Gender equality and a country’s GDP are inextricable. With women representing half of the world’s potential talent base but less than ten percent of the world’s leaders, it’s a safe bet that empowering more women by better utilizing a country’s untapped human talent can benefit an entire nation. Or as someone once said, you can’t move forward leaving half of the population behind.
Building on the work that non-governmental organization Vital Voices is doing to promote the advancement of women worldwide, an important new partnership formed last spring. During Newsweek Daily Beast’s 2012 “Women in the World” conference, Bank of America announced its intent to pool its resources with those of the preeminent NGO to launch a new initiative, the Global Ambassador Program. Providing mentorships to women in countries such as Haiti, India, and South Africa, the five-year effort is investing in emerging women leaders by connecting them in one-on-one relationships with established women leaders in order to foster social and economic change.
Haiti’s motto reads “L’Union Fait La Force” or Union Makes Strength. Women comprise fifty-two percent of the country’s population with almost half of its households led by women. Never more vital than it is today, nearly three years after a debilitating earthquake, Haiti’s pathway to progress is tethered to the need for its women to be a driving force in the political, economic, and social sectors.
In the first of a three-part series on the new mentorship program, The Daily Beast spoke with Bank of America’s head of Wealth Management Marketing, Justine Metz and Haiti-based women’s rights activist Danielle Saint-Lôt. Both mentor and mentee discuss the initiative, as well as the progress made in the program’s first year.
Q: Tell us how the Global Ambassadors Program came to be, and how you got involved.
Justine Metz: It came out of Bank of America and Vital Voices’ shared interest in leveraging their networks and expertise to advance women’s leadership development worldwide. It builds on Bank of America’s ongoing commitment to leadership as a critical component to achieve success and Vital Voices’ experience training and mentoring women leaders globally.
I’m very committed to mentoring since I think it’s important to share experiences with others as part of personal and professional development. And I was particularly interested in Haiti. Following the many challenges that it has faced over the last fifty years, including the 2010 earthquake, I felt like the work done there could really make a difference, and I jumped at the chance to be a Global Ambassador.
Q: How did Haiti become the first country to be tapped by the program?
Metz: We were coming up on the two-year anniversary of Haiti’s earthquake. Vital Voices was hearing that Haitian women had organized a few hundred national focus groups to engage women and men in the reconstruction efforts. When asked, its people wanted support to organize and communicate their priorities into a framework that could be presented to their president. It became clear that bringing the Global Ambassadors Program to Haiti could result in real impact.
Q: How does the Global Ambassadors Program work, and what are its goals?
Metz: Through its network of 14,000 emerging and established women leaders in 144 countries, Vital Voices finds and matches mentees with Global Ambassadors (or mentors) and facilitates the programs on the ground, working closely with Bank of America’s partners and providing support to facilitate ongoing mentoring relationships. Likewise, it consults with the company not only to tap a diverse set of female leaders from corporate offices worldwide to join the effort as ambassadors, but to determine forum themes, identify meaningful speakers, and organize the collective project to advance issues of shared concern. In each country, four to six emerging leaders are paired with a powerful group of these established leaders for a weeklong interaction to build communications, networking, advocacy and business skills, and to enable a unique exchange of ideas and perspectives. It’s a support system meant to endure long after the week is over—to help women leaders continue to be forces for economic empowerment.
Q: Talk a little about the impact that visiting Haiti had on you two years after the disaster.
Metz: I’ve traveled a lot around the world and seen a lot of devastation and poverty. When I got to Haiti, there was, of course, much rubble and construction. But literally getting off the plane, the music at the airport, the steel drums, the welcome that I received, and the kindness of the people…I could tell right away that they are what really what makes Haiti, not its buildings. While there are many issues to address, Haitians have a passion and spirit like almost no other I’ve experienced. Danielle Saint-Lôt, whom I’m mentoring, is one of these people; she epitomizes hope. She’s a single mom of a young daughter who’s living with her own mom because her house was destroyed by the earthquake.
