How Maria Eitel, founder of the Nike Foundation, adapted her ambitious vision [Lessons from Leaders]


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The Nike Foundation – the charitable arm of the multinational sportswear company – launched the Girl Effect in 2008, based on the belief that the real power to transform poverty comes from girls.

How did founder Maria Eitel successfully scale her ambitious vision, and what lessons can she teach us to inspire real change?

What is the Nike Girl Effect?

Some girls in developing countries face daunting challenges. Their lives could be plagued by forced teenage marriages, teenage pregnancies, HIV, lack of education and ultimately fewer opportunities for meaningful employment. With such immense hurdles to overcome and potentially large families to support, the plight of these girls is often tied to entire communities that are trapped in intergenerational cycles of poverty.

COVID-19 sweeping the planet has only made matters worse. It is estimated that the pandemic could result in 47 million women and girls losing access to contraceptives and 20 million girls never returning to their classrooms.

The Girl Effect, Nike’s main charitable goal, confronts this problem head-on. It works in 20 countries in Africa and Asia to improve the lives of 250 million adolescent girls through various partnerships and programs that address poverty, ill health and abuse.

The idea behind the movement is that investing in girls – or, as Maria Eitel describes them, “untapped resources” and “economic powerhouses” – before it is too late (20 years) will have a ripple effect on families, communities and nations.

They invest, for example, in programs in rural Ethiopia, where 15-year-old girls are more likely to be married than in school. Here, incentives like school supplies as well as community dialogue have delayed child marriage for thousands of girls. Another program saw the creation of safe spaces in Kenyan slums for girls to connect with other girls and learn about reproductive health, finances and other life skills. An AI-powered chatbot called Big Sis has been developed to give girls a source of private, non-judgmental and accurate information on topics like sex, which they may find uncomfortable discussing elsewhere.

Who is Maria Eitel?

President and founder of the Nike Foundation, Maria Eitel began her career as a journalist and television producer, before joining the White House and serving as special media assistant to President George W. Bush.

After a few other leadership positions, including at Microsoft, she joined Nike as its first-ever vice president for corporate responsibility in 1998. For six years, she developed and implemented policies on environmental sustainability, work practices, community investment, governance and diversity. .

Eitel then considered moving on, but felt she had more to give, writing, “My gut told me there was something more, something really big I could create. that would build on what I had done and help take Nike to the next level.”

This instinct led her to create the Nike Foundation in 2004 and later co-found Girl Effect.

4 lessons to inspire real change from Nike’s Maria Eitel

1. Do the groundwork

After realizing she had more to do at Nike, Eitel began what she called her “learning journey.” She knew she wanted to fight poverty, but did not yet know how. So she asked the most insightful people she knew for ideas and asked each of them to suggest three more people she should talk to.

Eitel and her team have also spent tens of thousands of hours in developing countries around the world, talking to women and girls. The crucial insights she gained helped her formulate a vision for change.

“At first I believed reaching out to women in developing countries was the answer,” she wrote. “But after more time in the field, it became clear that once a girl becomes a woman, it’s already too late. She probably left school and already has several children. Game over. Yet, before she is a woman, there is still a chance. If we wanted to break the cycle of poverty, we had to start upstream.

2. Think big and stick to your vision

“We knew we had to put girls on the global agenda. We wanted to provide them with resources and make them part of the economic equation,” Eitel said.

Eitel’s groundwork gave her a much clearer picture of why girls were denied access to education – whether it was dropping out of school because the family cow dies, from being unable to study at night without electricity or contracting HIV after asking a lover to pay for school supplies.

But it also made her realize that girls’ education was not everything. Eitel had to explain this to people: she didn’t just want to keep girls in school, she wanted them to be seen as the main driver of economic change and poverty reduction on this planet.

No one had really considered this before, she said, so the vision needed a lot of explaining. Luckily, persistence is Eitel’s strong suit — when she decided she wanted a job at the White House, she phoned them every day until a job came up.

3. Talk money

The beauty of Eitel’s vision is that it makes perfect economic sense. According to World Bank calculations, India loses $383 billion in potential lifetime income because four million adolescent girls become mothers every year. In Kenya, getting girls to complete secondary school would boost the national economy by $27 billion over their lifetime.

Having numbers like these at your disposal is very helpful when trying to convince people to part with millions of dollars of investment.

“The world invests in things like vaccinations, education, nutrition early in a girl’s life,” she told a 2013 conference. “But then she hits that cliff , and all these other things happen to her, and we lose the return on this very expensive investment that we make early on, and she ends up being HIV-positive, pregnant, and married before she has a chance to realize her potential.

4. Partner up

“True partnership, where you roll up your sleeves together, moves mountains and makes innovation at scale possible,” Eitel said.

Partnerships are the foundation of what the Girl Effect has achieved. The movement was co-founded alongside the NoVo Foundation, which also worked with teenage girls, so the union enabled both teams to be even more ambitious.

Eitel has worked alongside many other organisations, some of which are very different from the Nike Foundation but share a common goal, such as the UK’s Department for International Development.

The movement itself is about building innovative partnerships: it aims to inspire key players in the global development sphere to direct funding and resources to girls.

How to lead like Maria Eitel

If you understand the need for real change, but are struggling to inspire others to follow your example, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Have you talked to the right people – and enough of them? Have you done a lot of research to be sure of your vision for change?
  2. Did you get to the heart of the problem you are trying to solve? Can you clearly articulate your vision?
  3. Do you have facts and figures at your disposal? Do you use them as a tool of persuasion?
  4. Are you teaming up with all the right people and organizations?

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