THE BLOG
04/20/2011 02:04 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2011

The Nike Foundation on Unleashing the 'Girl Effect'

In a recent in-depth interview with Maria Eitel, President and CEO of the Nike Foundation, we discussed the evolution of the organization, the Girl Effect, learned insights of international development, philanthropy and leadership, Nike Foundation's collaboration with Peter and Jennifer Buffett's NoVo Foundation, her advice to President Obama and much more.

Maria Eitel is the founding President and CEO of the Nike Foundation where she works to unleash the girl effect, the unique potential of 600 million adolescent girls to solve poverty for themselves and the world. Prior to the Foundation, Ms. Eitel served as NIKE, Inc.'s first Vice President of Corporate Responsibility. Before Nike, she served at the White House, the Microsoft Corporation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and MCI Communications Corporation. Early in her career, she was a reporter and producer in commercial and public broadcasting. She holds degrees from McGill University (BS) and Georgetown University (MSFS), and Stanford University (SEP).

Rahim Kanani: How did the Nike Foundation get involved with investing in adolescent girls in the developing world?

Maria Eitel: We started out seven years ago with a goal to end the most pervasive and disenfranchising issue of our time -- intergenerational poverty. When we started out, girls were not the obvious answer.

A lot of exploration went into that, but the short story is that we ultimately we came to see that women were disproportionately affected and that had a huge impact on their children as well and we realized that the most critical intersection in a poor woman's trajectory was happening as she transitioned from girlhood to adulthood. Adolescent girls are the highest point of leverage, by investing in girls, you can stop poverty before it starts.

It's important to say that this is a place we landed on with the help and advice of a lot of experts. We looked around and found out that other than some investments in girls' education, people weren't really focusing on adolescent girls specifically. They were typically included in women or youth and what that really meant is they weren't included at all because there wasn't much understanding about what was unique about girls' experiences.

Even though not nearly enough was being done, there were a few innovative programs out there showing that with the right opportunities, she could finish school, marry and have children when she's ready, stay healthy and pass all of that to her future children. That's one path a girl can take.

The other more common path is where she turns 12 and all of her opportunities are shut down. She gets pulled out of school to face early marriage, pregnancy, risk of HIV infection. When that happens, things are pretty much set for her and for the next generation.

We realized to solve poverty, we'd have to get to her before she arrived at that intersection; we had to figure out how to get her on the first path. And if we could do that, it wouldn't just be an investment in her, but an investment in everyone around her.

Rahim Kanani: What inspired the creation of GirlEffect.org and how successful has the website been in both raising awareness as well as catalyzing action toward this end?

Maria Eitel: Adolescent girls have been invisible for a long time, so the first thing is really just this issue of finding ways to show the world why we need to invest in girls. That's where we were three years ago when GirlEffect.org was originally launched. At that time, we were putting a lot of effort into getting girls on the global agenda because they weren't on the radar of the CEOs, government leaders and other influential people.

The other thing is that the issues are very complex. We could talk forever about the data and programs and the factors that influence girls' trajectories, but we were missing the tools that could help people take the first step in just understanding why this is so important to all of us.

So the real inspiration was just this feeling that the world needed a rallying point, something people could get behind and make their own. The girl effect is a movement that belongs to everyone and the whole point of girleffect.org is to offer tools to help people drive that movement forward.

In terms of impact, there is a much broader understanding of "why girls" than there was three years ago, but it would be ridiculous to say that's all because of girleffect.org. I think over the last few years we've had a culmination of a lot of different people and organizations that are saying that, in terms of global poverty, we can't keep doing things the same old way and expect a different result.

And if we look at NGOs like CARE or Plan International and donor institutions like the World Bank and DFID, you can see that there are some really big players out there who are rethinking their strategies and making a real commitment to the girl effect within their organizations and on the ground. All of that taken together -- that critical mass -- is what's starting to move the needle.

It's that kind of action that inspired the latest iteration of girleffect.org which focuses on how to invest in girls and drives home the urgency that we must act now, before it's too late.

Rahim Kanani: Since becoming the foundation's first president in 2004, what are the most important insights you have learned in the context of international development, philanthropy, and leadership?

Maria Eitel: This is a great question for me because Nike itself is insight driven and that's something we as a foundation have really taken from our corporate culture.

Certainly our biggest and most important insight, the one that drives everything we do, is that adolescent girls stop poverty before it starts. And the insight within that, is that the simple answer, educate a girl, wasn't working because it didn't get at the root cause. Girls weren't being educated because their families couldn't see the return on that investment. Her potential wasn't valued. And she faces so many other barriers: nearly half of girls in developing countries are married before they turn 20. The same number bear children while still children themselves. Half of sexual assaults are against girls younger than 15. In sub-Saharan Africa, 76 percent of HIV-infected youth are female. When girls' lives are limited, everyone loses.

