Close-up: Leading ladies unite to inspire change

Nicola Mendelsohn told a gathering of 400 influential women how advertising can play a part in making the world a better place.

It's not often you find yourself discussing crystal-encrusted iPhone covers with Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan to your right and the best places in the world to meditate with Donna Karan to your left. But this is exactly the situation I found myself in recently (warning: even more shameless name-dropping to come, but bear with me).

It was for a good cause. I had been asked to speak at the Women: Inspiration & Enterprise symposium in New York in my capacity as a long-term campaigner for women's issues and also as a representative from the world of advertising. The conference was hosted by Sarah Brown, Karan and Arianna Huffington to a crowd of 400 powerful women from fashion, entertainment, politics, business, art - and even advertising! It was "a unique collection of dynamic women coming together to share our ideas, experiences and determination to make change happen". From the beginning of the day, we were encouraged to think about what contribution we can each make, however small, to make the world just that little bit better.

The day started with the author Kathy Lette as the master of ceremonies describing the audience as each other's Wonderbras. "Ladies," she declared. "When women come together, we lift each other up and make each other look bigger and better." Perhaps a somewhat surreal introduction to Queen Rania, who was being recognised for her global work on education.

The keynote speaker was Melinda Gates, a co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who has just pledged $1.5 billion over the next five years for maternal and child health. She told a fascinating story about a "new latrine" that she had just unveiled in a remote village in India. She was confused as to why the only toilet in the village had been placed outside the chief's hut. The reason? The female elders recognised that if the chief owned it, he would believe it was his idea, would be proud of it and would therefore be more likely to keep it clean.

Storytelling was a theme picked up by the film panel consisting of the writers, producers and directors Nancy Meyers (It's Complicated) and Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless In Seattle), the actress Elizabeth Banks and the documentary director and model Christy Turlington. They explored how Hollywood and TV have the power to influence the status quo by giving mass exposure to, for example, gay marriage, through shows such as Will And Grace and Ellen. Would gay marriages have been possible in the US had these not been so popular? Collectively, they were disappointed with the current output from Hollywood but felt the pendulum is starting to swing back to a desire to find more original screenplays and performances.

The fashion industry panel was hosted by Karan and featured Diane von Furstenberg, Lauren Bush, Tamara Mellon, Glenda Bailey and Sheila Johnson. Both as individuals and as an industry, they have raised hundreds of millions of pounds and awareness of multiple causes globally; in particular, for Aids. They emphasised the need for long-term campaigns that change behaviour, rather than doing one-off stunts. Bush urged the audience to think about what small act each of us could come up with to make a difference. And she has certainly made a difference; at 26, she is the chief executive and creative director of FEED, a new United Nations food programme that has generated more than 60 million free school meals globally.

A slightly surreal panel followed, in the form of wellness and holistic living, which ended on a group chant. Yes, I found myself chanting among 400 women praising my creator or, in the case of some, their therapist or interior designer. Nevertheless, the message was a serious one about the quality of life and taking health seriously. We were encouraged by Dr Susan Smalley, a professor of psychiatry and the founder of the Mindful Awareness Research Centre, to challenge all the habitual things that we do each day. Change the route you go to work, change your mode of transport, live in the present and have open curiosity. A sentiment shared by Kris Carr, the founder of, a cancer survivor who challenged everything doctors told her and is still here a decade after her initial diagnosis.

My own panel, creative campaigning, included Mabel van Oranje, the chief executive of the Elders, an independent group of eminent global leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela, and Nancy Lublin, the chief executive of I spoke about the experiences Karmarama has had working with The White Ribbon Alliance to campaign and raise awareness of maternal mortality. I talked about the need to agitate, educate and affiliate the masses to empower them to put pressure on their respective country's leaders.

I highlighted the success that we've had from piggybacking on high-profile events including Glastonbury, the African summit and the UN gathering. I explained how Karmarama has used its networks to encourage photographers such as Rankin to give their resources and time. How simple ideas can be the most effective - from rebranding Downing Street to Downing Tweet for a global Twitter campaign on maternal mortality to creating T-shirts and tattoos for The White Ribbon Alliance tattoo parlour we set up at Glastonbury, which created huge media coverage and sent Twitter into meltdown thanks to something as simple as Emma Watson choosing a "mum" tattoo.

Like any gathering of world leaders, it is not at the official events where the main business is done but in the accompanying dinners, gatherings, conferences and parties. So after a quick change, it was on to the Very Important Women's Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental hosted by Queen Rania, the PepsiCo chief executive, Indra Nooyi, and Wendi Murdoch. All of the guests spoke passionately about their own personal causes to help women globally but it was Graca Machel, the wife of Mandela, who stole the show. The only person to have married two world leaders, and to have served as an international advocate for women's and children's rights. She urged the audience to stand up and make a difference.

The evening culminated at a private party at Mayor Bloomberg's new foundation building, where he'd held his Men's Dinner. The invitees included Rupert Murdoch, Tony Blair, Mick Jagger, Matthew Freud, Chris Christie (the governor of New Jersey) and Harvey Weinstein. It is here, in such intimate surroundings, that I really began to appreciate how global business really takes shape. Great ideas remain at the heart of all the conversations.

- Nicola Mendelsohn is the chairman of Karmarama.


- Think about 'we', not me

People have more chance of making a difference if they work collaboratively.

- Challenge all the habitual things that you do

Be curious and challenge everything.

- Ask yourself what you can do to make a difference

No matter how small the change needs to be.

- Nurture your networks

Work hard at building your contacts and find people who will help you push in the right direction.

- Utilise the power of storytelling

Do not underestimate how much a powerful message can help challenge the status quo.


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