bring to the table.

A student challenged Nelson on the notion that people should hire women not just because it benefits them, but for the principle of fairness itself. Nelsonexplained however, “real change comes from convincing the people who don’t agree,” and that while there are those who strive for gender equality just because it is the right thing to do, we need to reach out to those who don’t agree with with incentives.

In the later part of the Dialogue, we then moved on to Vital Voices’ five-pronged leadership model. First, we needed to find our “driving force”, a “personal mission” that guides us in our work.

Nelson told the story of Sunitha, a woman who had been gang-raped in India. Sunitha had immense emotions after the experience, and while many women have been destroyed by these emotions, Sunitha “harnessed her power and pain.” She built a shelter for children who are victims of sexual violence. With 98% of the children HIV positive, Sunitha’s goal is to give the kids a proper burial and to let them be children for the rest of their lives as long as they lived with her. Not only does she work with victims, but with her local knowledge and connections, Sunitha also looks at the root cause of why child trafficking is happening and is fighting hard to solve it.

After realizing the power in your emotions, the second important thing that women leaders can do is to build strong roots in the community. Leadership is a relationship, it is understanding your context, and it is being empathetic, curious, and sincere all at once.

The third thing to do as a leader is to foster “an ability to connect across lines that divide,” and to be open to unlikely and innovative partnerships. As Nelson already stressed, collaboration with those who disagree with you is the way to bring about the most concrete and fruitful change. She encouraged attendees to ask themselves: Whose voice isn’t being heard? Who’s a person not at the table who disagrees with you? Who are the unlikely guests at the dinner party?

Next, is to put bold ideas into action, be ready to take calculated risks and be resourceful. “The mark of great leadership,” she said, “is not when you have the right tools.” Rather than waiting for a perfect situation to create change that will never come, she suggested that we embrace creative and innovative approaches to the solutions we propose for the world’s problems.

Finally, Nelson stressed the importance of “paying it forward.” Share your knowledge and experience with others, mentor other women, and invest in them if you have the means to. To end the inspiring discussion and to encourage us, she  left us with a quote from her meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi a number of years ago: “The difference between good-intentions and good leadership is the ability to stay on the course no matter how difficult the path.”


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