Empowering the women of the future

Alyse Nelson is the president and chief executive of Vital Voices, a Washington, DC-based group that trains female civic and business leaders in emerging economies. (Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright founded Vital Voices in 1997. Nelson counts both women among her mentors.) 

The group has worked with more 100,000 women running businesses and social enterprises around the world. From its start, Nelson tells me, it’s taken a more balanced – some might even say feminine – approach. 

“A lot of organisations like ours find what’s not working, and then try to fix it. But we find out what is working, empower those leaders by giving them training, mentoring, greater visibility, and connections with partners and financing, and then bring what they’re doing to scale. Sadly, a lot of organisations try to convince people that: ‘We are it. You need us to be successful.’ We operate with the empowerment model. We tell them women we’re working with: ‘You’re it. Even if we go way, you’re still it.’ It’s a much more sustainable model.” 

Over the years, she’s observed a growing appreciation of women as an economic resource. There’s a distinct recognition on the part of international groups such as the UN and the World Economic Forum, as well from multinational corporations, she says, that women need to be given “a seat at the decision-making table”.

“To deal with some of the biggest problems facing the world right now – such as the growing inequity between haves and have-nots – we need leaders who are thinking in a collaborative, inclusive, cause-driven way. Women tend to do this more. They think more about who’s not in the room because they’re used to being left out. They know what it’s like not to have power. These lessons have become part of our DNA.” 

As women’s influence has grown in the political and business spheres, the very nature of power has changed, says Nelson, whose book about leadership will be published in June. 

“Power expands the moment it’s shared. The traditional top-down, command-and-control leadership model [is not as prevalent today.] Leadership is changing. Women can come together across differences and find commonalities better than men. This is not to say that all women are like this, and that all men aren’t like this, it’s just that women are getting a stake, and their influence is changing the way in which power is executed.”

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