"For young women, I would certainly say not to wait for an invitation to lead change. It's never going to come," the young woman standing across from me said, as she scanned the room filled with aspiring female leaders of all ages.
Thumbing the pages of her new book, "Vital Voices: The Power of Women Leading Change Around the World," Alyse Nelson certainly didn't need a cue from anyone to pursue her passion.
"For businesswomen that maybe have had one career, and are looking to maybe switch paths, to do something else, I would say, do it. Follow your passion," she told me. "In my life I believe there are three things that you need to always have - to be passionate, curious and challenged all the time."
Alyse Nelson has had her share of challenges. When she was fresh out of school, Nelson found herself in Beijing for the UN Fourth World Conference on Women, the conference where then-First Lady Hillary Clinton made her famous speech stating "women's rights are human rights."
Nelson, who went to China without a formal invitation or even a place to stay, found herself a guest of the African women's delegation. Since then, she has never turned her back on women's rights.
"Full but fabulous," she says when asked by RTTNews how she can describe her life at this moment. "I feel extremely blessed because I feel as though I have been entered and supported and enabled on my leadership path by hundreds if not thousands of women around the world."
"You can't ever pay those people back that paved the road for you, that removed the roadblocks. But you can pay it forward."
Nelson has certainly done just that. From July 1996 to July 2000, she worked with the President's Interagency Council on Women at the White House and U.S. Department of State. Vital Voices Global Leadership Network, the NGO she now heads, was fostered by her when it was just a small initiative at State in the late 1990s.
The organization now includes more than 12,000 leaders representing 144 countries who have trained and mentored 500,000 additional women and girls in their communities. Notably, Vital Voices partners with leading private companies to create and implement programs in other countries that empower women to become business, political and social leaders.
"Certainly I think the non-profit world and the for-profit world are colliding today more than any other time in history. Because I think we're all looking at impact," she told me at her book launch, co-hosted by AnnPower - a women's empowerment program run by Ann Taylor - and the Swedish Embassy.
"You know, half the population, if it can't move forward, a country is left behind," Nelson added. "And so I think more and more people are realizing that certainly investing in protecting human rights, particularly the human rights of women, forms the building blocks to enable them to move forward and be strong members of society and business, civil society or in government."
This sentiment strongly echoes that of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, long an advocate of women's rights and under whom the Vital Voices initiative began in 1997. In the foreword to Nelson's book, Clinton writes, "it has become very clear that development stall where women are oppressed, and accelerated where they are empowered."
"The status of the world's women is not only a matter of morality and justice. It is also a political, economic, and social imperative," Clinton adds. This argument is even more salient today as American businesswomen are asking "Can you have it all?"
In a June article in the Atlantic Magazine, former State Department Direct of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter engendered both anger and staunch agreement from prominent women when she wrote "Why Women Still Can't Have It All."
"Women have contributed to the fetish of the one-dimensional life, albeit by necessity," Slaughter wrote, much to the chagrin of her former State colleagues. "Today, however, women in power can and should change that environment, although change is not easy," she added.
The article was conceived of during the first year of her tenure at State, and she wrote it even after multiple attempts by colleagues - mostly female - to dissuade her. Multiple essays and articles have since been written in opposition and defense of her thesis, exhibiting the split on the issue even, and especially, among women.
"I still strongly believe that women can 'have it all' (and that men can too). I believe that we can 'have it all at the same time.' But not today, not with the way America's economy and society are currently structured," Slaughter wrote, referring later in the article to Washington's euphemism for being fired - "going to spend more time with family."
Alyse Nelson is the perfect female leader to whom this question can be posited. Can women have it all - and how do you do it all?
"I think personal life is critical. I think it makes you a better leader if you're able to pull away and have a personal life," she told me before the Slaughter article had been written. "And I think it also enables you to be a better leader because you can empathize better with people because you just work all the time, I think, you lose touch."
"Someone one time told me that a bow and arrow shoots better, or the arrow shoots better, if you can pull the bow all the way back. So if you're just sort of shooting the arrow like this" - she said, showing with her two arms a bow unable to reach full extension - "it doesn't go very far. But if you're able to pull back, it shoots much further."
"And so, for as much travel as I do, for as much passion I have for my work, I find it's also extremely important to have passion for my personal life."
And so Nelson's life comes full circle - a focus on passion, curiosity and challenging oneself and an ability to be a self-starter are key, all while remembering, to have it all, you need to remember to have your full sense of self.
by RTT Staff Writer
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