Q: How did you come to work together?
Danielle Saint-Lôt: While working on our platform, Vital Voices asked what they could do, so I asked for help to sell it to the world. When they offered to set up a conference with Bank of America that would include working with international mentors, we said, ‘Great, we need exposure and visibility.’ Alyse Nelson, Vital Voices’ president, sent us a list of potential mentors. I noticed Justine was a head of marketing for Bank of America, and I said ‘That’s who I need!’ She could provide me with the know-how to speak with the corporate market. (I also discovered we were both volleyball players. So I thought, ‘Let’s team up so we can win!’)
Metz: When I found out how prominent a role Danielle played as a leader in advancing the women’s platform and her life mission to rebuild Haiti, I felt I could learn more from her than she could learn from me. Then she said, ‘I don’t know anything about marketing; you can help me with social media.’ And I realized, I could do that.
Q: Danielle, how were you affected by the disaster?
Saint-Lôt: It was a very difficult time, the worst in my life. But my losses are nothing compared to the 300,000 people who died. As a nation we need to go through a healing process and take time to cry. That is the only way we are going to be able to come together and build on a strong foundation.
Q: What is life like for women in Haiti now and what are their biggest challenges?
Saint-Lôt: We are living in the most repressed country in the hemisphere and women, like in other countries, are always the ones really suffering from poverty and fighting for their community. So it’s a big, big challenge for a woman in Haiti, but they are really resilient and always fighting for their rights, for their children’s rights, for their community’s development.
The biggest challenges are access to basic healthcare, like pre- and post-natal care and fighting malaria and tuberculosis. Even when you have money, you don’t have access to emergency service. Also, access to education for their children, and economic opportunity; access to land, to market... But now it’s time to move forward and have Haitian women enter the modern economy.
Q: How critical is it for women to work together?
Saint-Lôt: In a country like Haiti that is part of an island and where we are completely isolated, it’s very important. But women’s issues are the same in whatever country you are living. We have a saying in Haiti, ‘problem of a woman is a problem for all women.’ We need to have contact with women all over the world.
Now through the Global Ambassadors Program, women from Africa, women from the U.S. can partner with us and really reinforce our capacities. I can send an email to Florence Chenoweth, Liberia’s Minister of Agriculture, who is also a Global Ambassador and learn from her experience training rural women with small farm equipment in order that Haitian women can become self-sufficient in food production. Justine, who comes from New York and had never been to Haiti, is able to join us on the court and become a great teammate. There is no language barrier, no limit when women leaders come together; we share and learn from each other.
Q: Explain why it is so important to have female leaders in Haitian politics.
Metz: Quite frankly, it’s important to have female leaders in any government. In multiple studies and in research we’ve done at Bank of America, it’s overwhelming how much more successful companies and governments are by having women involved. Haiti will be a stronger country with women seated at the table.
Saint-Lôt: Having women in politics is really not to support women’s causes or issues; it’s a human issue. We are very glad to now have ten women in the cabinet, for the first time in Haiti.
Q: Who are the other Global Ambassadors and mentees working on behalf of Haiti?
Metz: Along with myself, the Global Ambassadors include actor and activist, Maria Bello; the Minister of Agriculture for the Republic of Liberia, Florence Chenoweth; Connie Morella, former Ambassador to the OECD and congressional member; and former Minister of Women Affairs for Cambodia and Member of Parliament, Mu Sochua. The mentees are YWCA of Haiti Board Member and reconstruction expert, Rachel Coupaud; Mimose Felix, agronomy engineer and head of the Support Group for the Economic Rehabilitation of the Haitian Family and now Minister of Rural Affairs; lawyer, nurse, and HIV/AIDS activist, Marie Annaise Fertil; women’s rights activist, nurse, lawyer, and vice-president of a political party, Marie Giselhaine Mompremier; as well as Danielle, who is co-founder of Vital Voices’ Haiti Chapter Femmes en Démocratie, and former Minister of Commerce, Industry, and Tourism.
