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High-level female empowerment platform inspires confidence, change, and social innovation

Interview - November 14, 2015

Launched in 2009 and held annually in the G20 host country, the G(irls)20 Summit was held this year in Istanbul on October 5-6. Empowering a new generation of female leaders through entrepreneurship, education and global experiences, founder and President of G(irls)20 Farah Mohamed provides some inspirational results of the summits and explains “there is no other organization in the world that does what we do at this level – place girls and women at the heart of the economic decision making and yield the benefits in doing so.”



What is the G(irls)20 Summit?

G(irls)20 is a unique economic platform that economically empowers girls and women around the world. We place the issue of female labor force participation squarely on the agenda of the G20. We were the first to do it at that level.


In 2014, the G20 adopted the “25 in 25” goal. What role did G(irls)20 play to help bring female participation in the labor force into the spotlight? Is it something attainable?

G(irls)20 is part of a collaborative approach across the globe to get this issue moving forward. When we went to the Clinton global initiative in 2009, we were among the first to pinpoint women labor force participation as a key to economic growth. However, there were others who talk about this issue at the grassroots level, they talk about it at the policy, political and elected levels, and at the business level. If that perfect storm had not been going on, we probably would not have gotten to the point where we are now with the G20 elevating the issue.

The goals are attainable if everyone does their part. The G20 has a goal, but the private, social profit sectors and individuals themselves have to do things differently if we are going to get there. We have to change the way we think, change the investments we make, we have to take risks. We cannot just put all the burden of delivering this goal on governments. Everyone knows that the government does not make the jobs, the government creates the climate for creating the jobs. I do believe that the goal is achievable, if everyone understands that they have a role to play.


Do you think that Turkey has the credibility to take the lead on this issue knowing that the participation of women the labor force is very low? Is it doing enough to improve the role of women in the workplace?

I think that in any country, there are still a lot of things that need to be done in terms of getting more women into the work force – a comment that is not exclusive to one country. There is not one country of the G20 that is where they need to be in terms of female labor force participation. Looking at the conversations that have taken place at the B20, they absolutely have the credibility. They have a plan, and they understand the problem and the situation that we are all facing. They know that there has to be ways of doing things differently. So when it comes to accepting responsibility for moving the issue forward, the answer is “yes” but the G20 Communiqué 2015 will better answer this question.


How do you differentiate yourself from W20?

Some would say that it is does not make sense to have two of the same organizations working at the same time. Yes, we do have the same goal – let’s get more women working. G(irls)20 has a singular focus – we pushed for a quantified commitment from the G20 and now that we have one (100 million new jobs for women by 2025) we are focused on three main areas:

1) The future of jobs. So we are creating jobs that will last for a long time – not short-term jobs. Well-paying jobs that the ILO would call “decent work”.

2) We are looking at our barriers. Not just education. Everybody knows that education is a big barrier, but what are the other barriers. There are political, cultural and security barriers. There has never been a more important time to talk about these three areas than there is right now because it affects a lot of countries not just Turkey.

3) The third area we are looking at is best practices. We know that there are things working in certain countries and sectors. So, why don’t we gather the information and see where it applies. We are not saying that what works in China will work in Canada – what we are saying is if we know that there are things working, why are we not sharing those and then customizing them. So we are looking at best practices in terms of what the government, the private, and social profit sectors are doing.

For example, we know that when a woman owns a piece of land and she is a farmer, the yield that comes from that land is higher. So why wouldn’t we designate a certain percentage of government-owned land for ownership by women. In some countries, women are not allowed to own land. So the first issue that needs tackling is ownership and inheritance. Then, we have to make sure that women have access to land. We all know capital is an issue. What if the government was going to designate 10% of available land for women to farm – you have now made them small business owners. In doing so, they would be doing something about food supply; the numbers on poverty and hunger will fall. So there are lots of things that people can do that have trickledown effects – and this is what we are focusing on.

G(irls)20 is really about working on a goal: 100 million women by 2025. For that, everyone has a responsibility. The governments have given us their commitment – it is now up to us to respond.


Do you work closely with W20?

