Girl Effect's first CEO brings brand strategy to development

Farah Ramzan Golant, CEO of Girl Effect. Photo by: Teri Pengilley / freuds

A year ago, Farah Ramzan Golant received a gift from her daughter: a journal engraved with the words, “Prepare for the unexpected.”

They were fitting words for her new job as CEO of Girl Effect, the newly independent social business using media and brands to help change perceptions and reduce poverty for more than 200 million girls.

Ramzan Golant was an unorthodox choice for the position. She doesn’t come from a development background and isn’t an expert on behavior change or issues facing adolescent girls. But she’d managed some of the world’s biggest brands as CEO of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, Britain’s largest creative advertising agency, and understands media from her time as CEO of TV production group All3Media.

“I’ve had the whole gamut of experience in how ideas and communications and media brands and tech products actually do change the way the world functions,” she said. “The opportunity at Girl Effect was a really unexpected moment for me.”

Ramzan Golant is the organization’s first CEO. After 10 years as an initiative of the Nike Foundation, Girl Effect was spun off to allow it to raise funds elsewhere and grow independently, though the foundation remains a key funder.

With her first year as CEO and the organization’s first year of independence now in the books, Ramzan Golant has learned plenty about disruptive change, the power of the brand and how sometimes an outsider can bring clarity and vision.

The early days

Ramzan Golant thought she’d stay in the creative industry after selling her previous company. But when Girl Effect came calling, she decided it would be a good test of her skills not only as a CEO who could build a world-class organization but also an an enabler of creative platforms that “challenge people to think, feel, and do things differently,” she said.

She joined the organization fresh to the development sector, but she knew it was a critical time for Girl Effect and immediately set the pace accordingly. Ramzan Golant gave herself six months to understand Girl Effect’s work and develop a strategy and a coherent organizational structure for its independence.

To keep track of what she was learning her first month on the job — and both her personal and professional challenges — Ramzan Golant scribbled notes in the little book from her daughter.

She also stocked up on Post-it notes. Each time she heard about something she considered pivotal, she wrote it on a Post-it note and stuck it on a board in her office. Many of them still adorn a patch of her office wall “because if you can’t put it on a Post-it note or print it on a T-shirt you’re not really going to remember it,” she said.

Some things, such as the Girl Effect Mobile platform, a global digital platform connecting girls to information, stuck out right away as having potential. Other initiatives, including a hugely valuable index tool with sex and age disaggregated data about adolescent girls, didn’t seem to fit with the direction Girl Effect was heading.

With the clarity of an outsider, Ramzan Golant realized that despite the hours that had been dedicated to building the index, it didn’t have a future with Girl Effect. As an early decision, it was a difficult one and forced the new CEO to question herself, but also realize there was room for her voice at the organization.

Charting a course

Girl Effect doesn’t focus solely on health or education, but on a specific population: girls. And in particular adolescent girls. It was that narrow targeted focus, those 212 million girls in poverty today, that was attractive to Ramzan Golant.

Girl Effect runs a number of brands, which have both in-person and online components — for example a magazine written by and for girls and a mobile app that allows them to ask questions they might be afraid to ask their parents. Those brands are working to change perceptions, a strategy familiar to Ramzan Golant after years in advertising.

The way Ramzan Golant describes the work is as a portfolio of branded platforms — a different one in each country, each with similar aims but calling on local culture to inform what it looks like and how it operates. She simplifies it like this: Brands are a belief system. And as the commercial world shows, they are also able to quickly infiltrate people’s mindsets and change the way they think and feel.

As Girl Effect has worked to refine its model, they are also reaching out to a variety of partners to see how they might harness the power of the brand in service of specific goals together. Ramzan Golant’s business background has helped to facilitate some of those relationships, including the latest partnership announced Tuesday.

A collaboration between Girl Effect and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the new effort will provide more girls in Africa the HPV vaccine and reduce rates of cervical cancer. Gavi will help countries obtain the vaccine and Girl Effect will work to address cultural roadblocks and ensure girls are aware of the vaccine’s availability and how to access it.

In Ethiopia, Girl Effect has created a brand called Yegna, which includes a radio drama, music and a talk show that work to change the way people think about girls and issues such as early marriage, violence and barriers to education. In Rwanda, local girls create content for Ni Nyampinga, which addresses similar issues through radio, a magazine and offline and in-person safe spaces where girls can talk about the challenges they face.

