12/04/2013 12:55 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2014

Invest in Women. Improve the World

With Thanksgiving behind us, the holiday season is officially underway. This is a time for looking back. We look back at the year that's passed; at the goals we set; at triumphs and accomplishments; at challenges faced, and at the miles we've traveled. It is also a time to look forward, beyond the traditional gift-giving season, to a longer-term vision; to new goals and new challenges; to a practice of giving back in ways that have impact, sustainability, and make a real difference.

As President and CEO of Vital Voices Global Partnership, I travel the world speaking to people of all sorts about the power of investing in women leaders. Our motto is simple. "Invest in women. Improve the world." That's not just a line. It's a strategy we've been enacting for over fifteen years. We search the world for extraordinary women leaders, and we devote our resources, skills, and connections to their success. This strategy of investment has paid off. And I believe we can do more.

I am not alone in this belief. In fact, when the world's richest man -- Warren Buffett -- joined Twitter this May, one of his first tweets was an appeal to corporate America to invest in women. Moreover, in Fortune magazine, he wrote, "Fellow males, get onboard. The closer that America comes to fully employing the talents of all its citizens, the greater its output of goods and services will be."

He's right, of course, but not only in America. These words are true for every country in the world. Research from the World Bank, Ernst & Young, and other institutions indicates that the real drivers of the global economy are women. As business leaders, employees, consumers, and entrepreneurs, women are accelerating economic growth and improving conditions in their communities. Still one of the most astonishing statistics -- for every dollar earned by a woman in emerging markets, 90 cents will be invested in the education and health of her family. Looking back, we can see that as a pattern. Looking forward, we can see a recipe for transformational change in a generation.

Yet despite the proven benefits of women's economic engagement, women business owners continue to face disproportionate barriers in growing their businesses. They have difficulty accessing credit, technology, training, and equal protection under the law. Vital Voices works with a global network of women business leaders to grow their small and medium enterprises. Together, we target gender-based obstacles and attempt to level the playing field. These are women with a vision. Our programs simply help them take that vision to scale.

But it's not just about economic investment. It's also about opportunity and security.

Around the world, violence against women is still far too common. Consider this -- for every ten victims of gender-based violence worldwide, only one conviction is made. That is hardly justice. That's why our team advocates alongside leaders like Prudence Galega, who works with local judges, prosecutors, and police in Cameroon to make new laws and to ensure those laws keep their promise. This work is urgent. Right now, women, aged 15-44, are more likely to be maimed or to die from sexual violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined.

Perhaps if there were more women in parliaments around the world we would be in a better place, but when we count the women in political positions, the numbers speak for themselves. Women hold just one out of five parliamentary seats. That is not enough. We work closely with our network to amplify the influence of women leaders in public life -- from local councils to the highest levels of government -- to ensure that transparent, inclusive, and transformational leadership is recognized and valued and that this style if leadership is modeled for the next generation of girls who seek to lead.

The truth is deep investments take time, but we've seen this strategy yield significant returns. Women leaders in our network are transforming communities, countries, even cultures.

Looking back, Kakenya Ntaiya's quest to educate girls earned her international recognition as one of CNN's Top 10 Heroes of 2013. As the first girl from her Maasai village to go to college, Kakenya earned a PhD and then returned -- as promised -- to build the first residential primary school for girls. She dreamed of changing a way of life for all the girls of her village. Building the school was an accomplishment, but the real achievement is that she has educated a community. To date, every girl attending the Kakenya Center for Excellence has escaped genital mutilation, early marriage, and early childbirth.

Our investments in women leaders across 144 countries from Kenya to Argentina, Russia to Cambodia are having impact and creating positive changes not just for the women we work with, but for their communities and future generations too.

So, at this time of giving, please look forward; give wisely; invest deeply. There has never been a better time.

Invest in women. Improve the world.

Vital Voices Global Partnership is based in Washington, DC. For more information on their work and how to invest in women on the front lines of change, please visit