Empower Women, Empower Humanity
Irene Natividad B’71, H’87 has dedicated her life and career to empowering women. Founder and president of the international economic forum Global Summit of Women—an annual assembly of women leaders from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors dedicated to expanding business and economic opportunity for women around the world—Natividad is one of the foremost advocates for women’s economic advancement.
In New York for the United Nations’ International Women’s Day in March, Natividad explained the genesis and long arc of her passionate work. The UN event’s slogan, “Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity,” and a speech there by Hillary Rodham Clinton mirrored her own beliefs.
“Women aren’t victims; they are change agents,” she explained. “They’re half of the world’s workers, they impact the profitability of companies worldwide.” Women make more than half of household purchasing decisions worldwide, and own more than 60 percent of the cars in the United States, she said, adding, ”In the aggregate, we clearly aren’t in charge, but we form the base of every economy in the world.”
At Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus in the late 1960s and early 1970s, frequent political demonstrations drew Natividad in. “I was young at a time when young people protested,” she said. “There was a sense that we could make change.” This all felt normal to her; she had spent her adolescence in Iran during the Shah’s return in the early 1960s, witnessing many protests against Americans. During her high school years in Athens, Greece’s King Constantine was deposed. Natividad was encouraged to succeed by her mother, who was unable to work as the spouse of a Filipino engineer and channeled her energies into her daughter’s success.
“She was a tiger mom before that term existed,” Natividad said, remembering her mother’s words: “I don’t care what you are. Just be number one.” Her mother pushed for her to attend university in Switzerland, but Natividad insisted on New York. She arrived at Long Island University in the fall of 1966 and enrolled in the newly founded Honors Program.
In the words of Dr. Bernice Braid, who directed it from 1968 until retiring in 2005, the LIU Honors Program “treated the world as a laboratory ever since its first year.” There, Natividad found an intellectual home.
“I tried everything: languages, business administration, comparative literature,” she said. “What I liked was the multidisciplinary approach. College should prepare you to compare, articulate, compute, and to be a good human being with values.” The languages now serve her well in the international arena, and the accounting course was invaluable decades later, when she was appointed by President Bill Clinton to serve on the Board of Directors of the Fortune 100 company Sallie Mae.
Natividad began her career after graduating from LIU Brooklyn as valedictorian (still shaking her head over an imperfect grade in Italian that brought her GPA down to 3.9), in the comparative literature Ph.D. program at Columbia University, studying, among other things, the overlooked narratives of female slaves.
She also married her college sweetheart, LIU Brooklyn soccer standout Andrea Cortese B’71, whom she’d met while working in the library, one of her three campus jobs. “I did acquisitions, and he catalogued the girls as they came in,” she quipped. The couple quickly established that life at home would not be the traditional structure to which the Italian Cortese was accustomed. Duties at home, including care for their son, Carlo, were divided equally—a key requirement, she believes, for women who want to advance professionally.
Natividad became involved in political organizing while also teaching non-traditional college students—many of whom were women trying to advance their careers—in continuing education programs in the early 1980s. She started with the Manhattan Women’s Political Caucus, gaining the support of prominent women’s movement figures such as Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, and Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman Member of Congress. In 1985, she became president of the National Women’s Political Caucus, whose mission is electing and appointing more women to public office. Natividad and Cortese, who now works for the London-based Inmarsat satellite communications company, packed up their family and moved to Washington, D.C.
The political realm had its limitations: “You can’t do politics without money,” Natividad said. In 1994 she was appointed to the Sallie Mae board, and during her tenure helped privatize the federal mortgage giant. She realized that on a board, “You have a seat at the table and you have a vote.” And, access to capital.
This pivotal realization convinced Natividad to shift her focus towards advocating
for women’s success in a new way. Natividad bases her current focus—appointing more women leaders at the highest levels—not on the concept of fairness but on economic research.
“It’s not just representational, it’s about profitability,” she said, citing a study that projected a nine percent growth in the U.S. gross domestic product if women’s talents were fully realized. “There are tons of studies that show better financial performance when there are more women in management or on a corporate board. Those companies with women on their boards survived the financial crisis better.” She also cited a recent Chinese study that found a much lower occurrence of regulatory violations when women were on boards, calling the appointment of women to leadership positions “a risk management strategy.”
In the United States, Natividad said, everyone expected that with equal education women would work their way up. “Up didn’t happen,” she said, noting that in the United States, only 16.9 percent of corporate board members and less than five percent of CEOs are women. “It’s called the sticky floor, not the glass ceiling. There have always been women executives who are qualified; they’ve never been asked because people choose people who look like them and who have been on other corporate boards.”
The United States lags Europe in women on corporate boards, Natividad said, compared to France’s 30 percent and Norway’s 40. This is because those countries have set quotas, which she favors. “It’s an accelerant. It has a deadline,” she said.
Natividad is also founder and president of GlobeWomen Inc., a public affairs firm based in Washington, D.C., that provides consulting services to companies worldwide for policies affecting women, as well as research. This complements the mission of the Global Summit: inspiring the government officials, CEOs, and senior executives in attendance with solutions and creative strategies for women’s advancement in the global economy. Last year the business forum drew 1,240 participants from 82 countries to Paris. This year’s summit—“Creative Women, Creative Economies,” May 14-16 in Sao Paulo, Brazil—will mark Global Summit of Women’s 25th anniversary. ”It’s the only economic and business forum for women that is global,” Natividad said, adding that this year she has invited men who will support the organization’s work.
As she approaches the years when many slow down, Natividad instead directs her energies strategically and doesn’t waste time “Leadership means saying ‘Yes’ instead of ‘No, I can’t,’ and it isn’t easy to maintain that leadership role. It requires enormous effort.”
But her effort is paying off. Natividad’s work is becoming even more high profile as her longtime friend, Hillary Clinton, the presumed Democratic candidate for President of the United States in 2016, speaks out with similar messages. Natividad’s take on this is characteristically pragmatic: “To have the largest economy in the world headed by a woman sends a strong message.”