The near-term solution for people who are absolutely desperate for a near-term payoff is to pull a girl out of school so she can fetch water and firewood and tend to other family members. In other words, she's being used to compensate for the failure of infrastructure. Early marriage and adolescent pregnancy are big pieces of that value equation too. The minute she's seen as more valuable as a bride than a schoolgirl, the window has closed.

The other big development insight is that the system isn't working for girls. If they can't walk to school safely, if they don't have rights to their own property, if they can't choose when they get married or how many children to have, then their ability to participate is completely cut off. The system is set up to fail them.

It's not just on the ground either. As an international community, we really need to challenge ourselves and ask, "Are we really valuing girls and believing in their potential? Do our investments reflect that? And are we willing to do the work necessary to turn around such a big ship?" The need is clear: the leading cause of death for young girls 15-19 in developing countries is early pregnancy. One-quarter to one-half of girls in developing countries give birth before age 18. Early marriage remains pervasive in many parts of the world. The Amhara Region in Ethiopia, for example, has one of the highest rates of early and forced childhood marriage on the planet -- 50 percent of the girls there will be married by the age of 15 and 80 percent will be married by the age of 18.

Rahim Kanani: With Peter and Jennifer Buffett's NoVo Foundation investing nearly $50M in your work and your leadership, what does that tell you about not only the Buffett's, but also the efforts of the Nike Foundation?

Maria Eitel: Jennifer and Peter have been on this journey with us almost since the beginning. Jennifer and Peter believe deeply in girls' potential, just as we do and chose to invest in us and use their resources to enhance what's already being done. Peter likes to say that what he learned from his dad "is to pick winners and invest in them." Of course, in this case that winning investment isn't just the Nike Foundation, it's adolescent girls.

The other piece that says a lot about the Buffets is how they work with us. They bring a deep spirit of collaboration to everything they do. They're on our Board of Directors and they are very involved in the direction of our work together. One of the things I've appreciated as part of that is their commitment to experiencing things first-hand on the ground; they approach it with such a sense of humility, which I think gives them a genuine understanding of girls' realities.

As for what their investment says about the Nike Foundation, it's been an important and very public endorsement of our approach. Jennifer and Peter have enabled us to double our capacity and their contributions -- both financial and intellectual -- have been central to the creation of the Girl Effect and our ability to get assets into the hands of girls.

Rahim Kanani: How can we better involve the role of boys and men in a conversation about advancing girls and women, and how they can contribute to realizing "the girl effect"?

Maria Eitel: The role of men and boys is one of my favorite things to talk about because they are critical to the success of girls, and at the same time the success of girls is absolutely essential to the success of boys and men.

I always say that we can't possibly expect to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty if half the population is left behind. That goes for girls as well as boys.

Let me give an example. One of our very first grants was to an organization called Promundo in Brazil. Over time, they've has shown reductions in gender-based violence and increased HIV/AIDS awareness through educational programs that target boys and young men. These are improvements that benefit everyone.

At the community level, men and boys are so often the gate keepers and the champions that determine whether a girl succeeds or not. They are the essential partners in making real progress and they must be seen that way.

Programmatically, organizations need to look carefully at the impact their programs are having on girls -- and if they are actually reaching girls at all. A study conducted by the Population Council in Ethiopia found that 58 percent of those that benefited from "youth" programs were male (42 percent female) and the majority of the participants were over 15. Only 22 percent were girls 10-14 and these were not the most vulnerable -- 56 percent live with two parents, 93.4 percent unmarried, 78 percent in school.

Finally, at the global level, we definitely want to see men and boys understanding that the girl effect is about everyone. The World Bank is about to put out a study that talks about the opportunity cost of not investing in a girl. So it turns out if girls in Nigeria could finish secondary school they'd add 40 billion dollars to their national economy over their lifetimes. And if young women in Paraguay had jobless rates similar to those of young men, annual GDP growth rates would be 3.3 percentage points higher.

Numbers like these pop up all over the world and they tell us when girls are excluded, we all lose. If we're interested in global economic growth then all of the male business and government leaders need to get behind the girl effect, and so do all of the fathers, brothers and male teachers in all of the world's communities.

Rahim Kanani: What have been some of the successes of the Nike Foundation's investments in adolescent girls in countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, and so on?

Maria Eitel: The experiences and the contexts girls live differ from one area to another. In Ethiopia, many of the girls our programs reach live in rural settings, sometimes far away from the nearest road. In Kenya, it can be urban slums that are home to a million people in a space as big as New York's Central Park (checked -- the size reference is correct). In Liberia, it's a post-conflict setting where many of the programs that existed before targeted male ex-combatants while girls were left behind.

