Vital Voices

Coke: Advancing women will boost the bottom line

October 15, 2012: 10:57 AM ET

The soda giant says its push to get 5 million women employed has more to do with profit than conscience.

By Anne VanderMey

FORTUNE -- Why should businesses help women in developing countries? Coca-Cola (KO) thinks it has a few good reasons, but don't expect anything too syrupy sweet.

Two years ago, the soda conglomerate announced a big goal -- get 5 million underprivileged women a stable income by the year 2020. It has plans to train women in more than 100 countries by the end of the decade.

Leading the charge is Charlotte Oades, the company's global director for women's economic empowerment -- that's her real title, but Oades isn't just a do-gooder. She was previously head of Coke's Great Britain business and was the communications chief for Europe. Her main job is to help Coke work toward another big goal, doubling its revenue by 2020. The company's logic is that investments in women are a proven way of boosting a region's economy and, in turn, increasing its buying power.

"Unless you have a sustainable community, you can't have a business," Oades says. Coke's training programs include workshops in the "Parivartan," a traveling air-conditioned bus in India that can reach women in different areas without making them travel to attend. The company also does financial workshops in Brazil and provides solar paneling to store owners in South Africa who are looking to stay open longer and keep beverages cool. Oades says she hopes that the focus on giving women a shot at earning a stable income will have a longer lasting impact than traditional philanthropy. "At the end of the day, if you're just writing a check, that's not sustainable," she says.

MORE: How Michael Porter (and team) plan to rescue the U.S. economy

Oades spoke with Fortune senior editor-at-large Nina Easton and women's rights activist Alyse Nelson at Fortune's Most Powerful Women summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif. in early October. There, both women argued that there's a practical reason for companies to support women. For starters, there's ample evidence that communities benefit from women's success. When women earn money, they're more likely than men to spend it on food, while men are more likely to spend it on alcohol and tobacco, according to research by MIT economist Esther Duflo. Women will reinvest 90% of their income into the family, versus 30% to 40% for men. More

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