Rotary International Responsible Business Award – Presented to Stephanie Woollard at the United Nations
The United Nations Headquarters sits on seven hectares of land in Manhattan, on the shores of the East River. Since it opened its doors in 1952 it has hosted key talks on issues such as human rights, sustainable development, climate change, violence against women and children in armed conflict. On 11 November 2016, I found myself stepping into the iconic General Assembly building. A few months previously, on the last day of my September trip to Nepal, I had received a Facebook message from Neville John, District Governor of the Rotary District 9800, telling me I was to receive one of six Responsible Business Awards, and that they were to be presented at the United Nations building. I was permitted to bring someone along with me. There was no hesitation as to who that would be. Immediately I called Mum, who was every bit as excited as I was.
In the lead-up to the award I received great support from people I will be forever grateful to, such as Robert Fels, Quin Scalzo, Dennis Shore, Bob Glindemann, Neville John and Philip Archer. They made a huge difference to my journey to New York, suggesting people I should meet, helping me get some professional photos for articles that were written in the lead up and prepping me for the events that were to unfold.
On November 9, en route to New York, we landed in Los Angeles. It was one of those moments that you will never forget where you were: shortly after landing, the man in the seat beside us turned on his phone and said ‘no way, Trump won’. That was how I discovered that Donald Trump had become the 45th President of the United States of America. It was overwhelming. My heart sank a little, and my eyes started watering. What would this mean for the world?
It was an interesting time to be in New York and a good time to visit the United Nations to hear about countries and nations working towards a better world. It was more important than ever for us all to step up and amplify the good in a turbulent time. Honours such as the UN Responsible Business Award shine a light on the work of those who are engaging in best practice and they serve to encourage and recognise those who are leading the way, inspiring others to do the same. As consumers, employees and business owners we have the power to change the world and that is the message I wanted to deliver through my acceptance of this award.
On the day of the presentation, I was too nervous to fully take in my surroundings. I was about to deliver my award acceptance speech in front of a 1,500-strong audience made up of UN Officials, Non-Government Organisation (NGO) workers and Rotarians from across the world. It was the biggest speaking engagement of my life, both in terms of audience and significance, and I was determined to make sure it went well. I only had two minutes on stage, but this was an opportunity to give recognition to our Seven Women team, who had worked so hard over the last ten years, and to showcase our work.
I was seated in the front row with the other five recipients of the Responsible Business Award, who were citizens of India, France, Pakistan, South Africa and Paraguay respectively. The presentation started at 11 o’clock with an address by the secretary’s representative. I was the fourth recipient to speak. As I made my way to the podium, I told myself this is it, I can do this.
I started with a ‘good morning’ and the warmth and response of the ‘good morning’ that I received in return from the audience relaxed and connected me. I was in flow. As I scanned the audience while I spoke, wanting to include everyone in the room, I saw some were listening to the simultaneous translation through the earphones that the facility provided them, in proper UN style.
I explained that Seven Women has branched out internationally, creating a manufacturing business, cooking school and tour company, which have collectively educated, trained and employed over 5,000 marginalised women in Nepal.
This award is not about our team or me. It is an opportunity to send a strong message; that everyone can make a difference to bring about a more tolerant, compassionate and inclusive world, which we can all aspire to in the worlds we operate in.
The audience was engaged in what I had to say. I saw Mum sitting in the audience and I was thrilled to have her there with me, as well as our District Governor, Neville John, who had flown all the way from Australia in support for the one-and-a-half day event. There were many other supportive faces in the audience, people I had met the previous day plus many I had never met before, all of whom were hearing my story for the first time. The audience listened attentively and asked many questions at the end. When the panel finished I was overwhelmed with the crowd that surrounded me wanting to connect and know more.
One of these was Lucille, a vibrant African-American woman, and the two of us hit it off instantly. She told me she was on the boards of various disability organisations and worked in the community. Our connection was so strong that a couple of days later she took time out of her busy schedule to take Mum and me sightseeing. Born in one of the roughest neighbourhoods in New York, Lucille had an in-depth understanding of the issues people lived in the hoods. One thing that stuck with me was her comments about the kids she worked with. She said that over the time of the Trump election campaign, the kids from immigrant backgrounds started to develop anxiety issues. They were fearful that when they came home from school at night their parents might not be there because Trump had deported them.
Afterwards there was the opportunity for me to hear an array of motivational speakers and I found it especially heartening to meet the other five recipients of the Responsible Business Award and learn about their work.
Part of the trip’s program was a guided tour of the UN building, which was an incredible experience. The UN operates in a context of constant adversity and judgment and it struck me that day just how effective the UN actually is and, despite its dysfunction, how important it is to have an institution like it in the world. After being inspired by such an impressive establishment, it was a shock to hear of the fear among staff of America cutting funding. What a sad situation that would be. I learnt that day of the many influences and effective impacts the UN has made possible and how it has brought together nations to discuss important issues and to make resolutions on pressing matters. Although some resolutions have not been binding on nations, peer pressure at the UN level from other countries has had a powerful influence on history. After all, the UN is a platform for country leaders and organisations to make use of. It’s up to them to co-operate and make the world a better place.
