The Role Women Play in Empowering Meaningful Change

By Mary Jane Melendez, Executive Director of the General Mills Foundation
Mar 8, 2017 1:45 PM ET

At General Mills, women play a vital role in the success of our company and our communities – from the female farmers who supply honey for our Nature Valley granola line and Honey Nut Cheerios to our workforce (more than half are women) to our female consumers across the globe, of all ages and backgrounds.

For decades, General Mills’ commitment to empowering women has been evident through our values. In 2015, we signed on to the United Nations Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEP) and our ongoing support of women in the workplace and in the communities where we operate is illustrated through our long-standing commitment to building a diverse and inclusive culture, delivering remarkable and measureable philanthropy, and creating shared value across our supply chain.

In celebration of International Women’s Day, I recently connected with a few of our (many) remarkable women leaders and partners to discuss their insights on their work and the role they see women play in empowering meaningful change.

Michelle Nunn, President & CEO of CARE USA (Global poverty-fighting organization)
Michelle has spent 25 years in civic and public service, as a social entrepreneur, a nonprofit CEO and a candidate for U.S. Senate in Georgia.

How is your organization making an impact in the world?

CARE is a global leader within the worldwide movement dedicated to ending poverty. We were founded in 1945 with the creation of the CARE Package™, and since then, we have worked tirelessly within communities to build sustainable solutions to defeat poverty and ensure social justice across the globe.

In 2016, CARE worked in 94 countries, alongside more than 80 million people in poor communities throughout the world. We fundamentally believe that change happens through people. We understand that many of today’s best ideas come from the women and men working in local communities around the world, and when these ideas work, we bring them to scale.

General Mills has been integral to some of our programs in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. Our partnership, has helped to form more than 130 Village Savings and Loan Associations – small savings-based groups called VSLAs - and has trained 4,000 cocoa farmers in sustainable agriculture training programs, helping to dramatically increase their yields. 

Across Africa, CARE’s VSLAs have more than five million members that have saved a combined $33 million, helping to grow women’s livelihoods and influence within their communities. General Mills is a great example of a company doing its part and using its expertise for good. At CARE we are proud to be a part of transforming lives through partnerships like this.

What role do women play in leading or advancing initiatives in our global communities?

We have come a long way since CARE began in 1945, but despite that, we know that major challenges still persist for women all over the world. At CARE, girls and women are at the heart of our efforts to create lasting, positive change, and we know that we cannot defeat poverty or social injustice until all people have equal rights and opportunities.

Consider Elizabeth, a 38-year-old mother who lives in Aki Kouamikro, a small community in Cote d’Ivoire. Before participating in her Village Savings and Loan (VSLA) group, which is one of several in Cote d’Ivoire made possible by the CARE and General Mills partnership, Elizabeth’s family depended solely on income earned by her husband, a cocoa farmer. Now, Elizabeth leads her VSLA, and thanks to her leadership, VSLA membership includes more than 100 women across the community. With her savings, Elizabeth manages a cassava plantation where she prepares and sells “akyeke,” a local delicacy. Elizabeth is just one of many women who, by saving just pennies a week alongside her neighbors, has taken the first step to begin changing her own life and the lives of women across her community.

What advice would you give to young people today (who want to make a difference in their community or beyond)?    

We can all play a role in making a difference, whether in our own community or beyond. At CARE, we are expanding our role as advocates for the most marginalized among us. We can all urge Congress to stand for and support American leadership in development, and you can learn more about our efforts and how to get involved at You can start and join women’s leadership councils, study groups or book clubs. You can start and join conversations that can change lives. We can share our experiences with our peers, and we can remind them of the importance of respect for all people and the rights that all of us have to live in dignity and security. Most importantly, no matter your age, you can recognize and embrace your responsibility to be brave and to stand for what you believe in, and thereby be a part of real change in the world. 

Diana Aviv, President & CEO of Feeding America
Diana Aviv is chief executive officer of Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization and third largest U.S. charity.

What initiatives have you led or advanced since you began working at Feeding America?

When I joined Feeding America in October 2015, I felt a tremendous sense of urgency to make sure that we were laser focused on ensuring that we were able to provide meals to the 42 million people who are food insecure. At the time, our network of 200 food banks across the U.S. had already made a meaningful commitment to providing fresh fruits and vegetables to folks who were food insecure. Since then, we’ve placed even greater emphasis on the importance of supplying people with healthy, nutritious food.

Why? We believe in giving people the same kind of high quality meals that we’d serve to our families: fruits, vegetables, lean protein, low-fat dairy, whole gains, and other healthy options. We believe it’s critical to provide food-insecure individuals with access to nutritious food.