We have been in touch and I attended their launch. I do think that it is important for us to work together – each should know what the other is doing. I believe in the importance of having multiple views on this issue and as long as we are working together. G(irls)20 has been working really hard on this issue for six years, and for them to say that there is a need to put an engagement group in place on a more permanent level is a success for us and many other organizations.


How are the delegates chosen?

We work with more than 40 organizations around the world to ensure that every young woman between the ages of 18-23 has the opportunity to apply. The application is also disseminated through our partners, social media, and we do as big a blitz as we can because our key to success is diversity. The applications have 10 questions and are based on their own achievements, their level of commitment, ideas, creativity, innovativeness and how ambitious are they. A loaded question at the end of the form asks the applicant what they are going to do once they go back to their own countries after the end of the summit. It may be launching a social profit venture or initiative or join somebody else’s – they have to do something to give back. What they give back on, the way that they do it, and whatever passion they want to fulfill is their own idea done in collaboration with a coach. As mentioned, diversity is the key. We don’t know their academic standing or whether they are rich or poor. We pick them based on the answers and the video interview. They also send in a clip when they can as well as a reference letter. Once, we had the daughter of a diplomat sitting right next to the daughter of a coal miner and honestly, you would not be able to them apart because both are smart and ambitious. They may dress differently, but it does not mean that their brains are any less powerful.


How do you monitor their progress?

When they go back to their countries, they are given a coach. We have a designated staff that deals with delegates, and does regular check-ins with them, spotlights them on our website, and includes them on our news releases, as well suggests them for speaking engagements. This ensures that they are accountable to us and we keep them engaged. We connect them to each other through our closed Facebook page with all of the other former delegates. Some of them even decide to team together. On our main Facebook page, there is a link to delegate initiatives page under Summit, you will click a map and see what these delegates have done.


Can you tell us how G(irls)20 are investing in each of the delegates in the G20 Summit?

We have a pre-summit program that sets them up for success. Once chosen, we build them an online profile. We start connecting them to each other. Then, we immediately get them teamed up with a communications coach. Burson-Marsteller provides media and communications training. This is when they start to develop their narrative and by the time they get to the summit, each will actually be able to give an elevator speech on what they would say to a G20 leader.

Each delegate also goes through the Myers-Briggs assessment. Norton Rose Fulbright came to us wanting to be a partner and not with just mere stage presence. They were the ones who suggested the Myers-Briggs Tool and upon completion, the delegates get a one-hour debriefing with a professional Myers-Briggs practitioner. Norton Rose Fulbright then conducts a four-hour workshop on leadership in the host country.

They start to get published and get their own blogspot on Huffington Post. We get them on a spot where there’s a level of confidence. We are after all asking them to be leaders. We are creating this group of delegates that we invested in, and continue to invest in even as they leave to go back to their own countries.


How do you choose your partners?

We have different partners who contribute different things. We choose our partners not based on how much money they are going to give us but on how much content they are going to be able to bring to the table.

They have got the expertise; the delegates need expertise that they are not going to be able to get in school. We put them together and amazing things can happen.


How do you measure the success of the summit?

During the pre-summit part, we put them all in a room together. Some of them might have met one or the other on the way to the summit, but that would be the first time that these girls met collectively as a group. You can see the enthusiasm, the fear and nervousness in each of them as they all sit in a circle. My team and I then come in and I shake the hands of each and every one of them. If it does not go well, we repeat the handshake. We do this again and again until we get it right because the most defining moment when you meet somebody is when you shake their hands. By the time they leave the summit, they go from being timid and shy to being confident. That to me is a game changer, the way they see themselves and how they carry themselves. It may not seem important, but that affects how you negotiate in life, how you present yourself to others; it will affect what you go after and how you go after it. I believe that it makes a difference.


Can you highlight some of the success stories of your delegates?

One delegate went back and challenged the media norms in Italy. Consistently and credibly such that there have been changes in how the media portrayed women in Italy.

Another decided that illiteracy was truly the one thing that was holding people back. She got a bus donated, ripped the seats out, put up shelves and loaded it with books. She and some other volunteers would then drive to the slums of Indonesia and read to the girls there. She did this with absolutely no funding from us. She worked with some partners and got it done.

