ATLANTA -- A pair of special guests took the stage Wednesday at Coke’s annual meeting of shareowners to explore an issue very important to the company’s business and society at large: women’s economic empowerment.

Award-winning journalist Maria Shriver discussed the findings of the latest Shriver Report -- A Woman's Nation Pushes Back From the Brink -- which highlights the under-reported 42 million working women in the U.S. who are on the verge of poverty and the 28 million children who depend on them.  

During a conversation with Coca-Cola Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent, Shriver said empowering women in the U.S. -- many of whom are living paycheck to paycheck and juggling the roles of breadwinner, mom and caregiver to aging parents -- will require collaborative solutions from government, business and women themselves.

For example, women -- who make up half of the U.S. workforce and 70 percent of minimum wage earners -- must learn how to manage a budget and prioritize education over family planning.

“Women today are not working for what I call ‘fun’ money,” Shriver said. “They’re working for money that makes a life-or-death difference in their family homes. Educating and empowering them is good for your business."

Shriver said men -- who are sharing parenting and caregiving duties today more than ever -- are a critical part of the equation, too. She applauded Kent and Coke for taking steps to empower women both inside and outside the company’s walls.

“To empower women doesn’t mean to disempower men,” said Shriver, who has two sons and four brothers. “I’ve learned that what women need is what men need.”

Closing the Gap Between Poverty and Plenty

Malehlohonolo Moleko, a bakery and shop owner from South Africa, also spoke about how Coke’s 5by20 program has armed her with entrepreneurial business skills training and other resources to help build her business. The single mother opened her first business in 2006 at age 32, but struggled at first to balance her books and make ends meet.

“I was clueless about what it took to run a successful business,” Moleko said. “I didn’t need a handout… all I needed was a hand up.”

She got one in 2010 when she heard about a 5by20 training workshop for women in business in 2010. She spent the next few months taking classes on time management, finance, customer relations and more. Her long hours and hard work finally began to pay off, and she has been able to put her 21-year-old son, Mpho, through college. He will graduate next April. "His future is the most important thing to me," she said.

Moleko is seen as a role model in her community and now mentors other female entrepreneurs and young girls.

“I want women in South Africa to feel they can be financially stable,” she said. “I tell them that when you are determined to work hard and wise enough to seek help from others who have been in business or been in their shoes – that anything is possible. It certainly has been for me.”

There are thousands of stories like Moleko’s across the developing world. Coke’s 5by20 program has reached 550,000 women entrepreneurs since 2010 and is on track to reach its target of 5 million by 2020.

“Whenever I travel around the world and meet our 5by20 graduates, I’m excited because I see they are always spending the money they make on the education of their children and their communities,” Kent said. “And that’s the direct link to a better business because those communities get stronger and then our business gets stronger.”

Shriver was quick to note that the challenges working women face are universal. 

“We are really one global family,” she said. “What (Moleko) is trying to do to improve her life and her family is the same thing I see when I travel all over this country and meet women working in nursing homes, as teachers, as assistants. They, too, have the same hopes, the same dreams, the same desires.”