Stories From a Global Empowerment Mission

Often at Wharton, when we speak of empowering women, we are talking about helping successful Wharton alumnae having it all—life, work, communal and personal fulfillment. But when other alumnae speak of it, they refer to helping women rise out of poverty and dependency. Two such alumnae are Rosalind Copisarow, G’88, WG’88, and Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli, W’95. They not only talk about empowering women; they attempt to do it every day and have stories (successes and otherwise) to share—like all pioneers do.

Copisarow, owner of Constellation Properties, with decades’ worth of experience in social enterprise and microfinance (not to mention 15 years in investment banking), hopes to give women in the developing world “transformational improvement” in three ways: cash flow, freedom from drudgery and knowledge acquisition.

Cash flow is critical. She recalls her last day at her first microfinance organization, when she went to go say goodbye to clients, and she asked one of her first clients how she felt after having received eight loans from the organization. The woman replied that, no doubt, she most appreciated the fact that her husband didn’t beat her any more. At that moment, Copisarow recalled, the husband was standing there, smiling and agreeing. He explained that he doesn’t beat his wife anymore because she earned more than he did.

Money Map“This was one of the profound moments of seeing what the power of money is,” Copisarow said, speaking at a panel during the “The New Global South?” conference put on by the Lauder Institute earlier this autumn.

She also recounted a story meeting many middlemen in Zambia who go to villages and offer to buy villages’ agricultural output. The women growing the produce are trapped in the village and can’t sell their produce in other towns because of a lack of transportation; they had no idea how much they could get. The men rip off the women. Enter the cellphone, however, and the ability to call ahead to markets beyond their village.

(Copisarow pointed to a study done 20 years after microfinance giant Grameen first introduced phones showing that for every 2 cent phone call they made, women derived $2.70 in value.)

Here’s another eye-opening example of transformational improvement: While Copisarow was working in Kenya, virtually every agricultural product produced by women was being sold in the nearest town for one-sixth of the eventual price the product sold for in city slums. The sad twist is that, often, many of those women’s husbands were living in those slums and were the ones paying the inflated prices. Copisarow partnered with Procter &Gamble, which offered vehicles to transport the goods from villages to the spouses so that they could serve as the marketers in the city.

Nwuneli, founder of LEAP Africa, a social enterprise dedicated to creating Africa’s next generation of entrepreneurs and innovators, offered her own four keys to empowering women, with her own stories to illustrate each—education, access to financing, policymaking platforms, the importance of culture and revolutionizing how people think of gender roles.

Perhaps her most poignant story was one about a dairy in northern Nigeria (she is also director of Sahel Capital & Advisory Partners). The owner of the dairy has two wives. They’re observant Muslims and cover up, but they are both co-directors of the company, one for marketing, the other operations. And the wives are not just directors in name. To encourage similar practices among his community, the husband started a policy with the shepherds and herders from whom he buys milk: He buys twice as much milk from them if they put their daughters in school.

Such stories give hope to Nwuneli that change can happen, and is happening.

We would be pleased to hear similar stories from alumni and others involved in social impact, developing opportunities and entrepreneurship around the world.

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