Belfast: A significant city for women
As part of our ongoing partnership with Vital Voices, women business leaders from around the world will gather in Belfast, Northern Ireland, this month to spur women’s leadership and economic advancement. This program will focus on women from post-conflict and ongoing peacebuilding countries and the ways that their entrepreneurship and leadership can advance economic growth. From May 12 - May 16, established businesswomen will mentor emerging women leaders from the private sector and social enterprises from countries like Rwanda, Somalia, Indonesia, Croatia, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine and Northern Ireland.
In previous Global Ambassadors forums – which have taken place in Mexico, Qatar, Singapore, Brazil, India, South Africa and Haiti – mentees have been from the same region and the mentoring and training sessions were focused on professional and personal challenges that often related to the economic conditions of that region. This next meeting in Belfast, Northern Ireland, will instead bring together women from all over the world who live in a region in conflict or ongoing peacebuilding as it moves forward. Why Belfast? As Global Ambassadors coach mentees on ways to advance their businesses, strategies, and personal and professional development in the context of the challenges they face, the program coincides with the 16th anniversary of the 1998 Good Friday Peace Accords — underlining the important role that women can play in peace agreements. In fact, more than 25 nations around the world have developed plans to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which emphasizes the impact of conflict on women and their critical role in peacebuilding. This year also marks the 16th anniversary of a Vital Voices conference in Belfast, where then-First Lady Hillary Clinton called for women’s engagement as a means of facilitating peace and prosperity.
Global Ambassadors and mentees will also attend the International Business Women’s Conference (IBWC), organized by Women in Business Northern Ireland (WIBNI), during which business and social leaders from around the world will discuss the role that women can play in security and peace, as well as their impact on economic development. Finally, the women will participate in a Networking Walk with IBWC participants where they will discuss professional challenges and successes.
Of course, the week of meetings will still include one-on-one mentoring sessions and larger group discussions designed to empower the emerging leaders to achieve their goals, ultimately contributing to local economies around the world.
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The power of mentoring
The Global Ambassadors Program is founded on the importance and effectiveness of mentorship for businesswomen in the developing world. Approximately one billion women have the potential to enter the global workforce in the next decade, but only if given the opportunity to do so. During the upcoming meeting in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Global Ambassadors and mentees will engage in one-on-one mentoring sessions designed to help mentees strengthen their understanding of the factors and solutions that can help them grow their businesses, empowering them to contribute to the recovering economies of their respective post-conflict and ongoing peacebuilding countries.
Bank of America is committed to mentoring emerging women business leaders because mentoring has been proven to produce significant results for both the mentor and the mentee. Businesswomen often face exclusion from networks and conversations that can open the door to career development and promotions. By connecting regularly with women in leadership positions, emerging women leaders can further their careers and contribute to their local communities and economies. Furthermore, the program will have an impact far beyond the women who attend Belfast. Because women are known “multipliers” who use their expertise and connections to help the next generation of leaders develop new networks and become mentors themselves, this investment will have a far-reaching impact. Mentors can benefit from the sessions as well, by having the opportunity to gain a new perspective and improve their communication and leadership skills.
The Global Ambassadors and mentees that participate in these meetings often forge long-term relationships in which both parties share strategies for overcoming obstacles and achieving goals so that mentees can become leaders in their countries and in their industries. We are proud to partner with Vital Voices to work toward a common goal of empowering women worldwide.
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Engaging employees to grow a business
The week in Belfast has kicked off with a number of sessions intended to help the mentees to develop and grow their businesses. On Tuesday morning, Kathleen Holland, a global strategic planning consultant, led the mentees and their Ambassadors through a session on performance management, succession planning and leadership management, explaining that satisfied, engaged employees are critical to a successful business or social enterprise. A number of the mentees noted that a top challenge for them is to find and develop the right people, a crucial element to a company’s “triple bottom line”, which Kathleen explains as an organization’s people, planet and profits platform. The group discussed methods to help these women leaders attract talent, effectively manage their staff and help their employees to grow professionally by providing regular feedback and holding annual performance reviews.
