Written by Heather Burke Thursday, October 13 2011
Snapshot: Andrée Simon, acting CEO, Women for Women International
Andrée Simon is acting CEO of Women for Women International (WfWI), based out of its U. S. headquarters in Washington, D.C. WfWI works with female survivors of war and conflict across eight countries in Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East, and South Asia. Through WfWI’s one-year program, participants are equipped with the tools, training, and support networks that allow them to rebuild their lives, earn an income, and become active leaders and agents of change in their communities.
Womenetics: What have you learned from the women in your global programs?
Andrée Simon: Resilience. The women in our programs have been through incredible tests of faith that make my daily tribulations insignificant. One of our participants was once told, “I am so amazed at what you have been able to achieve.” Her answer was stark: She said, “The alternative for me was to lie down and die.” I remind myself of her words frequently.
Womenetics: You work with survivors of war, civil strife, and conflict. What challenges do women who join your program typically face?
Simon: The women who join our program face numerous challenges that touch nearly every aspect of their lives. While each woman’s story is unique, many have suffered physical and emotional trauma, the loss of loved ones, and social exclusion from devastated communities. Most have struggled to survive.
Many of the women we serve face severe economic challenges that are indicative of challenges women encounter worldwide: Women perform 66 percent of the world’s work, grow 50 percent of the world’s food, and yet earn 10 percent of the income and own less than 2 percent of the property.
For many of the survivors we work with; however, the complete destruction that war and conflict have brought to their lives and communities has the most profound impact. These women find themselves alone, without the support systems they had relied on, and, particularly in situations of civil strife, without the ability to trust their neighbors. WfWI’s program seeks to address each of these needs that women come to us with, to help them rebuild their lives and communities.
Womenetics: How do you begin to build an enabling environment for women’s economic empowerment and stability under these conditions?
Simon: After years of conflict and devastation, women survivors of war are eager to rebuild their lives and communities – we simply offer them the emotional and financial support to help them succeed. When a woman is enrolled in WfWl’s program, she is first matched with a sponsor, who provides monthly financial assistance and emotional support.
Sponsored women are then placed into groups of 25, which provide participants with another invaluable support network with women in their communities. WfWI’s year-long program provides these women with intensive training in women’s rights and life skills, as well as market-based skills and business management training. This holistic program promotes lasting social and economic change for women and communities, leading to peaceful and stable societies. I am proud to say that over the last 18 years, WfWI has served nearly 300,000 women survivors of war, benefiting more than 1.4 million family and community members in the process.
Womenetics: What are some of the ways women are transforming their lives and communities after graduation from the WfWI one-year program?
Simon: Graduates of WfWl’s programs demonstrate every day that when women are economically empowered, entire communities benefit. Following graduation from WfWI’s year-long programs, 86 percent of women report earning an income for their households, and 67 percent save money regularly. Nearly 50 percent of women report being able to send additional children to school following graduation. A remarkable 25 percent of graduates report that they have employed at least one other person in the community through their income-generating activities. Our graduates have become active members of their communities, mentoring and inspiring other women to take their first step forward toward independence.
When women are active citizens, they become leaders of community change that leads to peaceful and stable societies. By earning an income, developing savings, and investing in the future of their families and communities, our graduates are building local economies and communities that are women led.
Womenetics: You are now leading WfWI. What has this career trajectory been like for you, and what have you learned from this transition?
Simon: I think that women in particular need to make an effort to ask for what they want in clear and specific ways. And then, of course, be prepared to act when they get it! I have learned so much from this transition. My biggest lessons are all around people, not surprisingly. As time consuming and challenging as it can be to work to achieve buy in, it’s always worth it – taking shortcuts always costs you in the long run.
Womenetics: What advice would you give to women who aspire to a CEO role?
Simon: I’ll share the best advice I got from my friend and coach, Samantha Collins, who heads the Aspire Foundation. When I was struggling to figure out my leadership, Sam kept challenging me to go back to the authentic position that I would take on any issue. Invariably, being true to who I was always ended up being the better solution because I could speak genuinely to people about what I believed. As I said to Sam, when I finally stopped trying to fill someone else’s shoes and started speaking 100 percent as myself, it was like taking off a hot, sweaty gorilla suit I had been stuck in for a while. But to take the suit off, I had to stop caring about what people would think and be willing to let them decide they didn’t like me as a leader.
