“Each time you create a woman entrepreneur, the community gets stronger... and as a result of stronger communities, you have a stronger business,” Coca-Cola Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent said last week during the 2013 Women in the World summit at New York's Lincoln Center.

Speaking on a panel about the integral role women play in uplifting economies, Kent outlined the clear business case for empowering women both within and outside the walls of the Coca-Cola system. Working with and investing in women is one of the most powerful ways to spur sustainable economic growth and development, he said.

The seeds of Coke’s 5by20 initiative to empower 5 million new women entrepreneurs globally by 2020 were planted in 2007 when Kent spotted a glaring mismatch. Women accounted for seven in 10 purchases of Coca-Cola products globally, yet held a much smaller percentage of leadership positions within the company.

Coke launched its Global Women’s Initiative, a strategic plan to accelerate the development of female associates and leaders. More than 30 percent of senior roles are now held by women, up from 23 percent in 2008.

“We’re gaining traction because we called it out and it makes really good business sense,” Kent said during the discussion, which was moderated by Melanne Verveer, former U.S. ambassador for global women's issues, and also featured Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s finance minister, and Güler Sabanci, chairperson and managing director of Sabancı Holding.

Recognizing a need to make a difference in the marketplace, Coke introduced 5by20 in 2010. To date, the effort has reached 300,000 women entrepreneurs in a dozen countries.

“We’re very encouraged by our results so far… and we believe we will get to 5 million by 2020,” Kent said. He cited 5by20 programs in India and Brazil, and a recently announced three-year joint initiative with International Finance Corporation (IFC) to lend $100 million to women-owned or operated businesses in Eurasia and Africa.

Closing the Gender Gap

Dr. Ngozi, former managing director of the World Bank, noted that while investing in women is smart economics, moving “upstream” is even smarter. “If you get girls and young women early and educate and empower them, you change a nation,” she said, citing a World Bank study that identified women as the third emerging economy globally, behind China and India.

Sabanci, meanwhile, highlighted a public-private partnership to bring more women into Turkey’s workforce. Women currently make up more than 30 percent of the nation’s full-time workers;  companies such as hers are partnering with the Turkish government to move the needle.

“The smaller the gender gap, the more competitive, prosperous and productive the companies are,” she said. “I strongly believe it is our century, and that the competitiveness and comparative advantage of each company will rely on how much they engage women.”

Kent, too, advocated for close collaboration among the “Golden Triangle” of business, government and civil society, reiterating the need for companies to focus on initiatives that link to their core business.

“It can’t just be a project… it just can’t be charity,” he concluded. “It has to deliver a business-related benefit."