THE BLOG
05/16/2013 02:52 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2013

How Women Can 'Lean In' to Solve the World's Social, Economic and Environmental Disparities

Amongst all the chatting and analysis over the last couple of months about Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, what struck me the most was that the predominant dialog referred to the challenges and obstacles women face when endeavoring to make their mark in the corporate world -- a world originally inspired, envisioned and organized by men!

Many women and men have the instincts and determination that fit well with the expectations of the corporate world. But, for all that corporations have achieved throughout history, there are many deep-rooted global problems that have not been solved including hunger, poverty, access to quality health care, human trafficking, human rights, fair trade and biodiversity.

These issues are complex and require leaders and visionaries who are motivated by community, equality and compassion versus power, recognition and material success.

Is it possible that women should focus their natural organizational, negotiation, long-term and contextual thinking talents toward leading efforts for solving the world's social, economic and environmental disparities?

Ms. Sandberg writes, "I understand the paradox of advising women to change the world by adhering to biased rules and expectations." Yet, one of the promising aspects of setting out to solve these aforementioned issues is that while expectations are high, the rules for the most part have not been set.

One such example of an industry where creativity is rewarded and there is deep community impact (positively or negatively) is tourism. As the largest industry in the world (albeit with its own share of conglomerates), tourism has the capability to remedy some of the world's biggest challenges.

Perhaps, by leading local or international tourism efforts, more women would be at the forefront of lessening worldwide health, education and income disparities.

What does tourism have to do with issues of health, education and income? It has everything to do with it because when there are opportunities for social empowerment and economic viability, which sustainable tourism provides, community pride will spread to all aspects of a resident's life. Fortunately, there are women tourism entrepreneurs who are 'leaning in' with civic minded and compassionate solutions, while also providing blueprints for other communities.

A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Martha "Pati" Ruiz Corzo. During the early 1980s, Ms. Ruiz Corzo was a successful corporate woman living comfortably in Mexico City. Then, she and her son began having health problems due to air pollution. The family subsequently made the decision to move to the Sierra Gorda region of Mexico, from which Ms. Ruiz Corzo's husband hailed, so that they could live a healthier and simpler way.

However, it did not take long for Ms. Ruiz Corzo to recognize the social, economic and environmental problems that plagued the Sierra Gorda region. Drawing from her professional background and natural skills, she started a grassroots environmental movement, Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda, which over the decades has transformed the natural resource management practices of the local population and reoriented public investment from government authorities. Her long list of achievements has included:

  • The declaration of Sierra Gorda as a Biosphere Reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Improving the quality of life of Sierra Gorda's residents through the establishment of regional collectives and community tourism businesses.
  • Fostering residential pride resulting in local participation in thousands of small education, restoration, productive diversification and conservation projects.
  • Creating a model for biodiversity protection and sustainable development in Mexico.
  • Pioneering the concept of attaching real economic value to natural resources in Mexico.

As Ms. Ruiz Corzo has made a difference for the Sierra Gorda region, other women such as Elena Rodriguez Blanco, Dr. Elizabeth Macfie, Deepa Willingham, Kristin Holdø Hansen and Beverly Deikel are also making a difference using their professional and personal skills to contribute to communities and steer solutions for poverty, biodiversity, education and marginalization of the poor.

  • Elena Rodriguez Blanco is co-founder of Bloom Microventures in the United Kingdom, which combines the power of microfinance and responsible tourism to fight poverty.
  • Dr. Elizabeth Macfie is a wildlife veterinarian who has setup a world-class program in mountain gorilla tourism and community revenue sharing in Uganda.
  • Beverly Deikel is the co-owner of the Rosalie Bay Resort, which is a hotel that has spearheaded restoration efforts of sea-turtle habitats on the island of Dominica.
  • Deepa Willingham is the founder of PACE Universal, which engages entire communities within the world's poorest regions to focus on educating girls holistically and sustainably thereby creating a repeatable plan for poverty eradication.
  • Kristin Holdø Hansen is the founder of Soria Moria Boutique Hotel, which is the first employee-owned hotel in Cambodia.

Ms. Sandberg also wrote, "The promise of equality is not the same as true equality." My question is why should we strive to make everyone equal? Perhaps, instead, women can apply their talents toward making a bigger impact on humanity by 'leaning in' and solving one complex problem, one community at a time.

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