By Robert Strauss
With a Wharton MBA in hand, Violet Awotwi was on her way to a distinguished private-sector business career. Then her husband got a new job in his native Ghana. The move revived her long-held interest in social entrepreneurism.
“I found I would have the opportunity to live my passion and my dream,” said Awotwi. “I had always wanted to work toward the empowerment of women and this was going to be the chance.” Awotwi started up the first of several nonprofit corporations. She founded the Women’s Initiative for Self Empowerment (WISE) to help women who had been victims of sexual abuse or domestic violence in Ghana.
“I originally wanted to volunteer, but then I found that there were no organizations involved in working with these women,” she said. “So I started working with community leaders to start one.” Awotwi had already been successful in several fields unrelated to that nonprofit work. She grew up in Nigeria where she got a degree in geology and started working for Chevron there, as a geologist and then in marketing.
After receiving her MBA in finance and strategy she started out at the high-tech company Hewlett Packard. While working there, she became interested in feminist issues and started masters work in feminist clinical psychology—and then came the unexpected move to Ghana.
“Because of my mother’s example, I was always interested in working in the public sector, but then I realized there was no reason I couldn’t do good and make money, too,” she said. “There are many lessons nonprofits can learn from the private sector, and I hope I can accomplish that.”
After setting up WISE—funding it mostly through a for-profit consulting business she was doing at the same time—and getting community leaders to connect with health, counseling and governmental providers, Awotwi founded WIELD, the Women’s Initiative for Empowerment and Leadership Development.
WIELD takes young women and girls, even as young as 7, and has them mentored by women who have already been successful in their fields. Following the lead of similar programs in the United States, WIELD has set about to help women be more assertive in business and politics in Africa, where they are just now finding their way toward equality in many governments and businesses.
Awotwi and her husband recently relocated back to the United States, but that, she said, has only made her commitment to empowerment, particularly in the political sphere, for women stronger. She has created iKNOW Politics, an interactive website for women around the world to exchange ideas and get involved with democracy and political participation.
“What I found while doing WISE and WIELD was that women need to get involved in their communities in a political way,” she said. “With iKNOW Politics, women can log onto the network and have resources from the United Nations to European organizations to American politicians. Here they can learn about campaign financing and all other sorts of issues and share experiences with women who have been successful.”
Awotwi has been named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and was featured in Newsweek in 2005 as one of the world’s emerging leaders under 40. “I’m just a social entrepreneur at heart,” she said. “Around the world, women need to be empowered and I want to do a small part in advancing that.”