New Article Showcases the Benefits of Companies’ Partnerships with Grassroots Women’s Organizations

The golden triangle of business, government and civil society can create positive social change when each partner recognizes the value that the others bring to the table. Corporations are one part of this collective, contributing their business expertise in marketing and distribution to make this sort of change possible. A major strength of golden triangle partnerships is in applying the global best practices in the local context with partners who have a deep understanding of prevailing cultures and conditions.

The cover story of the new spring edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review argues that these types of partnerships can create real, long-lasting social change. Written by Marissa Wesely and Dina Dublon, “Empowering Women at the Grassroots” begins by noting the economic benefits of greater female employment; for instance, a 2012 Booz & Company study found that “raising female employment to male levels could increase GDP by [an estimated] 34 percent in Egypt, by 12 percent in the United Arab Emirates, by 10 percent in South Africa, and by 9 percent in Japan.” Guided by findings like these, many companies have been developing programs to economically empower women with “programs that provide women with skills, mentoring, access to networks and markets, and financial resources.”

But while economic empowerment is a very important component of improving women’s lives, alone it is not enough. In order to change women’s lives for the better, a “multi-faceted approach” is needed, one that takes into account social, cultural, legal, and political barriers to gender equality in addition to economic ones. The funding for such an approach is limited, and so it is crucial for companies to assess the most effective, financially efficient ways to fight for gender equality.

Wesely and Dublon contend that one of the best ways to make the most of finite resources to empower women is for companies to partner with grassroots women’s organizations (GWOs). Often overlooked by corporations seeking partners, GWOs are locally based and often women-led, so they are well-acquainted with the specific challenges that local women face. GWOs have many great benefits, such as their role as trusted community members with deep local networks and their cost-efficiency in providing services.

The authors spotlight several case studies of partnerships between corporations and GWOs that generate significant benefits for women, and Coca-Cola’s 5by20 work in the Philippines is among them. The 5by20 initiative is working to empower five million women around the world by the year 2020, and Coca-Cola’s efforts to empower women in the Philippines provide a perfect example of the power that local partnerships can have.

Coca-Cola Philippines and Coca-Cola FEMSA (its local bottling partner in the Philippines) have partnered with the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA), a Philippine government agency, to form the Sari-Sari Store Training and Access to Resources (STAR) program. The STAR program is not just a partnership of business and government; in fact, the program has more than 20 partners involved, including women’s nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and microfinance institutions.  

The very basis of the STAR program reflects an understanding of the local economy. In the Philippines, sari-sari stores are small retail outlets often operated by women, and these stores are one of the main ways that Coca-Cola products are sold throughout the country. The program gives three years of support to women who run these stores, including “training in both business skills and life skills, access to resources such as microfinance and merchandising, and peer mentoring to help the women develop skills and build confidence.” The GWOs who are partners in the STAR program—such as the Negros Women for Tomorrow Foundation, which provides microfinance and insurance products and health and education services—provide a good deal of that support, reflecting their intimate understanding of what skills and tools these women need to succeed.

These partnerships with GWOs are yielding positive, impactful results. Coca-Cola reports that in the first three years of the STAR program, which started in 2012, the program has reached more than 15,000 Filipino women. Women like Nida Bautista and Nora Ventura  have learned about self-reliance while also acquiring the financial skills and business acumen to run successful sari-sari stores.

The experiences of Coca-Cola and other corporations in forming partnerships with GWOs can provide valuable lessons for companies looking to develop strategies for empowering women. For instance, Wesely and Dublon recommend that companies work with an intermediary to help facilitate connections with GWOs. In Coca-Cola’s case in the Philippines, TESDA “has helped link Coca-Cola with local women’s NGOs and microfinance organizations” and “also jointly manages the [STAR] program with Coca-Cola Philippines and contributes training services, meeting facilities, and staff time to the effort.”

As Wesely and Dublon explain, “the pursuit of gender equality by private sector firms is increasingly understood as a win-win for women, companies, and their communities.” But simply writing a check will not guarantee the success of a company’s attempts at empowering women. Understanding the local context and building trust among its residents is invaluable, and that’s where GWOs are extremely helpful. Golden triangle partnerships with these grassroots organizations can truly maximize the resources that are available to empower women around the world.