At UN forum, business and nonprofit leaders highlight smart investment in women

Stephen Jordan, executive director of the Business Civic Leadership Center; Geena Davis, actress and founder of the nonprofit organization Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media; and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, pose for a photo at the opening of the forum titled “Investing in Women and Entrepreneurship: Solutions to Addressing MDG 3,” an event coinciding with International Women’s Day, annually observed on March 8. Photo by: Devra Berkowitz / United Nations

Public-private partnerships don’t fall from the sky – they are hard work, says Hans d’Orville, assistant director-general for strategic planning at UNESCO.

But the starting point is always a clear discussion.

On Tuesday (March 8), D’Orville joined representatives from non-governmental organizations, private foundations and United Nations agencies in tackling the issue of working together to empower women and girls in schools and workplaces alike. The United Nations Office for Partnerships and U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Business Civic Leadership Center co-sponsored the daylong panel titled “Investing in Women and Entrepreneurship: Solutions to Addressing MDG3,” held at the U.N. headquarters in New York.

In his opening remarks at the session, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he could not think of a better way to commemorate International Women’s Day, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

“In too many countries and too many societies women remain second-class citizens,” Ban said. “We are working … to change mindsets.”

Investment in women

Investing in women is not just the right thing but the smart thing to do, Ban reminded the audience, repeating a phrase commonly heard within international development dialogues at the United Nations. Fortune 500 companies with the highest number of women at their boards of directors outperform those with the least by 53 percent, he said.

Leaders of private companies and foundations participating in the event – including Jeff Richardson of the Abbott Fund, Ellen Lambert of the Merck Foundation, and Jane Wurwand of the skincare company Dermalogica – agreed that steps focusing more on women are beneficial for all parties involved and should be scaled up in the future.

“We should no longer be discussing the why of women and girls’ empowerment, we should be discussing the how,” said Wurwand, who delivered the keynote address.

Wurwand offered some answers as she unveiled a new partnership between Dermalogica and, which facilitates microfinance loans across the world.

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The program, Financial Independence Through Entrepreneurship, encourages people to purchase specially marked Dermalogica FITE products. They then log on to, enter a provided code, and select the woman whose business they would like to support with a loan. For every code redeemed, Dermalogica allocates $1 to the microfinance project.

According to Wurwand, women produce more than half of the world’s food, invest 90 percent of their income back into their families but possess only 1 percent of the world’s land. Companies like Dermalogica, whose products are sold in more than 25,000 salons and spas worldwide, have the platform and capacity to “lend a hand up” to these women, she added.

The value of strong education

Providing girls with strong education is a necessary precursor to navigating their way into the professional world, panelists stressed.

“You cannot talk about women’s investment without talking about education,” said U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro in the session’s closing remarks.

A child born to a mother who can read is 50 percent more likely to survive past age 5, said D’Orville.

He underscored the importance of quality teachers and teacher training in the educational system and said that achieving this is not simply a function of civil society groups “scaling up [programs].” Cooperation between civil society and government is also key.

“Governments must take proactive action because this cannot be accomplished through various projects,” he said.

Antonine de Jong, outreach and business development adviser for the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, or U.N. Women, also spoke of national governments’ potential to invest further in women and entrepreneurship through quota systems for women’s participation in parliament and other branches of government.

“Principles are easy to sign on to but are hard to implement,” he explained.

Correlated issues

The forum’s focus on increasing access to employment for girls and women did not expand to issues that could continue to affect women once employed, such as unequal pay, workplace discrimination and violence, noted one attendee from a foundation.

Actress Geena Davis, founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, agreed, but she said all correlated issues couldn’t be crammed into a one-day session.

“You can talk about building schools, but if the kids have worms and need inoculations or have horrible nutrition, how are you going to get them to school?” she told Devex following the event. “So yes, let’s get more women employed, but what if there is workplace violence? As soon as you start looking at one thing, you realize that the issue goes deeper than that.”

Check back soon to read more of our interviews with Geena Davis and other leaders in international development.

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About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is an award-winning journalist based in New York City. Her coverage on politics, social justice issues, development and climate change has appeared in a variety of international news outlets, including The Guardian, Slate and The Atlantic. She has reported from the U.N. Headquarters, in addition to nine countries outside of the U.S. Amy received her master of arts degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in May 2014. Last year she completed a yearlong fellowship on the oil industry and climate change and co-published her findings with a team in the Los Angeles Times.