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Meet The League Of Extraordinary Women: 60 Influencers Who Are Changing The World

June 27, 2012
The previously untold story of how an unprecedented network of high-achieving women from the world’s largest companies, innovative startups, philanthropic organizations, government, and the arts combined forces to change the lives of girls and women everywhere.
Every change agent needs an agency. Fast Company has chosen 60 notable members of the League of Extraordinary Women and the organizations, both for-profit and not-for-profit, that are their vehicle to tackle areas of dire need, such as developing the next generation of female entrepreneurs. Click here to see the full list.

BY ELLEN MCGIRT 

ALL PHOTOS BY MIKE MCGREGOR

Act One

IGNITION

They needed the cows.

Maria Eitel, CEO of the Nike Foundation, is starting her tale at the beginning of her eight-year journey to save the world’s girls. She is telling me about one 13-year-old in particular, the very one who inspired her to invent the Girl Effect, a global initiative that in less than a decade has created or supported groundbreaking programming and research that has put the often-terrifying needs of indigent girls in the toughest parts of the world on the global agenda. “I was in this ridiculously poor part of Ethiopia,” says Eitel, whose title at the time was vice president of corporate responsibility at Nike. The founder and CEO, Phil Knight (along with future CEO Mark Parker), had tapped her to create a not-for-profit arm–but had not dictated a mission. Eitel was in the midst of a yearlong exploration to determine how to make the biggest impact.

In Ethiopia, she followed this girl, named Kidan, through her entire day, watching her strap a filthy jerrycan to her back and haul water, then grind grain as she sat in the dirt. “She was amazingly smart,” recalls Eitel, who likes to talk about creating “that moment of inspiration when you know that a girl believes in herself.” She calls it “ignition,” and Kidan had it–she wanted to be a doctor. “She was such a bright light,” says Eitel. “But we learned that it’s not enough.”

When Eitel spoke to Kidan’s mother about her dreams for her daughter, she found out that the child had already been committed to be married, in exchange for cattle. The mother did not share Eitel’s dismay. “Once I was a girl,” she told Eitel. “One day, there was this commotion and they picked me up and put me on a donkey and that was my wedding. I never saw my family again. So Kidan will just have to be strong.” Kidan’s hope for a career–for anything like the self-directed life that Eitel, and probably any reader of this magazine, believes to be a human right–was effectively over, just as her mother’s had been not so long ago. And her survival? Well, her marriage commitment placed that in greater doubt: In sub-Saharan Africa, says Eitel, more than 90% of deaths related to pregnancy are among adolescents. They needed the cows.

This experience, as well as hundreds of conversations with economists, villagers, NGO leaders, and industry titans, led Eitel to pitch the Nike board on her concept: The mission of the Nike Foundation should be to arrest intergenerational poverty by focusing on girls, with a particular emphasis on ending child marriage. She remembers the gremlin that whispered in her ear as she nervously waited outside the 2004 meeting where she was to make her case:“Hey, Nike! Let’s invest in adolescent girls and poverty! And not in any country where we have factories or businesses! Let’s go to places like Ethiopia and northern Nigeria, where no one else dares go!” After a perilous few moments of silence, Knight gave her the thumbs-up, the flick that ignited an essential part of a movement.

Eitel, 50, is a charter member of what we’re calling the League of Extraordinary Women. This interconnected group of executives, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, artists, government officials, and academics is formulating groundbreaking initiatives and hacking long-outdated aid models by tapping new thinking and a growing data set that suggests that investing in girls and women will create measurable economic benefits for all. Multiple studies over the past decade indicate that the facts are unquestionably on their side: If you train a woman in a particular skill and give her a microloan, or a way to build up some savings, she is more likely than a man to use her income to educate and care for her family and invest in the community. In rural Africa and India, one year of secondary schooling can raise a girl’s future wages by 10% to 20%. In Kenya alone, the cost of early pregnancies and limited schooling of girls is an estimated $3.4 billion in gross income–equivalent to that country’s entire construction sector.

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