While I was attending the Women in the World Stories + Solutions summit in New York on March 10-12, I had a chance to sit down with Lorie Jackson, Director of ExxonMobil’s global investments in women’s economic opportunities. A year ago, we spoke on the phone about ExxonMobil’s partnership with the Centre for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA) to facilitate a “mini-MBA” program for women working in community organizations in developing countries. This year we were finally able to meet in person and discuss a new path for empowering women: access to technology.
In Solar Sister Partners with ExxonMobil to Bring Light to Rural Uganda, founder Katherine Lucey and Eva Walusimbi talked about the changes solar lights have brought to communities in Uganda. Now Jackson tells me about the business logic behind the initiative, and the story of how ExxonMobil and Solar Sister came together.
“It starts with a vision,” Jackson began…
“The vision is around the type of social impact we want to have in the communities where we operate. In this case, it’s our women’s economic opportunity initiative. And then, after much consideration regarding what ExxonMobil can contribute, we develop strategies on how we want to effect change for women economically.
Based on the strategies and who’s doing very good, sustainable, high-impact work in those areas, we go to those NGOs with the requisite experience for partnership. We look for the best implementer to fulfill the vision that we have for creating change in our key communities in an impactful and sustainable way.
We have the desire to improve the quality of life in the communities where we do business, and at the same time, we realize that what we are is an energy company focused on bringing energy to the world in a socially and environmentally responsible way. We bring business acumen and select partners who have been effective in partnering with communities to effect social change.”
In 2009, ExxonMobil asked the question: what is the role of technology in the advancement of women? To find out, they first partnered with The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) to do a study. The resulting white paper, Bridging the Gender Divide: How Technology Can Advance Women Economically, determined there was a gap in women’s access to key technology. Notably the study spotlighted the importance of involving women in at least one phase of the technology development process. Even when women were the intended end user of a product or service, they were not consulted during development and critical input was absent.
For example, the paper pointed out that most low income women in developing countries work in agriculture, yet men make the decisions about using agricultural innovations, most of which have been designed for men, not women. As a result, the equipment is often too big or heavy for women to use, so they return to the original, labor-intensive, time-consuming method they had employed in the first place, severely constraining their productivity. Simply involving women in the development or even the decision-making process would have brought that issue to light right away.
Next, ExxonMobil took their findings and partnered with Ashoka’s Changemakers. Together they created the Women│Tools│Technology: Building Opportunities & Economic Power Challenge to ask the world to give them “examples of how you use technology in a way that engages women, and has demonstrated high-impact results for women economically.” 268 examples from almost 70 countries told the challengers that they were going down the right path.
ExxonMobil made pilot investments in five innovations, and continues to monitor and support these programs using graduate students from Thunderbird School of Global Management’s Emerging Markets Laboratory. Teams of six students each are working on the ground with innovators to help with marketing plans, scaling up and any other needs the organizations have. Two teams are currently in Uganda and two others will be deployed to Indonesia and Ghana this summer.
“At the end of the day,” Jackson says, “what ExxonMobil is seeking to do is identify and support the most promising models for long-term impact in advancing women economically.” Jackson and ExxonMobil don’t simply rely on research and findings, but their own experience.
“The research says that investing in women is one of the most single, high-impact, sustainable investments you can make in terms of improving quality of life. And my observations from working with women all over the world is that, when given access to training and resources, they take whatever is given and take it to the limit. They are so resourceful in making the most out of every opportunity. So the research findings that you often hear talked about in terms of women using 80-90% of their income and putting it back into their families and communities – I’ve seen that at work. I’ve seen them generate enormous amounts of resources relative to the opportunity, and then do incredible things to make their families and communities better off. And it’s our personal observations along with the research that makes us so comfortable that we’ve picked the right investment area.”
As for the future, Jackson says that ExxonMobil plans to keep an eye on their current pilot programs. Those that show success will receive continued support. In the meantime, ExxonMobil will “continue to learn and understand this space, and look for other opportunities that demonstrate a catalyzing effect when you bring technology into the lives of women.” One of the key factors the company looks for in an investment, is eventual sustainability. “The types of business models we are most interested in are ones that may need some initial support or seed capital, but have the potential to be self-sustaining, because that’s where we see the long-term benefits for women and the community. It also allows us to spread our resources much more broadly.”
In the past six years, ExxonMobil has made an impact on many women’s lives, and under Jackson’s direction, it will continue to move forward, asking new questions and finding new approaches.