THE BLOG
11/24/2014 09:34 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

Women in Business Q&A: Kathy Calvin, President and Chief Executive Officer of the United Nations Foundation

Kathy Calvin is President and Chief Executive Officer of the United Nations Foundation. Her career has spanned work in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. She is a passionate advocate for multi-sector problem-solving, U.S. leadership on global issues, and the inclusion of women at all levels and in all sectors.

Kathy was named CEO by the UN Foundation Board in 2009 and President in 2013. In those roles, she leads one of the most innovative organizations advocating for the UN and the creation of public-private partnerships. Her leadership brings together the largest network of supporters of UN issues in the United States and a global network of corporate, civil society and media partners. The UN Foundation was created in 1998 with entrepreneur and philanthropist Ted Turner's historic $1 billion gift to support UN causes and activities. The UN Foundation advocates for the UN and connects people, ideas, and resources to help the United Nations solve global problems. As a public charity with many partners, the UN Foundation's work is focused on decreasing child mortality, empowering women and girls, creating a clean energy future, using mobile technology for development, and improving U.S.-UN relations.

In 2011, Kathy was named one of Newsweek's "150 Women Who Rock the World," and in 2012, she was listed in Fast Company's "League of Extraordinary Women." Her innovative work in the philanthropy and international NGO sector was featured by the New York Times in 2011. She has received numerous other awards for philanthropy and leadership.

Prior to joining the UN Foundation as Chief Operating Officer in 2003, Kathy served as President of the AOL Time Warner Foundation where she guided AOL Time Warner's philanthropic activities and was the chief architect of the company's corporate responsibility initiatives. She joined America Online in 1997 as Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer, and was responsible for the company's brand, social responsibility, and external relations.

Immediately prior to joining AOL, she was a Senior Managing Director at Hill and Knowlton, a global public relations company, where she led the U.S. Media Relations practice. For 12 years before that, she served as Director of Editorial Administration for U.S. News & World Report, overseeing budget, personnel, innovation and strategy. From 1976 through 1984, Kathy served as Senator Gary Hart's press secretary in his Senate office and his 1984 Presidential campaign. She was one of the first women to hold that title in American Presidential campaigns.

Throughout her career, Kathy Calvin has taken an active role in a range of philanthropic activities, including the boards of the International Women's Media Foundation, City Year, Internews, the Newseum, Share Our Strength, the United Nations Association of the United States of America, and the East-West Center. She is a frequent public speaker and commenter.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
When I was growing up I saw that my mom had to give up a lot, as women of that era did, and she resented it. I guess I grew up thinking I wanted to do it all - I wanted to work, have a family and I wanted to have an impact. My parents did not impose any limits on me, they were so supportive of me doing anything, which spurred me to be ambitious.

I had a Democrat for a mother and a Republican for a father, and they loved to argue. Hearing those different, conflicting viewpoints I think nurtured my desire for consensus. Even as a child I would mediate between friends. So in my work I found ways to lead people to common solutions. And luckily I've had jobs all along that allowed me to be a business person in an area where we were making a difference.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at the UN Foundation?
I started out in politics as the press secretary to then-senator Gary Hart, worked in media relations for a news magazine, and was lucky enough to be part of the internet revolution at AOL Time Warner. So from my time in politics I understood the policy aspects of working at the United Nations Foundation, and from my press background I understood communications, specifically how to translate a message to different audiences. At the UN Foundation we are talking to so many people - corporate partners, donors, citizens, the United Nations itself, leaders, NGOs, and each other - and I think I am fortunate to have that gift of being able to communicate with these different groups. I have learned the value of repeating a message - and that you can never communicate enough.

Through my time in the private sector I learned a lot about doing business and about the power of digital engagement. It really pays off to understand the business, government and nonprofit worlds and how they do their work.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at the UN Foundation?
As an advocate for female empowerment, being able to put women and girls on the global agenda is definitely a highlight. We have promoted maternal and child health and celebrated women through campaigns like Every Woman Every Child and Girl Up, as well as through numerous other partnerships. I really enjoy bringing the potential of young people to the fore and getting the youth voice heard, whether it comes from our teen advisory council for our Girl Up campaign or from the U.S. Youth Observer to the UN who this year is Jackson Dougan. Young people can help us in so many ways, not least by showing us how to optimize social media to reach people around the world.

In terms of challenges, I didn't know much about the UN when I joined and mistakenly imagined that knowing about foreign policy was the most important thing. But I realized what you actually have to understand is the value of humanitarian work, and that is something I had to learn before I could translate it to others.

