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Invest in Women

Yann Borgstedt, successful Swiss entrepreneur and founder of The Womanity Foundation, respects and admires women and has decided to advocate for them.

Text:
Dorothée Schiesser
Photos:
Agi Simoes
W

“We want to help girls and women to realise their full potential.”

It’s Monday evening in Shoreditch, London. Yann Borgstedt, unhurried, his hat pulled down over his head, guides me through the streets of this trendy neighbourhood. Where does his engagement for the women’s rights come from? “I’m an entrepreneur. If half of my employees don’t have the same advantages as the other half, my business won’t thrive. That is what is happening in the world with women! Seventy per cent of the poor are women and women earn only 1 per cent of global assets.” 

Education for girls and women

In 2004, Yann Borgstedt felt the need to give back to society some of what he had received. A brilliant business man, he launched several business ventures at a young age, including a technol­ogy company he founded and success- fully sold. Since then, he has dedicated part of his time to investing in the hotel, wine, and gastron­omy sectors. But when he encountered an association in Morocco that helps young girls – between six and twelve years old – return to school after having been placed by “recruiters” in families to work as “little maids”, he knew he needed to join the fight against violence towards women and for equal opportunity. “In fact, many of the girls became slaves to these families, were used for the son’s sexual initiation and ended as prostitutes on the streets of Casablanca or became pregnant at an age when they should be playing with dolls,” he explains. That is how, in 2005, The Womanity Foundation was born. 

‍The Womanity Foundation focuses on women’s education, training and development in Afgahnistan, Brazil, India, The West Bank, Israel and Morocco.

It was again a woman, Cherie Blair, wife of the former British prime minister, who involved him in a project that would become one of the pillars of The Womanity Foundation. “When the Taliban withdrew from Afghanistan in 2002, the situation of women in this country and especially the catastrophic level of education of girls were revealed to the world. Cherie Blair wanted to get involved in girls education and we teamed up to transform the largest girl school into a model school in Kabul.” This school with 5,000 pupils from nursery school to the final year of high school became one of the best in Afghanistan, and that’s not all: Yann Borgstedt replicated the model into 13 more schools for girls, funded by a million-dollar grant from the UBS Optimus Foundation. His latest project in Afghanistan: “Girls Can Code”, which facilitates access to IT professions for girls. Truly revolutionary! “Investing in girls’ education means increasing a country’s wealth. When the number of girls attending school increases by 10 per cent, the GNP rises on average by 3 per cent.”

Against violence and discrimination

That evening, in a hip bar in Shoreditch, I speak with two members of his team – women, of course: Valentina, an Italian who lives in Berlin, and Asmaa, a Moroccan woman living in Paris. With great passion, they explain The Womanity Foundation’s second area of priority: addressing sensitive topics in the Middle East using a fictional radio ser-

ies, and an animation on YouTube. This digital campaign reached more than 3 million people across the Middle East and North Africa region. The programme was such a success that Asmaa organised public encounters around the themes of the radio series, the real goal being to give a voice to Muslim women on topics such as sexual violence and discrimination at school or at work.

Since 2014, The Womanity Foundation has developed a new programme that rewards organisations fighting violence against women. “It’s good that these things are made public, and so much the better if our efforts help to give women a voice. This kind of violence exists in all countries and all social classes,” Borgstedt explains. Again, the approach he takes is novel in the world of philanthropy: For every organisation distinguished for its work, a second organisation receives support to replicate the project in another country.

Womanity’s last priority area involves assisting social entrepreneurs in India and Brazil. Every year, the foundation supports two projects with innovative solutions to women empowerment in each country and accompanies them for two years, inspired by the Ashoka non-profit model. Yann Borgstedt’s approach to philanthropy is entrepreneurial: “A project must have the potential to be replicated, and not necessarily by us. You have to be able to step back and let others take over.” 

For all these activities, Yann Borgstedt has been awarded several prizes, including the Paribas prize for philanthropy in 2016. But this restless seeker who is always on the move, who loves to travel and meet new people, has not forgotten the other half of the planet: “We need to encourage men to change their perspective on women. If we want to improve the situation of women, we need to engage men in the debate.” There is still a long way to go …

‍Among other initiatives, The Womanity Foundation established the first radio station exclusively for women in the Middle East called Radio NISAA FM.  
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