Leading Women: The Highest and Best Use of My Worth

Twenty years ago, I moved out of corporate America to focus on social change. I had been successful on Wall Street and then at a large global conglomerate, working on mergers and acquisitions, capital financing, building brand equity, launching new products and finally restructuring country portfolios in the consumer products industry. It had been quite a run. My colleagues and friends were puzzled as to why I would give up a productive career to work in a field that was not lucrative and seemed poised for uncertain gains.

leading women
S. Mona Sinha, Board Chair of Women Moving Millions, reflects on the path of her career and the highest and best use of her worth: working to increase gender equality. (Photo credit: S. Mona Sinha)

I was moving on because, as an advisor to a human rights organization at that time, I experienced an epiphany while offering simple business frameworks and tools that were met by the nonprofit organization’s leaders with delight and surprise. A small pivot in my business-trained mindset was seen as a huge and innovative intervention. It made me realize that my corporate and business school training could shift the ways that these critical organizations functioned, and could even make them sustainable. And thus began my path.

I also realized early on in my career that the biggest barrier to economic development today is gender-based discrimination. Discrimination is often accompanied by violence and abuse. Women and minorities are treated like second class citizens and denied basic rights. Ultimately, these marginalized groups are not able to contribute their whole selves to society.

Kathy Matsui in her 1999 study Womenomics issued a breakthrough report on the economic impact of women dropping out of Japan’s workforce. With an aging population and shrinking number of children in the economy, Japan’s economic future was dismal. By economically analyzing how workplace policy shifts favorable to employing women could impact GDP growth, Kathy and her team at Goldman Sachs were able to influence government policies requiring women’s participation in the workplace, which has increased from 56% in 1999 to 71% in 2019. Compare that to 66% in the US and 63% in the EU. Today, Japan has mandated policies on daycare and parental/eldercare leave that allows women and men to more fully participate in work and life. This is just a first step, but a critical one.

I am personally well aware of gender discrimination, having grown up as a third daughter in a conservative Indian family. My parents were often subject to unsolicited sympathy at not having produced the male prodigy and I was at the receiving end of many such comments. Leaving home and landing at Smith college was my transformation, allowing me to no longer “pretend” to be as worthy as a boy but to truly step into my whole self as a powerful feminist.

Gender-based discrimination stifles not just economic growth but also emotional and mental energy for full participation in society. As a Board member at Breakthrough, I have seen how gender norms such as child marriage can lead to increased rates of domestic violence and often suicide. Breakthrough’s work in using popular media to shift cultural norms in villages in India, have resulted in young girls speaking up for themselves and petitioning parents to allow them to stay in school.

I have helped Breakthrough not only raise resources for this work but also think about structural interventions that help amplify their critical message. They now have mobile units traveling through Indian villages staging plays (jatras) that highlight social issues and leaving the message behind that girls are not burdensome but can contribute to families and prosperity. They have been commissioned by the Indian government to build educational interventions for girls. Breakthrough’s work in the US also focuses on storytelling about the intersectional lives of women, gender non-conforming youth, and undocumented immigrants, helping to amplify and diversify the narratives of sexual abuse and violence.

Leading Women and Change in India

In India, Apne Aap has done much to change the lives of the Last Girl, alone, trafficked and raped 30 times a day. We have built interventions that teach prostituted women their rights and demand government support. Skills-based training allows them to build levels of experience that can sustain the whole family. Some of these children have found their way to college in other countries and will undoubtedly change the trajectory of their families’ lives. 

In larger educational institutions, I have supported policies that amplify forgotten populations and encourage them to achieve success. At Smith College, the Board of trustees worked on changing the trans-admission policy so trans women could freely attend. I am Executive Producer of Disclosure, a film about transgender representation that premiered at Sundance and will open at the Tribeca Film festival in a few weeks. We are using a new model to amplify the message behind the film and have partnered with global advertising agency McCann Erickson to create an Impact Campaign. This is a first and it highlights that corporate and social change organizations can be partners in justice.

Leading Women at Columbia

Last week, the Columbia WHO collaborative program on Global Mental Health highlighted how mental health issues result in huge economic losses in the global economy. Their important work includes reclassifying medical diagnostic codes that are discriminatory (for example, transgender was considered a mental disorder and has now been removed from that category).

For over forty years, Columbia Business School has promoted the concept of social enterprise being critical to business success. In August 2019, The Wall Street Journal headlined with an article entitled Top CEOs See a Duty Beyond Shareholders. Milton Friedman, who expounded that for a company to pursue anything but profit maximization for shareholder value would be pure and unadulterated socialism, must be turning in his grave. Today, the Tamer Center at Columbia has financial training programs on the effects of climate change, teaching future business CEOs that they can no longer ignore potential customers and employees, no matter where they come from. I have proudly worked with Columbia on many of these programs. So too, DriveChange retrains formerly incarcerated youth (many women) in food service skills and helps them find employment in kitchens across the country.

At the end of the day, changemakers who are closest to the world’s greatest needs are having a tough time getting their work done. Women who are agents of change are stymied as resources become more and more restricted. The Women’s Philanthropy Institute recently reported that only 1.6% of philanthropic funding goes to women and girls. Add to this the stringent reporting requirements that eat into the critical time to get the work done. 

As Chair of Women Moving Millions, my work is to highlight our mission — to catalyze unprecedented resources for the advancement of women and girls.  We amplify and uplift women and girls to ultimately create a gender equal world. Our members provide funds but more and more they are engaged in being proximate and using their own skills to support and grow grassroots women’s organizations that can create the systems change that is needed in this world. We have rolled out a Philanthropic Leadership Curriculum that encourages our members to get closer to the issues that they so deeply care about and influence the movement of resources from the ecosystems that they are connected with. Women today are majority decision makers regarding the employment of family wealth. They are considering how they invest their own substantial assets in vehicles that amplify women and create economic impact.

In capital market terms, once we recognize that women are assets that do not depreciate over time, we will realize unprecedented gains in economic growth. We all know that women as agents of change invest in their communities and amplify development at the very grassroots level. As they engage at higher and higher levels as participants in political policy change and entrepreneurial ventures, real shifts can happen. Women funders who support these changemakers and take control of their own investment resources can help uplift the world, one village at a time. 

I cannot be more thankful for my risky, self-designed, ever-evolving career ride. It has been bumpy at times but has brought me great purpose and joy as I am able to connect the dots between Wall Street and Main Street.


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Author: S. Mona Sinha

S. Mona Sinha is an advocate for gender equality in business and society. She is the Board Chair of Women Moving Millions, a community of women who fund big and bold ($1 million+) to create a gender equal world. She is also the Board Chair of the ERA Fund for Women's Equality. She is a trustee emerita of Smith College, where she was Vice Chair of the Board and led the Women for the World campaign that raised $486 million to support women’s education.

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