Historically, Feeding America has measured our effectiveness in terms of the number of meals we provided to people in need each year. While 4 billion meals for people facing hunger is certainly an impressive result, we believe that we can and should do more to help people not just feed themselves today, but become more food secure in the future. In the last year, Feeding America has also begun to study the conditions that lead to food insecurity. Said differently, we’ll continue to try to meet the immediate need of feeding hungry people. At the same time, we’re developing strategies to help those who are able become increasingly independent over time.

What advice would you give to young people today (who want to make a difference in their community or beyond)?   

We’re fortunate to live in a world in which so many young people are deeply committed to positive change. My advice to them is to continue to pursue their passions. Their voices matter. Their efforts to ‘lean in’ are making a difference. And their talent and tech savvy are tremendous assets in this interconnected, fast-paced world of ours.

At the same time, I’d encourage them to be more cognizant of work that has come before them. The great scientist and mathematician, Sir Isaac Newton was fond of saying, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Sometimes working within existing structures can be more effective than launching an independent effort or new organization. I hope our younger generations will continue to pursue their passions with unbridled enthusiasm – I’ll be among the first cheering them on. When appropriate, I also hope they’ll strive to build upon existing programs changing them for the better in organizations that have, in their own right, seen tremendous success over the years.

Lisa Moon, President & CEO of The Global FoodBanking Network
Lisa Moon is the President & CEO of The Global FoodBanking Network, an international organization that connects hunger relief organizations in more than 30 countries. 

How is your organization making an impact in the world?

Hunger is largely a logistics and poverty problem. Food banking is a powerful solution – it captures food poised to be wasted and directs it to those in need.  The Global FoodBanking Network partners with local leaders to launch food banks in communities where they are needed and to accelerate the development of them where they exist. Our team is privileged to serve food banks in Australia, Latin America, Asia, and select countries in Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa, that together are nourishing more than 6.8 million people each year.   

What role do women play in leading or advancing initiatives in our global communities?

Women are food security game changers. They make up nearly half of the world’s farmers. In many places, women are mothers and the primary family caregivers, so they play arguably the most pivotal role in determining the nutritional status of their children and families. As the dominant collectors of wood and water in the developing world, women are largely the world’s energy providers and those that interface with our planet’s precious natural resources. Women serve as the linchpins of families and communities, and it is because of this truth that it is essential that we focus on their empowerment. 

What advice would you give to young people today (who want to make a difference in their community or beyond)?    

I’ve learned through my work at The Global FoodBanking Network that vision and long-term commitment are essential ingredients to making a difference in communities. Social challenges are complicated and tough to change. But they CAN be changed, and we need dedicated dreamers to make it happen.   

Dr. Marla Spivak, MacArthur Fellow and McKnight Distinguished Professor in Entomology at the University of Minnesota
Dr. Spivak’s research and education efforts focus on protecting and enhancing the health and diversity of bees.  

Has the role of women changed or evolved since you began working for your organization?

When I started keeping bees in 1974, I was told by beekeepers and bee researchers:  "There is no women's work or men's work, there is just work to be done."  Hearing that, I just dug in and never gave my gender a second thought. 

What advice would you give to young people today?

I tell my students to follow their passion, and to be persistent in that pursuit.  When obstacles arise, and they always do, I offer this:  Obstacles are puzzles in movement and thought, and many have win-win solutions.  I think women are great at finding these creative win-win solutions in their work and lives.  

Sylvie Galliaerde, External Relations & Corporate Social Responsibility, General Mills France
Sylvie has been with General Mills for five years after spending eight years at Danone as the Public Affairs Director. Prior to Danone, Sylvie  spent nine years in leadership and advisory roles with the French Ministry of Health, French National Assembly, and European Parliament.

How is your organization making an impact in the world?

We have initiated several projects over the years across Europe and Australia that focus on helping to alleviate hunger. More recently, we have taken a step back and thought about how we could evolve and explore food security which is a broader and longer-term issue that the entire world has to address.

We also wanted to identify a way to leverage our brands to advance and elevate our cause. We’ve identified biodiversity and pollinator health and habitat restoration as one of the major issues we could advance. Honey bees, butterflies, bumblebees, wild bees, birds and bats are responsible for pollinating hundreds of crops, including fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.  We know that 75 percent of vegetables require pollination. That said, General Mills is highly dependent on those ingredients to produce our food, especially our fruit yogurts and ice cream.

Since Yoplait’s 50th anniversary in 2015, we have supported a nonprofit association working on bee breeding and reproduction, and training professional beekeepers to become self-sufficient, to maintain colonies and protect the endemic local species. The issue is getting more and more traction. We are proud to have contributed by raising public awareness, not only in France but at an international level.

Has that role changed or evolved since you began working for your organization?

Business awareness has dramatically increased over the last couple of years and our engagement with communities and causes is getting progressively embedded into our business strategy. It makes so much sense to not only serve the world as a person but also as a company, not only because it’s the right thing to do for the planet and humanity, but because it makes sense for our consumer.