Meet Three Powerhouses Who Enrich Women’s Economics
When Dr. Thelma Awori was old enough to carry her mother’s bag, she tagged along with her to women’s meetings at the local YWCA in Liberia. Her mother taught reading and writing to illiterate people in their rural community. Another family member, her father’s sister, was a zoe ("zoh"), meaning a bearer of cultural knowledge, responsible for ensuring that community traditions are passed along free of European influence. These two women influenced her to commit herself to work with less privileged women.
Scholarships from The Africa-America Institute and the Institute of International Education sent Dr. Awori to Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley. With a master’s degree in adult education and humanistic psychology, she steadily rose through the ranks at the United Nations, beginning with the U.N. Fund For Women and retiring as assistant secretary-general and director of the Regional Bureau for Africa of the United Nations Development Programme. She previously was the U.N. resident coordinator and resident representative for the UNDP in Zimbabwe.
Today, Dr. Awori has continued her commitment to expanding women’s leadership in Africa through her work in Uganda to strengthen women’s leadership, and, in Liberia, to increase services to women entrepreneurs.
With a small group of friends, Dr. Thelma Awori established the Sirleaf Market Women’s Fund, which helps to build dry and safe workplaces for more than 13,000 rural women. The fund is named after Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the granddaughter of a market woman who rose to become the first female president in Africa and president of Liberia.
Today, Dr. Thelma Awori is founding chair and president emeritus of the
Sirleaf Market Women’s Fund. It offers direct services to Liberian market women — including credit, literacy training, water, sanitation and child care. During the Ebola epidemic, the fund rushed supplies such as bleach and buckets to the market women.
Based in Kampala, Uganda. Dr. Awori is committed to improving the lives of African market women and helping them recognize that they are significant forces in local economies. Her work with market women in Liberia has expanded to Uganda, where her institute is training market women to take leadership in the markets.
Under Dr. Awori’s leadership, the Sirleaf Market Women’s Fund is expanding to other countries. At a recent conference, market women from five West African countries formed a new market women’s association dedicated to increasing their earnings and influence in policy making at the national and regional levels.
"Market women are a category whose power needs to be made more visible," Dr. Awori explained. "Our leaders need to recognize them as a powerful economic force."
By Jan Paschal and Sally Decker
Sema Ba?ol leaned in at work — long before Sheryl Sandberg made it popular — and then launched a second career by leaning out. Ba?ol, who rose at Mattel, Inc., after earning her MBA in the 1970s, moved to Silicon Valley in 2005. For the first time, she had the chance to meet and volunteer with women who were running their own nonprofits and doing great work — making a difference in the U.S. and around the globe. That led her to think about her own place in the world.
"It was transformational," she said. "I realized that I care a lot about women and I want them to have fulfilling lives." She believed that it was her duty to find "a way to give back to women in other countries, starting with Turkey."
Born and raised in Turkey, Ba?ol came to the United States in 1974 on a scholarship to earn her MBA at UCLA, Anderson School. A few years later, she joined Mattel as a financial analyst and worked there for 19 years. Ba?ol was eventually promoted, becoming a marketing director. She played a major role in setting up Mattel’s consumer products division for international markets, generating over a billion dollars a year in sales. Her projects included working with designers and manufacturers around the world to develop Barbie apparel, music and bedding under licensing deals linked to Mattel’s famous doll — and one of its biggest brands.
Today Sema Ba?ol is the co-founder of the Turkish Women’s Initiative (TWI), based in California, and Change Leaders Association, TWI’s sister organization in Turkey.
Her route to the nonprofit world opened up after she met Dr. Jeanne Nidorf, a cultural psychologist, in Silicon Valley. Together they founded the Turkish Women’s Initiative (TWI) in 2008. The nonprofit’s programs give young Turkish women the chance to learn practical skills crucial to success in the work force. Within Turkey’s exam-driven world of university education, Ba?ol said there is no pathway for women to learn the leadership skills needed to navigate the business world.
TWI’s signature Sparks program in Turkey is an eight-month learning and leadership experience for young Turkish women who are the first in their families to go to college. They learn everything from how to identify problems in their communities and talk about social change to how to fundraise and work as a team. They learn "to be leaders by being leaders," Ba?ol said.
TWI is celebrating increased local financial support both in the U.S. and in Turkey, giving Ba?ol an opportunity to think bigger. She hopes to expand the nonprofit’s work to programs for high school students and their mothers, as well as working blue-collar women.
"It’s amazing how much they learn about themselves," Ba?ol said, referring to TWI’s young Sparks participants, "and what it means being a woman in a country like Turkey."
For decades, Jill S. Tietjen used an innovative strategy to encourage women in engineering and technology. Along the way, the Denver resident became a driving force boosting the careers of women in these male-dominated fields: She nominates women for awards to promote them and their groundbreaking work.
She does it to "ensure that there are women STEM role models everywhere, by making sure that women are nominated for awards that men just usually get." To date, she has successfully nominated 25 women to the National Women’s Hall of Fame to fill the gap of technical women represented there.
Tietjen, the eldest of four children, traces her passion to her time at the University of Virginia. The Virginia native graduated in 1976 with an applied math major and a minor in electrical engineering despite never being encouraged to go that route — not even from her father, an engineer with a Ph.D.
After becoming one of the university’s first women to graduate in engineering — an experience she recalls fondly — Tietjen landed her first job with Duke Power Co. and earned her MBA in 1979 from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. As she made her way in the electric utility industry, she was elected to the national board of the Society of Women Engineers in 1988. At her first board meeting, the president asked if any members would be willing to submit a nomination for the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology. These awards, which she compared to the Nobel Prize, recognize Americans’ highest achievements in these fields.
"Seventeen women in that room and no one raised their hand," Tietjen said. "So I did."
It took her two years to prepare a nomination for pioneering computer scientist Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, who invented the first compiler, the computer software that translates human languages into the zeroes and ones that a computer understands. Hopper played an instrumental part in the development of COBOL, one of the first high-level programming languages. In 1991, she became the first individual [woman] to receive the National Medal of Technology. Tietjen accepted the award for Hopper, who died in January 1992. At the ceremony, Tietjen understood — for the first time — the power of what she could do.
In the following years, Tietjen became the director of the Women in Engineering Program at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She was appointed to serve on two corporate boards. In 2010, she was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.
After serving as a board member of the National Women’s Hall of Fame from 2009-2014, she was its CEO in 2015 and led a major fundraising campaign.
"I get tremendous satisfaction from seeing it [women receiving awards] happen. I want other people to say, ‘OK, this is something we can do. It’s something we should do. It’s something that needs to be done, and we can do it, too.’"