As a professional in global development and international relations, I have focused for the past several years on a process called the "Post-2015 Development Agenda. Post-2015 builds on the Millennium Development Goals, a set of goals designed just after the turn of the millennium to galvanize the world in the fight against poverty and hunger, by also tackling the social, economic and environmental challenges of the 21st Century. 

At its core, Post-2015 is about people from around the globe working together towards a better world in 2030. My meeting with Lilian, a participant in The Coca-Cola Company’s 5by20 initiative to empower five million women entrepreneurs by 2020, and her daughter Angel was a great reminder of the importance of building a better future.  

I hosted Lilian at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. to share her story with a group of representatives from civil society, government, academia and multilateral institutions. 

Ten years ago, Lilian was a young mother in a troubled marriage, and Angel was two years old. Lilian was forced to move back into her parents’ home – in the process losing all of her money and business capital to her husband, who refused to return her property. Facing business loans (she was at the time a small distributor for The Coca-Cola Company, selling 50 cases a month), her situation seemed dire. 

But Lilian is persistent, and she had a great resource in Coca-Cola, which let her use company trucks as a space to distribute. Along the way, Lilian was invited to participate in 5by20 business skills training courses and has doubled the size of her business as a result. 5by20 focuses on 3 key areas to unlock women’s economic empowerment: business skills training; access to credit; and developing networks of peers and mentors. Coca-Cola is relying on local leadership to ensure their efforts are adapted to different contexts and challenges, and leveraging the expertise of an impressive assembly of partners, such as the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), to increase the impact of the work.

Why is a large multinational company like Coca-Cola going through all of these efforts? Of course they realize it’s the right thing to do; but they also know it’s the smart thing to do. There is no better investment than in women and girls to unleash economic growth and foster sustainable development. 

When women have control over household resources, they tend to spend more on food, education and health care for their children and families, reaping broad benefits for society and future generations. From a macroeconomic perspective, sustained economic growth depends on the productivity contributions of women – more women in the labor force means higher income per capita and higher GDP. Where women are unable to contribute fully to the labor market, the economic consequences are enormous – with estimated losses as large as 27 percent of GDP in some regions. 

Despite the overwhelming evidence in favor of equality for, and empowerment of, women and girls, too many continue to face discrimination, oppression and lack of opportunity. An estimated 70 percent of the nearly billion people in the world living on $1.25 a day or less are women and girls. Women tend to get stuck in low-paying, low-security and low-status jobs, many in the informal sector. Globally, women earn only three-quarters of what men earn, even with the same level of education and in the same occupation. And they face additional barriers to business success: The IFC estimates that women-run businesses receive less than 30 percent of the financing they need from traditional sources.

While there has been great progress, significant work remains to unleash the full power of the world’s women and girls. We need equal access to quality education. We need the full and effective participation of women in our societies and economies. We need women’s rights to and ownership of economic resources and assets. We need to guarantee sexual and reproductive health and rights. We need investment in women, including through efforts such as the 5by20 initiative.

And of course, we need role models. Lilian is one such role model. She now sells 25,000 cases per month, has become one of Coke's top distributors in East Africa, and loans small amounts of inventory to other women interested in distributing. Most of all, she is an inspiration for her 12-year-old daughter, 12-year-old Angel, on whose education most of Lilian’s income is spent. Angel joined us for the discussion last week, and when one of the audience members asked her, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” she didn’t hesitate, and with a big grin she shouted, “a doctor!”

Speaking about 5by20

Next year, Angel will be 13, and in 2030, the deadline for the next set of global goals, she will be 28, and could already be a doctor (or whatever as a bright and empowered young woman she chooses to be). I told her that I look forward to welcoming her back to Washington in 2030 to share her story of success, and tell us her story of realizing her potential.

Molly Elgin-Cossart is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where she works on issues involving foreign policy, international development and global conflict. She is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.