Throughout her long and impressive business career, Gail Romero has always believed in empowering women.
The veteran nonprofit CEO was attending a talk by USAID head Rajiv Shah when an idea she had discussed years earlier with a friend suddenly crystallized for her.
“Shah was talking about how we can use technology to impact people who live on less than $1 a day,” recalled Romero. “I realized that it was more important to impact those people who live on $10 a day, because they’re the ones who can actually grow jobs.”
Romero called a friend (Dee Beaudette) and together the two Seattleites and longtime corporate and NGO executives got to work on Collective Changes. The site, which launches later this month, aims to make Romero’s 2012 epiphany a (virtual) reality.
Collective Changes will use technology — specifically, a mentoring platform called Chronus — to help women build small- and medium-sized businesses around the world. Its goal is to involve one million women by 2020.
More than a billion people in the world live in extreme poverty, defined as less than $1.25 a day. According to The Global Poverty Project, 70 percent of them are women. Romero and Beaudette see Collective Changes as a way to lift women out of poverty, and give the world economy the benefit of their creativity and work ethic.
“The bottom line is, we’ve got women who are highly educated from all over the world … and they want to give back,” Romero said. “Eighty-seven percent of women within corporations want their corporations to give back globally to women’s empowerment.”
If a small business employs five people, explained Romero, and “we can help it grow to 10 people by helping its owner just understand marketing, cash flow, a business plan, we’ve just doubled her employee base.” By replicating that success with other businesses, she added, “we’re essentially changing the dynamics of an entire community or region.”
Before Collective Changes, Romero served as CEO of MBA Women International. Beaudette, who had just returned to Seattle from Colorado Springs, was headed for the chief development officer job at MBA Women International, but she chose Collective Changes instead. The partners launched their startup with a strong vision, and their credit cards.
Romero and Beaudette revealed their intentions on LinkedIn last month. A few days later, 48 people had signed up to be “mentors,” donating their expertise in technology, networking, marketing, etc.
“Our mentors help guide the women through a six-month process of building a business plan and a marketing plan,” Romero said. Mentees can come back for a second segment, which involves shadowing a mentor. "When they’ve completed two segments, they start to become a mentor themselves," Romero continued. "So, what we’re doing is propagating the behavior.”
As women build their businesses, they also create more jobs.
“With job development, families and children are healthier and better educated," said Beaudette, "so the next generation is even better because they’re starting at a different point.”
The key to the success of Collective Changes — other than the hustle of its founding CFREs, or Certified Fund Raising Executives — is its software platform. Chronus provides templates and tracks all the benchmarks in the mentoring process, from initial signup through the creation of business and marketing plans to cash-flow analysis and goal fulfillment.
Potential mentors are coming in through university alumni associations as well as via the myriad business connections Romero and Beaudette have built up over the years. Mentors must answer a host of questions, from their areas of specialty to the languages they speak (the program can support 70 in addition to pictograms). Based on their answers, mentors get paired with mentees in need of their particular expertise. The Chronus software then follows these pairs throughout their six-month commitment. The relationships are open-ended and can continue on after that time.
Romero and Beaudette are looking at Brazil, Russia, India, China, Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa as fertile recruitment territory, because economic growth in these countries is rapid and commerce ministers are eager to suggest candidates for the program. The proliferation of smartphones, global penetration of Skype and access to computers in community centers, libraries and schools create the necessary infrastructure. The African Union already has expressed interest in signing up women.
For funding and logistical support the founders are looking to U.S. corporations. Wal-Mart is a prime target; president and CEO, Mike Duke, has said that his company “will lead with women.” The retailing giant last year named Rosalind Brewer, an African-American woman, as CEO of its Sam’s Club warehouse chain. Also on Romero’s corporate hit list: Starbucks, Amazon, Boeing, Chevron and Coca-Cola. All are committed to putting women in leadership positions.
In the end, say Romero and Beaudette, it’s all about empowerment, about helping to lift women and families out of poverty and abuse.
“When women have a job they suffer less from gender-based violence,” Romero said. “[That violence] actually can cripple a family’s income by four and a half percent. In a developing nation, gender-based violence can impact GDP by seven and a half percent. If we can alleviate that, imagine what we can do.”
Romero is a third-generation Seattle native who has headed countless organizations and spoken globally on social justice, education and the status of women. Growing up in a family of boys, she knew no limitations on what women could accomplish — until she got into the corporate world. There, men with less success than their female counterparts were being promoted.
Beaudette grew up in Montana and lived in Seattle for 27 years, where she did everything from teach at Mercer Island High School to run an international heavy-equipment shipping business out of her home. In Colorado Springs she was the CEO of Peak Education, which used a mentoring approach to help families out of poverty.
“When Dee and I first talked about this,” Romero said, “she said, ‘Gail, this mentoring piece has legs.’ Legs of steel that are going to make a huge difference.”