The one thing that never changes is girls' potential. Wherever you are, whatever the context, girls prove that they have the potential to rebuild their families, communities and countries.

Today we have programs like Berhane Hewan in rural Ethiopia -- communities where girls have hardly any chance. By 15, they're more likely to be married than in school. The program uses incentives -- things as simple as a school supplies -- along with rewards and community dialogue to delay child marriage and change attitudes about girls. So far more than 11,000 girls have been able to delay marriage and stay in school. Not one girl aged 10 to 14 was married during the pilot program period and participating girls were 90 percent less likely to be married than other girls in the community of the same age. It's worked because it relies on a transformation of the entire community, not just the girl. The result is sustainable change. Our original investment is now being scaled up with partners to reach far more girls.

In Kenya, our partners are working in one of the world's most dangerous places for a girl to live: a Nairobi slum called Kibera. Without assets, a 12-year-old in Kibera is nothing more than a target. Binti Pamoja offers safe spaces for a girl to connect with other girls and learn about reproductive health, finances and other basic life skills. When girls finish the program, they establish new safe spaces throughout Kibera and widen the network of safe, supported and informed girls. Prior to 2006, very few physical spaces in Kibera were safe for girls and only 1 percent of girls had participated in a girl-only program. The program started with 40 girls, and grew into a program of 1,000 girls in 30 groups across all 13 villages of the Kibera slum. The Binti girls use their extensive friendship network and role models to have a saving account, insist on condom usage and resist sugar daddies.

When girls have a support network and the opportunity to earn and save money, they stop engaging in transactional sex, thereby reducing their risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, along with pregnancy. When girls participate in group microfinance programs, such as our Ishaka program with CARE in Burundi, they expand their network of friends, feel more confident and respected, increase HIV testing, avoid transactional sex, and increase condom use. The opportunity makes the difference -- a recent World Bank cash transfer program in Malawi demonstrated that small amounts of direct cash payments to girls decreased their HIV prevalence rate by 60 percent compared to peers.

In Liberia, the World Bank's Adolescent Girls Initiative is connecting older girls to employment opportunities linked to labor market demand. There's no training for useless occupations. We work with the private sector to identify what skills are needed and for what jobs. Girls also receive life-skills training to address some of the major barriers to development including early marriage, pregnancy, social isolation, and violence.

These are all examples in Africa, which is what you asked about, but the girl effect is everywhere. The Adolescent Girls Initiative is already spreading around the world -- to Afghanistan, Jordan Lao PDR, Nepal, Rwanda and South Sudan to start. And we've seen amazing girl effect programs everywhere from Brazil and Paraguay to China and India. Like I said, the girls are different, but their potential is not.

BRAC Bangladesh's innovative economic empowerment programs show girls are as credit-worthy as any other market segment, if not more so: 70 percent of girls (usually older girls) took loans ranging from $7 to $440 with a 98 percent recovery rate. A third of the girls invested the loans in their own businesses, while a majority invested and participated in some aspect of their family's business. BRAC is replicating the program in Uganda and Tanzania with similar results. Other investments with Save the Children, CARE and the Population Council show equally powerful findings.

Rahim Kanani: How would you describe the biggest impediment to the realization of "the girl effect" across the developing world, and what is the most effective way of dealing with this impediment?

Maria Eitel: It's hard to pinpoint one because there are quite a few. At first, girls weren't counted at all, so we had no evidence base to work from. That's why one of our early investments was in Girls Count, a series of reports that pull together everything we know about girls.

Things have changed some the data realm, but not nearly enough. Until people realize that just disaggregating data by gender will never tell us what we need to know about a 12-year-old girl's unique circumstances, we're never going to be able to realize her full potential.

Also, for a long time, there was a sense that this issue was "nice," but not necessary. All of the evidence says this is a whole lot more than "nice." Girls are at the center of every issue the world cares about, and that's something that people are starting to understand, but not enough.

That's actually the impediment that worries me the most. I worry that no matter how much progress we make, somehow girls will be the "issue of the day." I worry that this will become popular to talk about and people will tweak things a little bit, but then they'll move onto something else. That can't happen.

This is urgent and everyone is losing. To change her life and her possibilities, she then transforms every child who will be born into poverty. She has the opportunity to break that intergenerational cycle and that's very unique to an adolescent girl. What happens to her at that transitional moment will determine whether her family is on an upward spiral or a downward spiral.

It can't be a side issue and it can't be in fashion. It's like saying unemployment or the economy are nice issues to tackle. It cannot be relegated to just "nice" or we will all fail.

Rahim Kanani: What has surprised you the most about your work?