Another challenge is to continue mobilizing Americans - who overwhelmingly support the UN - to take active steps based on their support. Both the Better World Campaign and UNA-USA have connected Americans to the work of the UN, and we can proudly say we are now the number one network of UN supporters in the country. But we want to keep engaging and extending our UN Association chapters across the States.

The challenge for the future is to continue to strengthen our constituency of partners and ensure the sustainability of the work that we have begun.

In 1997, Ted Turner pledged one billion dollars to the Foundation. How is his gift making a real difference and creating a lasting legacy?
Every penny of Ted's gift has gone to supporting the work of the UN. Ted's vision was to create a platform where anybody, billionaire or not, could help the UN and be part of global problem-solving. The Foundation, which started as a grant-giver, has been able to evolve into an actively involved problem-solver. Our support from the public and private sectors has helped leverage Ted's gift to double its impact.

As a result of his philanthropy, the Foundation has been able to distribute seven million anti-malaria bed nets in 28 African countries as part of our Nothing But Nets campaign, raise $20 million for clean energy projects and help reduce polio by 99 percent worldwide. We have sent more than 50,000 thank-you letters to UN peacekeepers and awarded over 500 grants in support of empowering women and girls. Those are just a handful of examples of what the Foundation has been able to do over the past 16 years, all of which is made possible by Ted's gift and the way the gift inspired so many other people, organizations, and companies to get involved.

Our legacy is also in the relationships and partnerships we have created - each one of which has contributed to making the world a more prosperous place - and that we hope will endure. Our Global Leadership dinner last month, hosted by UNA-USA, is about recognizing the contributions these individuals and organizations make in helping the UN achieve its goals, both long- and short-term.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
The importance of building relationships. In fact this is something that I learned as a child from my dad, who was a General Electric salesman. He showed me you don't sell anything if you don't first sell yourself and build a relationship. People take things on because they trust you. I have always sought strong, trusting and mutually beneficial relationships. At the Foundation we try to be that trusted intermediary between the United Nations and partners.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
It is always a challenge to maintain that balance as a professional, and even more so as a woman. I like to pack 36 hours' worth of work into just 24 hours. I have a lot of evening engagements and I regret not having spent as much time with my family sitting around the dinner table as I would have liked. My husband and I love getting away on our motorcycle. For me, traveling thousands of miles of open road through awesome landscapes is a great release. We have specially-equipped helmets that allows us to communicate while we ride.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Inequality. Women still do not have access to the economic opportunities that men have - and that is true in America as well as in other parts of the world. Where they do, salaries can be unequal and women can feel reluctant to speak up for what they deserve. Yet women are good news for companies; research suggests giving women more opportunities in the workplace would increase productivity. Women also invest their money in their children, contributing to a next generation that is healthier and better educated.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
The best thing I have learned from a mentor is to approach work as a marathon, not a sprint. Not everything can be accomplished quickly. Investing time and energy in relationships and projects - professional or personal - will always pay greater dividend in the end.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire both the current and former heads of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo, and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who both have a vision for empowering women. Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, who sits on our board, has done incredible work to advance climate change action and sustainability and was awarded this year's Tang Prize on Sustainable Development. I applaud Melinda Gates for her support of family planning and Graca Machel, who has strived to rehabilitate children and women in Mozambique and is a force for worldwide literacy. As many of my colleagues and friends will know, I regularly hold up as an example the wise words of Eleanor Roosevelt. She asked: "Where, after all, do universal rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world." That is the essence of our work.

What do you want the UN Foundation to accomplish in the next year?
Next year is a big year for us as we mark the 70th anniversary of the UN and focus on the post-2015 agenda. Right now, the global community is working with the UN to define the next set of global goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals and take us through to 2030. We want this time to be one of inclusive consultation that encourages citizens everywhere to join the conversation. The UN's My World survey that asks people around the globe what they want for their future world is an ongoing way of making your voice heard.

Combating climate change is a key issue for us, and over the next 12 months the Foundation will be galvanizing momentum for decisive climate talks in Paris at the end of next year. The aim of those talks is to draw up an agreement on greenhouse gas emissions that will take effect in 2020.

We want to keep building strong relationships with business partners and NGOs and use their expertise to help the UN tackle issues ranging from global health to energy access, and peace and security. The Foundation - together with supporters from all walks of life -- will continue to do our part in helping make a better world.