Women Leaders

Alyse Nelson: A Life Less Ordinary

Alyse Nelson grew up wandering the world. This week she brings the world to D.C. for the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards. By Abigail Pesta.

Leigh Vogel / Getty Images

When Alyse Nelson was a junior at Emerson College in Boston, she heard about an event she felt she simply must attend. The event was off campus. In fact, it was a world away—in Beijing.

It was the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women.

For Nelson, who now runs Vital Voices, a nonprofit group that trains women leaders around the globe, the trip to China seemed perfectly logical. She had traveled the world with her father, an Internet consultant, and her mother, an artist, as a child. “My parents always put a strong emphasis on experiences rather than things,” she says. “We had a lot of adventures.” She remembers staying in youth hostels and private homes rather than in high-rise hotels. “I developed an ability to talk to anyone,” she says. She recalls wandering off by herself one night from a restaurant in Morocco, making friends with a mysterious girl in the alley.

Still, her parents weren’t exactly thrilled with the China plan. It was August of 1995, she was a young woman, and plenty of things could go awry if she went to hang out with a bunch of human-rights activists in buttoned-up Beijing. Her father suggested that she skip it. Her college friends thought she was nuts.

But Nelson was determined. She “saved and borrowed” for a plane ticket, she says, and applied for a Chinese conference visa. When her visa application was denied, she got a tourist visa instead. “I’ll never forget that last leg of the journey, from Taipei to Beijing—there was this energy,” she says, recalling the plane full of conference-bound women. “I felt like the event had already started.” In Beijing, she got blocked from the conference because she had the wrong visa—but that didn’t stop her either. She sneaked in with a group of Russian delegates.

At the event, she saw a grainy video of democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi speaking from Burma, and she was mesmerized by her quiet power. At night she slept in barracks with women from South Africa, hearing their life stories. By day she met activists fighting for causes that were entirely new to her. “I saw a poster that said ‘Stop trafficking in women,’” she recalls. “I thought, ‘What does that mean?” She heard Hillary Clinton give her now-famous speech about how women’s rights are human rights.

She began to see her future unfolding before her.

“That trip created a shift in me,” she says. “I felt that enabling women wasn’t just the fair thing to do, but the smart thing. I began to see women as a leadership force.”

Back at Emerson College, she invited officials from the White House and the United Nations to come and speak about women. In 1996, she graduated, turning down a scholarship for graduate school at Tufts to go to Washington, D.C., for a low-level job with the President’s Interagency Council on Women at the White House.

“When I arrived at that office, I worried, ‘Did I make the right decision?’ she says. “Then I walked in, and the first thing I saw was a huge photo of Hillary in Beijing.” She knew she was where she belonged.

Four years later, in 2000, Alyse helped launch the nonprofit group Vital Voices. The group had sprouted from a government initiative called the Vital Voices Democracy Initiative, a campaign established in 1997 by Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and others to promote the advancement of women as a U.S. foreign-policy goal.

The plan for the new nonprofit: to advance global women’s economic, political, and social status, by providing mentoring and training in job and leadership skills.

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Today, as the president and chief executive of Vital Voices, Nelson has worked with women leaders in more than 140 countries. Her group has mentored more than 500,000 women worldwide. She also managed to go back and get that graduate degree at Tufts, in the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

A photo of Hillary Clinton in Beijing hangs over her desk.

Last year, she had a chance to meet Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, 16 years after seeing that scratchy video in Beijing. “I really felt like the world just stopped,” she says, describing the meeting. “I told myself, you have to remember every single moment.”

The meeting inspired her, she says, to “start telling the stories of this journey.” Her new book, Vital Voices: The Power of Women Leading Change Around the World, does just that. It hits shelves this week. Also this week, Nelson hosts the annual Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards in Washington, D.C., bringing together women from far-flung corners of the planet—Egypt, Pakistan, Tunisia, Liberia.

Nelson says her mother, a woman with a “burning curiosity” who surfs at age 70, once dreamed of becoming an architect—but was told that no one would hire a woman to design a building. “She always told me I could do anything,” Nelson says.

Her mother was right.