Maria Eitel: We put a lot of effort into convincing people why they should invest in girls. It was only a few years ago that girls couldn't be found on a conference's agenda -- even a women's conference. So I guess you could say I was surprised that within 4 or 5 years, girls are front and center at influential meetings like CGI and Davos, and people are really starting to get it.

There have been interesting learnings throughout our investments -- one area I might call out is around our men and boys portfolio, which is comprised of programming that engages men and boys directly to address issues such as gender equitable attitudes and behaviors and reducing gender based violence.

There is consensus on why it's important to involve men and boys in programs that aim to promote gender equality and reduce gender based violence; there's less agreement on how. Few programs have been rigorously evaluated; however, key lessons from the field tell us that unless programs purposefully include content on gender inequalities, the conversation rarely begins. Even more important, we're seeing a shift away from the idea of engaging men and boys as simple instruments of girls' empowerment toward the idea that everyone benefits from a more gender equitable society. We're seeing this in many of our programs like Tostan, Promundo, Family Violence Prevention Fund, ICRW India and PATH.

Rahim Kanani: If President Obama granted you an audience in the process of revamping the U.S. foreign aid program, what would your advice be?

Maria Eitel: I'd probably have to be pretty blunt because this is an emergency. I'd tell him we have to completely change the way we're doing things if we want to make progress. If he seems reluctant, then I'd remind him that his White Sox turned baseball on its head when they turned to a committee of closers in 2005, the year they won the World Series after an 88-year wait.

Fortunately, in the case of development, we have the solution and we know how to unleash it.

Girls are the single most important investment we can possibly make. What happens to an adolescent girl impacts everyone around her and every single aid objective we have. They alone will solve poverty, education, health, hunger, HIV, population and climate change, and every other issue our nation cares about.

Girls are the farmers, community leaders, business people and governors of the future. We need to invest in them as if we really believe that.

I'd also tell him, quite frankly, that the world needs to stop assuming that girls are already being addressed. Programs designed for youth or women don't work for girls because girls' circumstances are so unique they can't be bolted on elsewhere. On the other hand, addressing adolescent girls specifically contributes to solving other issues. Let's take early childbirth as an example: when the first child is born to a young mother (12- to 20-years old), the child is at a greater risk of dying before the age of five, being stunted, being underweight, and suffering from anemia. So when we address adolescent pregnancy, we address significant health issues at the same time.

We also need to stop acting like we have to change the issues we're dealing with. That's not the case at all. Whether it's agriculture or governance or health or economic growth, all of those are places where girls play a critical role. If we invest in those areas, just build girls in specifically instead of bolting them on at the end and hoping for the best. They must be built into every strategy we have. They're the ones most impacted and they're the ones with the most potential to change things.

And since she's the most vulnerable, if it works for her, it will work for everyone. That's a pretty good return on investment.

Rahim Kanani: And lastly, what are some of the projects or initiatives on the horizon for the Nike Foundation in the coming years?

Maria Eitel: For us, it's really going to be about moving away from why and toward how to do more for girls. In some ways that's going to show up in providing resources for people to do more for girls, better.

This also means that girls themselves are going to be very involved every step of the way. We don't see girls as simply an end user. They know better than anyone what barriers they face and what resources they need to overcome them. When girls are central actors in the design process it also creates opportunities to develop connections between girls where they can share and collaborate with each other, ultimately working to solve problems themselves.

Another area where we expect to focus a lot of attention is on the role of technology in unleashing the girl effect. Whether it's used to foster organizational transparency and knowledge sharing between institutions or to connect girls to information, ideas and other girls, technology is an incredibly powerful force in developing countries. In the coming years, we'll definitely see technology's increasing presence in our programming.

On the advocacy front, it's about constantly saying, "no more excuses." We know why to do this and we know how to do this. The trick now is to do it at scale. That's what's really going to change the world and that's going to require collective will and commitment.

Finally, a natural next step is to find ways to scale up these amazing programs we've been supporting over the last seven years. We know it's going to require strong partnerships with governments and institutions, so that's a huge priority for us.

DFID, the UK's Department for International Development, has already emerged as a powerful partner in that way. They've made a commitment to scale up Berhane Hewan in Ethiopia from 11,000 girls to 200,000 girls by 2015. If that's successful -- and we have great cause for optimism -- then we could ultimately to the program could possibly scale countrywide. That potential is obviously really exciting for all of us, but we constantly remind ourselves that there are 600 million adolescent girls out there, so there's still a lot of work to be done.

This in-depth interview is part of a larger series on advancing women and girls worldwide. Please click here for more interviews with global leaders working to empower and advance women and girls around the world.

Cross-posted with World Affairs Commentary