Leaning In to Help Build the Next Generation of Women

Kate James, Global Ambassador

When Sheryl Sandberg talks about ‘Lean In’ she refers to it as the start of a movement rather than a book – a movement that requires women everywhere to mobilize if we’re to create a level playing field for both sexes. Reading the book made me realize I was sitting on the sidelines, observing rather than taking responsibility to help make the change.

Last week I joined Vital Voices and Bank of America’s Global Ambassadors program in Singapore. Vital Voices is an incredible organization that aims to empower women in business, politics and civil society, and I’ve been a supporter and board member for a number of years. Their Ambassadors program focuses on mentoring, a vital tool in helping women realize their potential. I joined six other ambassadors who all had committed to mentor a group of young social entrepreneurs from Southeast Asia.

During my career I have been fortunate to have both great role models and fantastic mentors. When I started work as a graduate with GlaxoSmithKline, Jennie Younger was the global head of communications, a role model for what I could achieve, but also a generous mentor who was prepared to invest in her junior talent to show them how to get to the top. Navigating your career path is not easy and whilst role models show you what can be achieved, mentors can show you the route and give you the confidence to persevere even when the going gets tough.

The young social entrepreneurs on last week’s program have already achieved a huge amount, but all of them have big ambitions and the challenge ahead is determining how to take the next step with their businesses. From the Chain Reaction Project, using adventure races to raise funds and build capacity for women’s charities in Southeast Asia to Design for Disasters, helping communities in Thailand take responsibility for disaster management, all the entrepreneurs have brought incredible passion and innovation to their businesses.

“Navigating your career path is not easy and whilst role models show you what can be achieved, mentors can show you the route and give you the confidence to persevere even when the going gets tough.”

Small and medium enterprises represent the majority of businesses in Asian economies, and are a major source of employment. The basis for economic development in many countries, women represent an important and growing segment of small and medium enterprise owners. Yet women entrepreneurs continue to face barriers, finding it more difficult to access financing and lacking the support networks of their male counterparts. The 2012 UN Women report, ‘Progress of the World’s Women‘, suggested that realizing the region’s women’s economic potential would grow the Asia-Pacific economy by $89 billion annually, and role models and mentors have been shown to make a difference when it comes to both women starting a business and successfully growing a company.

Mentoring is a partnership so last week’s Vital Voices program was just the first step, getting to know the entrepreneurs and understand their business needs. The coming months hopefully will show the value of the program as the partnerships strengthen and the network that last week’s program established supports the entrepreneurs with their business plans, marketing pitches and recruitment challenges.

The few days I spent with the entrepreneurs was energizing and fun, but most importantly it made me realize the power of a supportive network and sharing experiences. There’s a lot to be said for leaning in!

Kate James is chief communications officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She is also a member of the Vital Voices Board of Directors. This blog is cross-posted from‘Impatient Optimists’ with permission from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Photo: Daved Hume Kennerly