One afternoon back in 2009, the world was stuck in global recession and I was stuck on my sofa, eight months pregnant--fat, irritated and tired. My husband suggested I take a few minutes to sit down to watch some television and put my feet up. I didn't put up a fight. I shuffled into the family room and plopped down in front of the TV feeling oh, so sorry for myself.
I flicked through the channels half-attentively looking for something to distract me. At the time my own business, Aspire, was growing despite the shaky climate, but with my second son about to make his appearance and a crazy one-year old attempting flight out of his crib in the next room with a husband who didn't know what he was in for when he met me 2 years earlier, I had more than enough on my plate. I had no idea what could be done to help more women beyond the leadership development training and coaching we provided and quite frankly I didn't really have the time to think about it.
And then a CNN special report about women in Afghanistan flickered onto the screen in front of me. Despite the temptation to switch channels (was it really time for Housewives of Orange County again?), I watched a pregnant woman making her way to a birthing centre, through mountainous terrain, on the back of a donkey. Yes, really. The reporter explained how one in seven women in Afghanistan died in childbirth and here I was sitting in my nice house in sunny California with a safe and growing family, a supportive husband by my side, and the owner of a profitable business.
I was glued to the screen and dissolved into tears as the baby was born but the mother died. Even though, in many ways, it wasn't exactly the perfect moment for me, I Googled "women in Afghanistan" and came upon a charity called Women for Women International. After reading up on everything I could find about their work to empower the women of war torn countries to take leadership positions in their communities, I emailed via the website and asked if there was a way I might be able to help. I had no experience in the non-profit world, and while Aspire was on the way to success, we did not have a budget for donating. Still, I was hopeful there might be something we could do. Sometimes, it is the small actions that lead to somewhere big.
I doubted I would ever hear from them but the president of Women for Women International wrote back almost immediately. Her simple reply: "Let's talk."
A powerful alliance formed the following day and, from our brainstorming session on the phone, I was able to start a small volunteer mentoring programme in which some of the senior business women in the Aspire community became mentors for their management team. Quite simply, their team needed additional leadership skills and our women wanted to give back and provide these skills. Women helping women.
And growing from a very small seed of an idea sitting on my sofa, working with a single non-profit in one country, The Aspire Foundation now works with hundreds of charities, social enterprises and non-profit organizations in over 80 countries. We match women leaders in business as volunteer mentors to aspiring women in the non-profit world, providing a listening ear, management and leadership skills development, support and networks. It's all done virtually, it doesn't take much time and it doesn't cost anything.
Over the next five years we achieved our first lofty goal, to make a difference in the lives of 1 million women around the world. We did this through female collaboration, support and 'word of mouth' and it was pretty effortless. Minimum time, maximum impact is the magic formula we live by.
This year, we set our next somewhat mad goal, to make a difference in the lives of 1 billion women by 2020. I strongly believe in setting your aspirations high and publicly declaring them as it keeps you to your word. However, it also sets the ground for collaboration and offers of help - a very feminine form of teamwork, and so undervalued by society - that can lead to projects being delivered with ease, speed and next to nothing cost.
Why 1 billion? We based our goal on the number in the projection of women expected to enter the worldwide workforce by 2025, known as the Third Billion. These women employees, employers, producers, and entrepreneurs form a group so large that the G20 nations pledged to aid 100 million of them with resolutions aimed at closing the gap in work and wage inequality.
The impact of these women on the global economy will be at least as significant as that of the billion-plus populations in both China and India, and smart companies are paving the way: from Dell Computer's Women's Entrepreneur Network events helping women entrepreneurs connect with each other; to Coca-Cola's Women's Leadership Council established to discover why women's careers were stalling out before they reached senior leadership positions in that company; to Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women programme providing business, human resources and management education to female entrepreneurs heading small to medium-sized businesses, which now operates in 22 countries.
This army, this new female tsunami, this billion-woman march will no longer accept gender-based platitudes of bygone days - neither the unequal pay, nor the bias towards a masculine model of leadership, nor the "queen bee" who won't support younger women on their ladder upwards. This is a new generation of women of all ages, all backgrounds, ready to fully embrace their unique strengths, identify with them, and change the world with them.
Women don't need to 'man up' or 'lean in' or change who we are, we need to redefine the dysfunctional systems that leave both sexes unfulfilled and unproductive. We must rise to the top ranks of business, politics, and community power to provide new perspectives and new leadership for the imperative issues we face in today's world. That means empowering yourself by defining your leadership style then developing your skills and strengths through training, coaching, and mentoring. Find a role model for yourself and be one for those women around you. And always pay close attention to those little ideas that can come from a TV news report you watch, a book you read or a song you hear on the radio - they contain the seeds of greatness!
And if you'd like to be part of the Aspire Foundation making a difference to 1 Billion women by 2020... Let's talk!