Q: Tell us about the National Women’s Platform, and events surrounding it.
Saint-Lôt: After the earthquake, Haitian women were not part of the reconstruction conversation so we decided to join forces and organize focus groups throughout the country asking what was needed in order to rebuild Haiti and empower women. We came up with twenty top priorities that include access to healthcare, credit, and safe water—things that developed countries take for granted. We organized a regional workshop, then a national workshop. The international gathering that included the women ambassadors from Bank of America helped us refine a platform we could present to President Michel Martelly, the parliament, and decision-makers.
Metz: During our time in Port-au-Prince we held meetings with mentees and a full-day forum that gathered dynamic leaders from various sectors, towns, and cities in the country. Recommendations were made for how government ministries and NGOs could work together to help get Haiti back on its feet economically. The five Global Ambassadors shared expertise on communications, outreach, and advocacy—critical to enlisting community support for the platform. To Danielle’s point, we basically created pillars for the platform around healthcare, education, women’s safety, agriculture, infrastructure—an articulation of the things that need to be done. The idea was that if we could strengthen and stabilize the country by making investments in those areas, not just empower women, Haiti could be well on its way to recovery.
What is exciting is about a hundred women got together from all walks of life to understand what the focus groups were saying. This created a movement and gained the interest of the President. For the final night’s reception, President Martelly formally accepted the National Women’s Platform and committed to implementing its recommendations in partnership with the mentees and their associations. There’s a long road ahead for Haiti, but this platform was a historic first for the nation’s women.
Q: Talk more about how you have helped Danielle achieve her goals.
Metz: Danielle had a fine presentation deck of her own. But I asked if she would mind if I played with it a little. People on my team volunteered to help me put together an even more compelling story for her to shop around in a PowerPoint deck. There were a lot of facts in the original presentation so we tried to infuse some emotion into it as well as add some dramatic photography. Ultimately, I think Danielle felt it represented exactly what a Haitian woman goes through, and she loved it.
Since our time together, she has conducted several high-level meetings with government officials, including incoming Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe as well as U.S. politicians and NGOs on a recent trip to Washington D.C. The Haitian government has already made a commitment to the National Women’s Platform and ten women have since been appointed as ministers. Danielle has also been appointed by the President as Ambassador-at-large for investments in women’s empowerment, which is enormously impressive.
Q: How much time is Bank of America dedicating to each country?
Metz: Bank of America is very invested in making sure mentoring forums are effective, impactful, and create a sustained relationship that drives change for years to come. Anne Finucane, the company’s Global Strategy and Marketing officer, and Andrea Smith, global head of Human Resources, participated in the final day of meetings with platform participants. At the presentation dinner with President Martelly, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan spoke of his own personal connection to Haiti and his support for what the women are trying to do.
Each forum—and forums that will happen this year in Singapore, Brazil, Turkey and back to Haiti—is a large undertaking requiring the company’s considerable focus. In addition to my role as mentor to Danielle, I continue to act as an adviser. When I return to Haiti this August, I will be involved in helping to make more progress one year into the program and ensure we’re having the most impact for emerging women leaders.
Q: What has been your personal takeaway from the experience, and what have you learned from each other?
Saint-Lot: Humility. I know how busy Justine is. Taking the time that she did to refine and re-brand our proposal I don’t think was part of her mandate as an ambassador. She was also able to show us how to sell it to someone who knows about communication, like the president. And it worked. We are seeing results. And that reinforces my faith in the world, in what we are doing, in our cause.
Metz: For me personally, it’s the validation of what I’ve always believed and lived by: change begins with the individual and small advances matter.
Knowing Danielle has taught me that people from very different backgrounds can be very much alike and share the same values—the desire to make a positive difference. She and I believe in humanity and that we can and will change the world. Not with big fanfare, but one step at a time. I’m a better person and better at what I do because I’ve met and work with Danielle. She has forever changed the way I look at the world.
Go to bankofamerica.com/globalambassadors for more information.