My journey toward investing directly in women’s and girls’ empowerment began while leading a Columbia University urban development project across the sub-Saharan region. There, in city after city, I saw that although men mostly ran the show, the women had all the ideas, and with the resources we managed to bring in, they effected meaningful change in their communities. Among the solutions the women leaders implemented were girls’ clubs, training in community health work, midwifery, violence prevention, and an array of trades, and free women’s health clinics located right where the women lived and worked.
As that project closed, we knew we could have made so much more progress had those in charge really listened to the women in their communities. So we wondered: how far could the women and girls in low-income urban communities actually get, if the women held the power, for a change? And with the moral and technical support of a couple of staff and advisory board members, I founded and funded WomenStrong International, to answer that very question.
Fast forward six years, to find WomenStrong’s 11 talented professional staff currently working with 18 grantee partners, all women-driven non-profits working in 15 countries to improve the lives of urban women and girls in the areas of girls’ education and empowerment, women’s health, and preventing violence against women and girls. A new cohort, focused on economic security and opportunity, will be launched next year.
We bring our partners together in a Learning Lab, where they share what they do, learn from each other, and receive technical assistance. We look for opportunities to help amplify their voices, so that other women-driven NGOs and the entire community of development practitioners can learn from their expertise and experience, whether in engaging men and boys, partnering with local government, or scaling their programs.
My investments have already borne fruit: since WomenStrong’s inception, we’ve shone a light on the innovative solutions of two dozen women-driven organizations, whose bold work has improved the lives of thousands upon thousands of urban women and girls in 19 countries across the globe.
My passion for advancing women’s and human rights has deep roots. My grandfather, an inventor, self-made business leader, and diplomat, helped draft the United Nations Human Rights Charter, oversaw the allocation of Germany’s material reparations for the Holocaust for many years, and advocated for a United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights decades before the office was created. He believed ardently in the Jewish precept of “Tikkun Olam” – – repairing the world – and in every human being’s responsibility to step up and do their part, to help those around them as best they could, and to leave the world – nature included — better than they had found it.
So whenever I can, I try to step up. And empowering wise women leaders who know best what they, their families, and communities need, strengthening their capacity, and showcasing their successes so that others can adapt their programs to their own local contexts, has been the greatest professional joy of my life.
I invite others to join me, in this immensely rewarding undertaking. My hope is that, with increased support, WomenStrong will be able to reach more organizations, generate more learning, and ultimately, help shift the balance of power among the international development community, still so riddled by vestiges of colonialism, racism, sexism, and, all too often, a severe case of know-it-all-ism.
I’ve loved being a part of the Women Moving Millions community – so many awesome, inspiring women, following their passions! The gatherings and extraordinary offerings during this tumultuous pandemic year have been hugely nourishing, comforting, community-building, even life-affirming, as so many bold women have shared their stories of growth, resilience, self-realization, and change.
It’s been an honor to witness WMM’s unceasing commitment to bringing smart, vibrant, experienced, and powerful women together, to share what they know, learn from each other, and make our communities, nations, and planet a better, safer place for girls and women to thrive.
*Check out Susan’s recent article in Ms. Magazine, Making Good on Our Global Commitment to Gender Justice.