Meet Alyse Nelson - President and CEO of Vital Voices Global Partnership. A co-founder of Vital Voices, Alyse has worked for the organization for 20 years, serving as Vice President and Senior Director of Programs before assuming her current role in 2009. Under her leadership, Vital Voices has expanded its reach to serve over 15,000 female leaders in 144 countries. In the frame of the Latin American Fashion Summit (LAFS), our Editor, Lizet Esquivel, had the opportunity to interview her.
Tell us, how did you hear about LAFS? Why did you decide to participate?
I was invited to the Latin America Fashion Summit by Estefania Lacayo to join two incredible, passionate, and driven women leaders in our Vital Voices Global Network: Ariela Suster and Maria Pacheco. Both Ariela and Maria are innovators creating real, sustainable, social change through their fashion businesses. Ariela, after experiencing violence from El Salvador’s civil war first-hand, founded SEQUENCE, a handcrafted accessories company that exclusively employs young people who are most vulnerable to gang recruitment.
Maria, a biologist and agricultural expert, used her expertise to create Wakami, a socially conscious fashion accessory business that connects rural communities with global markets. We came together to participate in the Latin America Fashion Summit to host a session where we could discuss the concept of using one’s power, platform, business, and voice to empower and make a positive impact.
The event itself was a moving and inspiring experience. It was so powerful to see the different elements of the fashion world – a world that touches so many people’s everyday reality – come together and really confront the way that the industry can continue to innovate and create positive change.
How did you meet Ariela? how did she get involved with Vital Voices?
Ariela first got involved with Vital Voices when she joined our business accelerator program, VV GROW. As a young entrepreneur, Ariela participated in the year-long fellowship’s customized business skills training, technical assistance, leadership development, and network access, which helped her grow her SEQUENCE business and increase her impact as a leader. She later joined our Global Ambassadors Program (GAP) – a partnership between Vital Voices and Bank of America that connects women leaders at a tipping point in their professional, business and leadership paths with established women executives for mentorship.
Since joining our global network, Ariela has been a phenomenal partner for Vital Voices. We work directly with her to provide individualized investment and exciting opportunities, such as naming her one of our 2017 Global Leadership Award Honorees and connecting her with our Board Member Diane von Furstenberg – who collaborated with Ariela on her 2017 Fall Collection and then honored her with a 2018 DVF Award. Plus, in 2018, Ariela was chosen as one of six Vital Voices women leaders who served as the inspirations for our collaboration with Target: the A New Day + Vital Voices limited-time collection.
You have a very impressive experience doing good, tell us how did you know that your vocation was to help others? and Why and when did you decide to found Vital Voices?
While in undergraduate studies at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts, I was a voracious student of women’s issues – taking any class I could that had the word “women” in the title. With this passion, I knew I wanted to create an NGO that really focused on these issues as a way to better educate myself and my peers about the problems women around the world faced.
I happened to place a call into the United Nations to learn about resources that could help my women’s issues education, was connected with someone who urged me to attend the Fourth Conference on the Status of Women, to be held in Beijing, China in 1995. After overcoming several trials and tribulations (being a 21-year-old American student trying to travel to China at that time for a gathering of women activists,) I was able to attend the conference alongside more than 55,000 other women.
The experience was a call to action to women around the world – including me.
I traveled back to Boston after the conference, where I realized I had a voice. Because of where I lived, because of the people I was surrounded by – I could speak out about the issues women face every day. That ability to use my voice was a privilege so many of the women I just met lacked. It was this realization that made me commit my life to these issues. It was this realization that taught me I needed to use my voice to draw attention to the fight for gender equality.
I went to Washington, D.C., where I started working in the White House, then transitioned to the U.S. State Department to help amplify women’s issues as part of the Clinton Administration. There, I met then-Ambassador to Austria, Swanee Hunt, who shrewdly pointed out that women in post-Soviet countries were being left out of the conversation as democracy began to take hold. She wanted to ensure that democracy was able to work for women – that everyone knew that women’s voices were vital.
I was then brought in to organize the first-ever Vital Voices Conference in Vienna, Austria, where women from around the world gathered to elevate women’s issues as priority agenda points. After that first gathering, women wanted smaller Vital Voices events in their communities and to engage with the conversation in their regions.
As the Clinton administration was coming to an ended, we knew this movement was so much bigger than one political party: we’d created a network of women around the world. That network was too powerful and too important to leave in the past. We created the Vital Voices Global Partnership as a non-profit organization to support the drive toward gender equality and really lift up the women leaders using their power to empower others.
Vital voices encourages the leadership of women worldwide, why did you focus on that instead of other topics as cancer, AIDS, etc?
At Vital Voices, we know that when women lead, change happens. Women are an integral factor to the solutions at the center of so many of the world’s problems, from healthcare to economic development to climate change and more. There are countless studies that demonstrate that when women have opportunity and access to, for example economic opportunity or jobs, the overall country’s economy benefits overall. We knew from the beginning that for the global community to ultimately find success, women needed to be considered equal members. Our goal is to elevate women leaders so that they can push for solutions that move us all forward.
In Latin America we have many issues. There are hundreds of hurt women physically and verbally, many women are murdered, and the government hasn't taken action. In this context, how can female leadership make a difference?
Women often lead differently – not necessarily better, but differently, than men. I do believe that difference that women leaders bring is precisely what’s needed in our world today.
Women are motivated by what we refer to as a driving force. They don’t seek power to have power – they are motivated to positions of power because they see a problem in their communities that they can solve. That mission and that difference helps ground women leaders, and helps them stay true to their goals within their positions of power. This, of course, is not to say that all men lead just to have power, or that all women lead because of a passion to create change, but through our network of more than 16,000 women across 181 countries and territories, this is what we have experienced.
Women leaders often collaborate across lines that typically divide. This is evident in some of our programs that combat violence against women in Latin America, such as our Justice Institutes to End Gender-Based Violence. These collaborative programs bring participants across the justice system, from judges to prosecutors, law enforcement to service providers, to promote a holistic response – focused on victim safety and offender accountability – to addressing violence against women.
We believe it is solutions and leaders that are collaborative and mission-driven that can help make a real difference.
Is there a Vital Voices representative in Mexico?
Vital Voices has a Mexico chapter, launched in 2014 by Gloria Patricia García Franco, Alicia Sierra Morales, and Luz María de la Mora Sánchez; a VVLead Fellow, Global Ambassadors Program Mentor, and HERLead Fellowship Mentor.
In addition, we have several women leaders who have participated in our programs from Mexico. This year, we’ll actually be honoring Saskia Niño de Rivera, a Mexican-American woman who founded Reinserta – an organization fighting for a safer Mexico through its penitentiary system – at our upcoming 2019 Global Leadership Awards.
Do you have any piece of advice for the young girls in Latin America?
I would tell young girls today to keep pushing for the change they want to see in the world. We’re experiencing such momentum around women’s issues today, and we need to ensure the next generation is passionate, supported, and encouraged to take on the mantle so that they can inherit the world they want.
Finally, what's fashion for you?
Fashion is a form of self-expression. Fashion allows people to put their most authentic selves forward, and helps people feel confident and comfortable in their ability to tackle what lies ahead.
For more information about Vital Voices : https://www.vitalvoices.org/