As we walked around, there were world leaders convening in certain rooms. There I was standing in the UN Headquarters. I had to pinch myself.
Something else that resonated with me was finding out about the UN Global Compact, whose mission is to ‘mobilise a global movement of sustainable companies’. They provide a platform where businesses can sign a pledge to work towards the promotion of human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption by implementing a value system of Ten Principles. These include ‘the elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labour’ (Principle 4), ‘the effective abolition of child labour’ (Principle 5) and that ‘businesses should work against corruption in all its forms, including extortion and bribery’ (Principle 10).
In relation to businesses as a ‘force for good’, one outstanding speaker was the inspiring Per L. Saxegaard, Founder and Executive Chairman of Business For Peace Foundation. This is a not-for-profit foundation that helps businesses raise the bar and make societal improvements a goal for their companies through the ‘Oslo Business for Peace Award’ which Saxegaard’s foundation runs. ‘There is huge potential for companies to align strategies and operations with achieving outcomes, such as the sustainable development goals, which reflect universal principles of human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption,’ Saxegaard said.
The premise of this powerful foundation is that all businesses have the ability to improve society and make themselves an example of how capitalism can change societies for the better.
Hearing Saxegaard’s talk had a profound impact on my thinking about business and its power to generate change. When I had a chance to talk with him after the event he spoke of the business for peace award his organization had created to shine light on those making the world a better place through business, as leaders. It struck me that Rotary, an organisation with over 2.3 million members who are predominantly in business, could have a huge impact on our world if they too chose to become advocates for responsible business.
It then occurred to me how everyone can make a difference by using their voice, whether they are consumers, business owners or employees. As a consumer, I have a responsibility to my fellow humans to refuse to purchase from brands or companies that are involved in exploitation. So I need to take an interest in the origin of anything I buy. As a business owner, it is my duty to make sure that no one along the supply chain is being exploited as a result of my company making profits. As an employee, if I observe something that isn’t right, my task is to find the courage to speak up in order to mediate change. Change can start at any level; it doesn’t have to be led by people at the top, who may be driven strongly by profit. And the more voices the better, as that’s what can create a ground swell and shift in thinking and awareness.
That day there was a lot of good news about progress on the UN’s sustainable development goals and how organisations were working towards them, allowing me to consider how Seven Women uses business models to create change.
During the afternoon, I participated in a panel session entitled ‘Women, Enterprise and Development’ and gave a 10-minute talk. This session addressed the key steps to implementing successful and sustainable economic development involving women and girls in developed and developing countries. The panel consisted of moderator Suraj P. Bhatia, Rotary Representative to the United Nations; business expert Mary Callahan Erdoes; Meg Jones, Chief of Economic Empowerment at UN Women; and myself. We focused on the current international conversation about the need for inclusive economic development, youth outreach, gender equity, the UN Sustainable Development Goals and broader concerns about social stability.
The day of the award I used my time outside of the panel to make contact with Michelle Tong from the UN Visitors Services and Darrin Farrant, who was Australia’s Public Information Officer at the United Nations and advised the former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. I also had a meeting with the wonderful Caitlin Wilson, the Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of the Australian Mission to the United Nations, New York. She was generous with her time and introduced me to a number of colleagues she thought might make interesting connections. I was also lucky enough to meet the Nepali Representative to the UN, Lok Bahadur Poudel Chhetri, who was highly supportive of Seven Women and promised to ‘open doors’ for us in Nepal because he believed in the power and importance of our work. I gave him a copy of our documentary and he said he would watch it with his colleagues.
We took a photo in the hall of flags next to the Australian and Nepalese flag. I loved that hall and was privileged to be able to see it as it was only for those who worked at the UN as it was inside the tourist-limited areas.
When I left that day, I was absolutely buzzing. It meant a great deal to have met people of this calibre, to have their interest and support. It gave a tremendous lift to my spirit and desire to work for a better world, as I knew I had the backing of an ever-growing network of people who could make it happen.
The awards shone light on impacts that had been created by individuals that can inspire others to work to improve our world. Not only was receiving this award a huge honour but it gave me the chance to reflect on all those who had been part of the Seven Women journey up until that point. It was tremendously encouraging to realise that every bit of time and support had had an impact; the good had been amplified. And I knew that so much more good could be achieved.
In 2006, when I first met the seven women living in the tin shed, never in my wildest imaginings had I expected to be sharing their story at the United Nations one day or that we would have reached over 5,000 women and got them participating in knitting, felting, sewing and education in numeracy and literacy. Transforming lives! I feel so proud of our courageous team in Nepal and the level of sustainability we have been able to achieve.