These points were further amplified over lunch, which featured a discussion with guest speakers Andrew Plepler, Global Corporate Social Responsibility Executive at Bank of America, and Susan Davis, Chair of Vital Voices Board. These executives cited another element of employee satisfaction that’s been growing, particularly among younger generations in the workforce, which is a vested interest in the ways that an organization is giving back to local and global communities. In conjunction with this and the recognition that there’s a need to rebuild trust in large institutions after the financial crisis, companies have extended their efforts beyond traditional philanthropy to a more evolved corporate social responsibility (CSR) practice that often includes more comprehensive partnerships with NGOs or other nonprofit organizations. This CSR platform encapsulates the values of the company and informs the overall approach to running the business, and it manifests in programs that reflect these priorities.
Andrew and Susan discussed the partnership between Bank of America and Vital Voices to develop the Global Ambassadors Program and how the goals of each organization align in this initiative: to empower women as leaders. Responding to a question from an Ambassador, Andrew noted that although CSR-related initiatives are increasingly viewed as a business imperative by CEOs and business leaders, implementation remains critical to assuring that they are effective with tangible opportunities for employees to engage. For Bank of America in particular, Andrew explained one way that employees are encouraged to be part of the company’s broader community efforts is through regular highlights of CSR initiatives at the company’s global town hall each quarter, a volunteer program that allows employees 2 hours of paid leave per week to volunteer and annual recognition of dedicated volunteers.
The day’s discussions provided insight and strategies for how corporations partner with nonprofits to create change and offered thought-provoking conversation on the value of employee engagement for mentees to consider as an element to grow their businesses. Susan ended the session by encouraging the mentees to “pay it forward” and share the knowledge that they gain over the week with others, extending the impact of the partnership and the program far beyond Belfast.
Women attend IBWC 2014 to explore a new economy
During their time in Belfast, the Global Ambassadors and the mentees had the opportunity to participate in the International Business Women’s Conference (May 12 to 15), a global event running in parallel to the program that brought together participants from countries including the U.K., Ireland, and the U.S. to discuss the importance of women business leaders in a recovering global economy. On Wednesday, May 14, the women attended the conference and listened to a keynote speech from author and trend forecaster Anna-Lise Kjaer, who discussed how the successful businesses and organizations in the “new economy” of the future will be the ones agile enough to adopt the “4 P’s”: People, Planet, Purpose and Profit. Anna-Lise described the current way of life as “unsustainable” in many respects, and cited growing evidence that business and society can thrive on alternative models. These alternative models laddered back to the 4P’s, and included radical openness among CEOs and executives, a more balanced workforce with higher numbers of women senior leaders and female entrepreneurs, new business models that encourage access over ownership, and more.
Following this address, the conference hosted a panel discussion to explore solutions for increasing the gender balance in business, which included Vital Voices Board Chair Susan Davis. The panelists discussed the mismatch between the increased number of women in the workplace and the small percentage of those women in senior leadership positions, explaining this as not a “woman problem” but rather a “humanity problem” due to the solid business case for retaining female talent. The panelists discussed the importance of women supporting each other in their careers and cited mentoring as a critical “tool” to success, particularly in its ability to encourage women in an area that they may be lacking: demonstrated confidence in their own skills and abilities. The men on the panel encouraged the women to take these conversations beyond the conference and into the workplace, citing recognition among male business leaders of the value that women in business can add and a subsequent eagerness to discuss these issues with them and explore possible solutions.
