Women Leading the Way:

Alyse Nelson Talks Social Justice and Women's Empowerment

  Alyse Nelson. Leigh Vogel/Getty Images  

Alyse Nelson. Leigh Vogel/Getty Images 

Alyse Nelson is a cofounder, President and CEO of Vital Voices Global Partnership, an international NGO dedicated to empowering women leaders and social entrepreneurs around the world. She is the author of the best-selling book Vital Voices: The Power of Women Leading Change Around the World that shares the stories of extraordinary women leaders in the Vital Voices Global Network.

I talked to Alyse over the phone from a quiet corner in my school library on a rainy afternoon in November 2015. We discussed her career trajectory, the work of Vital Voices, and emerging trends in women’s global leadership. Vivacious and enthusiastic, she readily recalled her experience at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women. Addressing all millennials, she shared her advice on how to navigate the workforce, build a career, and ultimately have lasting impact. 

How did you become interested in human rights work and women’s empowerment?

When I was 21, I heard about the World Conference on Women in Beijing. I saved and borrowed money to be able to fly to Beijing to participate in that conference. I didn’t even get the right kind of visa but I went anyway and took my chances on getting in. Actually, we are coming up on the 20th anniversary of the conference. What year were you born?


Wow, that’s interesting. You were born the same year that this major conference took place that brought 55,000 women leaders together. You are the Beijing generation. It’s an interesting connection for you in your own life to think about how much has changed because of that conference within just your lifetime. It is a very auspicious year to have been born, in my opinion.

You were just a college student when you attended the conference. What was that experience like?

I remember there was a poster up outside one of the many workshop sessions that took place over the course of the conference that read: “Stop Trafficking in Women.” I honestly thought it was a disease because I had never heard the expression “trafficking in women.” I thought, “Oh that’s some disease I don’t know about.” Listening to the talks about human trafficking, I was horrified to find out that there was no law in the books to protect the victims of trafficking or acknowledge this global slave trade as one of the fastest growing criminal enterprises in the world. There was no information about it on a global scale. The conference was really my first exposure to the issue.

I learned about microfinance, global education, female genital mutilation, and so many other issues that were not in the mainstream. These were issues that I couldn’t read about in books, in articles. It was long before Nicholas Kristof was writing his wonderful pieces. I came back from that conference with the words from Hilary Clinton’s speech in mind. Here was a woman who recognized that as first lady of the United States she had a voice and she had power. She wanted to use that voice and power to give back and to stand up for other women and girls. It made me realize that I also had a voice and I had power and I should do the same. My commitment to these issues really happened at 21.

How did you pursue human rights work once you returned to the United States?

I came back to Boston where I was going to school and decided that I would put together a conference to educate my generation of young men and young women about what was going on around the world. This was the very beginning of the Internet so we were just beginning to learn about it. I knew we were growing up and going to be one of the first global generations and I wanted to figure out how we could be involved and more aware of what was happening to women around the world.

I held a conference and I brought a lot of people together. One of the people I brought was from the White House, from the President’s Interagency Council on Women.  It turned out that my first job was staffing that council, first as an intern and then eventually I was hired. Then I went onto the State Department and after that I became a part of the Vital Voices founding team. We began as a US government initiative and later we became a nonprofit.

How does the Vital Voices model works?

At the beginning, Vital Voices was really just about having conferences to bring women together in an effort to recognize the critical voices that women have in democracy and emerging markets. We worked mostly in countries in transition: Former Soviet Union, countries throughout Latin America, Asia and Africa.

When we became a nonprofit we did a big landscape analysis to look at what organizations exist around the world and what are they doing for women. We found that there were very few organizations for women leadership. As a nonprofit we began searching the world for women who we believe have the power and the vision to change their communities and their societies, whether it’s working on human rights, political participation or economic development. We look for women who are leading change and doing so in isolation. For example, we work with a woman named Sunitha Krishnan. She is a human rights leader and owns a shelter for 8,000 women and children that she has rescued from human trafficking. She’s quite extraordinary: She provides education and training skills to these girls. That’s the kind of person we are looking to support. But it’s not about our agenda. It’s very much about their agenda and what it is they want to do, the change that they see.

Can you talk about the impact women in positions of leadership can have on economic empowerment? 

When I first started working on these issues, we always used the language of fairness. We would say, “Well women are 51% of the population, and we deserve to have human rights and we don’t deserve to be beaten in our own homes.” It was always about “we deserve.”

About 10 years ago, that language began to shift. The rights-based argument wasn’t working anymore and there was something more powerful that we could see emerging from the research, that actually investing in women was quite smart from an economic standpoint. How would you expect to build your economy and to compete in a global economy, if you don’t tap the full potential of all those in your country or community or corporation? It meant giving girls education; it meant letting women run their own businesses. But I think what Vital Voices has come to realize is that actually there is even a third phase: We don’t just want women to be present in societies; we don’t just want women to have jobs and gain an education. We also want them to have power.

But how do we move from having presence to actually having power? It’s not just about women gaining economic opportunity but turning that opportunity into real decision-making power. Now, it’s really about women’s leadership. Women lead in a different way then men. Not necessarily better, just different. Women lead in an inclusive and collaborative way; we tend to lead with our community in mind; we tend to be motivated by wanting to make change, instead of looking to attain power. We seek power to empower the people we lead and the people we care about.

How do we integrate men into this women’s movement? Are men in power – policy makers, government authorities and officials – more receptive to this change in perception about women’s involvement in society?

They are very receptive to the economic argument. But what we really need them to be receptive to the human rights aspect.

We have always dealt with women's issues as women, and we need to get men involved. But how do we invite them in to be our allies and not blame them for these issues? The majority of men are not violent and yet violence against women is an issue that affects every single country around the globe. Gender-based violence is everywhere and it appears to be growing. It is one of the greatest challenges we face in the 21st century.

On a personal level, what has been the most rewarding part of your work at Vital Voices?

My work is very humbling and very inspiring. I feel blessed to have the job that I have. It’s not even really a job but a way of life. When I meet a woman with a bold dream for herself and her community, being able to help her in achieving that dream is extremely rewarding.

What is your advice for young adults who are passionate about human rights work but unsure of how to get involved?

I think my advice would be to get as much experience right now as you can. Intern at different places where you might see yourself working. Take different opportunities to maybe travel overseas and work on a human rights project. If you think you want to work on violence against women, work in a local shelter, because domestic violence is pretty much the same anywhere you go around the world. It knows no boundaries.

One thing I know is certainly true with young men and women, at least the ones who work for me, is that they tend to stay at Vital Voices for two years and then move on. I have been in my same job since I started out. I think there is something to be said about sticking with it, staying the course. As you go through your career, there are three things I would advise to always ask yourself: are you passionate? Are you curious? And do you feel challenged? If a job is easy for you, and you aren’t being challenged, it might be time to move on. To really have impact and really gain expertise, it takes time.