Womenetics: What are some of the challenges you face leading a global nonprofit organization?
Simon: This question makes me smile. We face all the same challenges as for-profits: cultural issues, time-zone issues, legal challenges, and communication. In addition, we have challenges related to human resources, complex social metrics, and the usual nonprofit funding challenges. And at WfWI in particular, we have the added challenge of working in conflict zones where security is, more often than not, not great.
But really? I have the best job in the entire world – if I’m doing my job right, we are making a difference in the lives of thousands of women around the world. We work with incredible women, we have incredible supporters like Kate Spade New York, our teams at Run For Congo, our board members, our leadership circles of supporters, and we have an extraordinary staff. It’s hard to not see the glass half full.
Womenetics: Your job is demanding. What would you cite as critical to your success?
Simon: Resilience. Development is equal parts inspiration and patience. You have to believe in the greatness of the human spirit or you wouldn’t do it at all. At the same time, you have to be willing to invest in change over a long, long time frame. Cultures are built over thousands of years. It’s hubris to think that we can change them overnight – sometimes we do, but a lot of the time it is about being consistently present and persistent.
Womenetics: Tell us about your thought process to successfully manage performance across eight countries.
Simon: I’ve managed operations over as many as 21 countries and as few as two, but international operations are always challenging. The biggest challenge is building a common understanding given differences in culture and skill levels. It requires lots of communication, training, and face-to-face meetings. Those are hard for organizations that don’t have a lot of money, but it’s worth it.
Womenetics: What strategies have you found most successful to engage the private sector in your work?
Simon: Creating sustainable job opportunities for women where none previously existed is a core tenet of our mission, and we’re always actively looking for partnerships with the private sector that will allow graduates to receive additional training and employment.
Currently, WfWI has several ongoing partnerships with companies around the world, operating in both national and international markets. These partnerships with the private sector have an extraordinary impact on women’s ability to earn an income and enjoy sustainable employment in the formal labor market. Rabija Mujalo, a participant of WfWI-Bosnia and Herzegovina training program, fled to Austria during the Bosnian War; when she came back, her home had been destroyed. With the help of Kate Spade New York we were able to help Rabija rebuild her life. She explains, “I earned nearly as much money knitting at home in my spare time as my son who works full time in a factory.” Rabija’s story is an example of how public-private partnerships are creating opportunities for women to apply their skills and talent and become economically empowered.
Womenetics: What are you excited to be working on right now?
Simon: We are working on a massive empowerment initiative across our entire organization right now, with the goal of empowering our staff in the same way we empower the women we serve. I’m very proud of what we are doing – it’s very challenging for all of us, but I think that we are going to shock all of our stakeholders in terms of what we achieve.
Womenetics: What is the greatest piece of advice you ever received?
Simon: If you’re not risking failure, you’re not trying hard enough.
Womenetics: What do you do to take time for yourself?
Simon: I love the benefits of meditation and exercise, and am pretty good about making time for both on a daily basis. But the truth is, I have a really hard time sitting in one place, and I’m happiest when I have a project plan in my hand and am working on something.
More women working to empower others:
Poverty, being a victim of the horrors of sex slavery and a tribal minority in her community were not enough to stop Somaly Mam from finding a way to provide for her family. She now dedicates her life to saving other young girls yearning for freedom.
Edit Schlaffer founded Women Without Borders to unveil to the world the "missing link" to combating violence and extremism in our communities. Find out how Schlaffer is getting women to realize that often we are the missing link to resolving conflict.
Pam Caffray and Amy Jurkowitz are two charitable entrepreneurs who combined their love for philanthropy with their love for business. The duo raises awareness around global issues through the sale of unique products and services on GetMilkshake.com.
Heather Burke has more than eight years experience working with partners in the public and private sectors to promote women’s empowerment and develop innovative investment strategies for community development. She has worked in 12 countries on initiatives spanning women's and girls’ leadership, education, income generation, social entrepreneurship, public health, food security, political participation, and environmental conservation. She is a social venture consultant based outside of Washington, D.C.