In Nigeria, Girl Effect has created Technology Enabled Girl Ambassadors, or TEGA, which is a girl-operated mobile-enabled research tool that uses peer-to-peer interviews to gain unique insights into girls’ lives. In northern Nigeria, where girls have been kidnapped from their schools, the TEGAs are working to tell their own story using devices that allow them to record conversations, which are then uploaded to the cloud. The project is done in partnership with local authorities — be they village or religious leaders — and each device has a message recorded by one of those leaders authorizing the girls to do their work in case they are stopped.

Looking across today’s brands, Girl Effect is also learning about it’s future. By the end of this year, it expects to roll out a new brand in Malawi, partly in partnership with PEPFAR, the U.S. government HIV and AIDS initiative.

Ramzan Golant is pushing scale fast — not only to reach more girls in each country where they work, and through the GEM platform, which already reaches nearly 20 million girls — but also by expanding the model to other countries. The goal is three more in 2017, to essentially double the number of brands as part of Girl Effect.

To achieve that, the organization has to take the best of what it has learned, what Ramzan Golant calls the “golden threads” that appear throughout the successful brands they’ve built. One example is the idea of the “agony aunt” an aunt or big sister figure who can be a trusted adviser to adolescent girls, someone they can turn to for advice about menstruation, how to address challenges with their parents and even how to talk to a boy they may be interested in.

Who that figure is — what she looks like, how she acts — will vary from country to country depending on the culture, but she should be a constant. In Rwanda the agony aunt has achieved something akin to cult status.

Ramzan Golant estimates about 40 percent of any new brand will be those golden threads and 60 percent will be designed based on specific cultural needs and preferences.

Bringing a private sector frame of mind

Ramzan Golant is guided by her business background. Focused on accountability and scale, she thinks about her work in each country not as a project but as a distinct brand with a certain market share.

Her metrics of success have changed — she’s not trying to get 7 percent revenue growth for investors, but she’s using the same philosophies and some of the same language. Those goals are reaching 350 million people by 2020 and having 45 million participants in programs and brands, and connecting 100 million girls on the GEM platform, which in spring reached 10 million.

In the private sector, she had to be pragmatically real because she had shareholders and investors to answer to, but in this job she has the ability to make audacious goals that may just be achievable, she said.

Take the GEM platform. At the current trajectory it is on pace for about 40 percent growth per month and on track to reach those 100 million girls by 2018. In other circles that might be referred to as a high-growth early tech startup.

Ramzan Golant’s private sector background hasn’t only impacted the way she’s setting up the organization, it’s also the frame through which she engages with partners.

In December she met the chairman and founder of the ISON group, one of Africa’s largest information technology firms, which runs call centers in more than a dozen countries. They were interested in talking about corporate social responsibility, but Ramzan Golant pivoted the conversation to their core agenda and business needs.

What emerged was a partnership, being piloted now, using the ISON infrastructure and staff to deliver Girl Effect content. Girls will be able to call in toll-free and hear content about a variety of issues, and afterwards they’ll be transferred to a trained call center operator who can offer counseling and connect her to NGOs working in the area that may be able to help.

“It takes a little bit of courage to say ‘I admire your philanthropic, CSR intentions, but you can do more than CSR,’” Ramzan Golant said, but it’s this kind of partnership that will produce better results faster for all involved, she added.

The other goal

When Ramzan Golant thinks back on those she’s met in her first year on the job, she doesn’t see a lot of people like her. In fact, she said, she hasn’t met anyone with a similar background.

While she’s focused on rapid scale at Girl Effect, she also hopes that there might be another outcome from her work: that more people like her — be they from the private sector or the creative industry — will work in development. She feels she’s proof, she said, that the skills are transferable, especially in an organization such as Girl Effect, which seeks to challenge the way things have been done.

As traditional development actors increasingly want to understand how mobile connectivity or brands can contribute to achieving key development goals, those types of skills will be increasingly in demand. At the moment though, “there’s a paucity of that skill in development,” she said.

Ramzan Golant would particularly like to see development actors embrace failure, and in particular, the idea of learning from failure.

It’s a lesson that she’s carried with her since a big mistake on a project with Steven Spielberg, the famous producer and director, sent her into a panic years ago. She worried the mistake she made was going to be an epic failure, one that would haunt her, but her boss at the time turned to her and said “there is no such thing as failure, it’s just an expensive lesson.”

Those words have stuck with her, and at Girl Effect she’s introduced quick post-mortems when things don’t work to understand what they got right, and what they didn’t so they can move forward and learn.

As Girl Effect morphs and continues to grow rapidly, she’s aware that they will encounter failure, as comes with facing the unknown. As Ramzan Golant looks to the enormity of the task ahead, she brings a confidence honed in the cutthroat advertising world, her adaptability and a practicality in looking at the incremental steps necessary to get to those broader goals.

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About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.