The day capped off with a gala dinner at the Titanic Belfast, where Global Ambassador Tabi Haller-Jorden gave a talk entitled “The Alarm Works but the House is Burning Down”, a metaphor for the fact that although there are higher numbers of women in business, it remains uncertain whether the lived experience of the workplace for women is one of inclusion, engagement and opportunity. Tabi discussed the importance of perception, citing examples of situations where women and men displayed the same behavior, but saw it interpreted in a radically different way. She ended her speech by again affirming the importance of mentoring, but took a slightly new approach by encouraging reverse mentoring as well as sponsors, in which young leaders seek out senior men and women who will be their “fist on the table”, speaking up on their behalf and helping them to advance in their careers.
The following day, the women participated in a Networking Walk with IBWC participants at the Parliament Buildings in Belfast, where they reflected on the discussions from the day before and brainstormed how they could learn from the challenges cited by these leaders. By using the “tools” of mentoring and networking to encourage and support each other along the way, these women promise to help make the “new economy” a reality.
Walking together: An impact beyond Belfast
“The more steps we take together means one less woman walks alone.” Global Ambassador Katy Knox shared this adage in conclusion to the conversation she led on financial management during the women’s last day in Belfast, and it appropriately encapsulated the feelings that many of the group expressed during the final days of the eighth Global Ambassadors Program. During the session, Katy emphasized how critical it is for business owners to have a firm understanding of their company’s financials, explaining that the numbers tell a story that must be fully understood in order to successfully grow an organization. The phrase “no margin, no mission” neatly summarizes this concept. Fittingly, this was followed by a session with consultant Allison Shapira on how to effectively pitch to secure funding, which included positioning a request to meet the needs and business goals of the audience, whether it be a corporate entity, nonprofit or other organization.
Over lunch, mentors and mentees heard from Global Ambassador Sharon Dunbar and Vital Voices Chairman Susan Davis who shared reflections on their unique career experiences in the private and public sectors, including the importance of building a network for support and maintaining a separation between their personal identities and their professional lives.
As a wrap up to the week, the mentees shared some of the business strategies and coaching received from their mentors and elicited feedback from the group. Mentee Carol Fitzsimons, for example, presented her updated business plan for Young Enterprise Northern Ireland, which included the addition of a virtual advisory board that could advise her on a number of issues. Additionally, Carol’s conversations with Katy Knox as well as with Bank of America’s Global Corporate Social Responsibility Executive Andrew Plepler had contributed to her strategy on how to reprioritize which organizations to approach for funding, and she noted that the program in general had given her a new perspective, realizing connections in entities she previously thought of as separate and unrelated.
As another example, mentee Gaella Gottwald outlined various musical events, handmade crafts, and other projects she had developed with Global Ambassador Kathleen Holland in order to create a sense of “team spirit” among people of different economic and cultural backgrounds within Croatia, enabling them to see value in the arts and encourage their interest in investing in their development.
Reflections on the week
At the end of the week, the women noted the similarities in their life experiences and their various approaches to overcoming challenges, in spite of the fact that they came from different backgrounds. Many of the mentees shared a common belief that mentoring the next generation of young entrepreneurs and emerging business owners was the best way to slowly overcome political instability and regional obstacles to economic development in their respective countries. The mentees similarly noted that although the implementation of their own businesses has often been in the context of a difficult environment, this has offered the opportunity for the impact of their organizations to be one of large-scale transformation. These obstacles, as well as the possibilities that they enable, have encouraged a fierce determination in all of the women mentees, no matter their country of origin. Mentee Nurlan Silitonga shared her reflection that, “when you’re about to give up is when you closest to success.”
Ultimately, the women discussed the importance of continuing the dialogue and ensuring that the conversations in Belfast are not limited to time and place. In her parting words to the group, Ambassador Ibukun Awosika shared her belief that the conversation “doesn’t end here, we will be part of each other’s lives forever,” and noted that the women are “stronger together than they are apart.” The women have already reconnected to follow up on conversations and share their collective wisdom, continuing to walk together in order to affect change around the world.
Read more about our Global Ambassadors and their trip to Northern Ireland.