Another delegate, launched a foundation that put her in front of the Nike Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative. She got a scholarship and is now in her first year at Harvard.

There are others who have looked at the issue of mental health and are trying to work with the government on how to provide mental health to people at a younger age. She’s young to do that but she sees it as a massive factor on why people are not working.

It is really incredible how they have chosen what is important for them and for their country and found a way to move it forward. I am really proud of them all. I cannot wait to get to the point when we will feature a particular delegate who has become successful in her chosen path.

However, their success is not all because of G(irls)20. I am not that naïve nor egocentric, but I do think that there is something that we have done that encourages them to pursue their passion.

Now, not every delegate has done something. Most will be disappointed by that, not us. I think that our return on investment is quite high in the 70s. Which I think is phenomenal.


Can you tell us about the objective of the “Fathers empowering daughters”

It comes from both an emotional and a very practical place. I believe that there are people who believe that women should move forward the advancement of women, with women, by women, and for the benefit of women alone. I am not one of those people. I have never been. I believe that when you get people together, no matter who they are, what gender they are, how old they are, what they look like and what they sound like, a product will be much stronger. Well, you take that idea, and you apply it to the advancement of women.

You constantly hear that men have the levers of power or that the father can shape the future of his daughter. So, why not use that to your advantage. That is the practical part of “Fathers empowering daughters”. The part that put me over the edge to do it was my father. I come from a family who came to Canada as refugees. My parents were very pretty comfortable in Uganda, but they were kicked out of their country. They started very difficult lives as they were left with no money, no collateral, no identity, a couple of kids, and a couple of suitcases. They both worked so hard but I was too young to understand that they were struggling. My mom was at home and she ran her own business from home but my father was not around. So, I built it in my mind that he was not around. So when I went to school at what is considered an Ivy League in Canada, which I got a scholarship from. What I did not get from the scholarship, my parents paid for. I remember this day when they dropped me off at school, and he said “this is why I worked hard” and it stuck with me; I grew up in a family that was encouraging and loving. If I told them that I wanted to be a full-time juggler in a circus, they would have tried to dissuade me, but they would not have stopped me.

My idea was fathers do have the ability to empower daughters. So we called in some favors and people agreed. Now, since we have the high-profile people, success in this campaign for me would be to get this as grass-roots as possible to fathers and daughters speaking whatever language, wearing whatever they want and telling their own stories.


What motivated you to take this position and to work with these girls?

It comes down to one thing, but I will say that I love what I have done in my life. I have worked in politics and have been in the social profit sector for a while now. I have learned a lot about human behavior, ambition, drive and what it really means to be an entrepreneur and what it means to take risks. I met people you read about in magazines and people whom you will never read about in magazines. Somehow in between, it came to me that my role was to create a platform where my network together with my passion to be around young people, particularly young women, and my focus on the international sphere just sort of collided. This all started when I was working with Belinda Stronach and she gave me the license to be creative, and when somebody gives you license to be creative, amazing things can happen.

At that time, the G20 was being hosted in Canada; there was a lot of pressure on me to come up with the program. I tried to figure out how we would not duplicate nor compete because there are a lot of people in this space. You want to be respectful of that space. I am lucky that I have an ability to be creative and encouraged to be creative, and the fear of not being creative is a kick in the pants for me.

Added to that is my firm belief in timing. Which is why we chose the ages 18-23, it is the crucial time in the development of the girl’s life. It is also why we do our summit six weeks before the G20 leaders, so that we have time to lobby them with the advocacy ideas that came from the delegates.

For us, G(irls)20, came at the perfect time that people were starting to talk about it but it was not at its height. We knew that we needed to change the way we engage women and we can change the way we engage men, and most importantly we needed to engage the private sector and government leaders in a way that they would see that it made economic sense. One thing people don’t always realize about G(irls)20 is that we are focused on the economy. As far as I know, there is no other organization in the world that does what we do at this level – place girls and women at the heart of the economic decision making and yield the benefits in doing so.