Vital Voices: Investing in Women for a Better Tomorrow

On every professional path there are roadblocks. When working in human rights and peacebuilding in a post-conflict society, these roadblocks can be particularly numerous. In the constant struggle to continue moving forward, a network of supporters and mentors is truly invaluable.

After over 15 years of working as a researcher, journalist and human rights defender, I found my professional support network among the women in the Vital Voices Global Partnership. This U.S.-based non-profit, grew out of the U.S. government’s successful Vital Voices Democracy Initiative.

Established in 1997 by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright after the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, Vital Voices Democracy Initiative set forth with the goal of promoting the advancement of women as a U.S. foreign policy goal.

For me, it all started in 2012 when I heard about the Global Ambassadors Program (GAP). GAP is a mentoring initiative established through a partnership of Vital Voices and Bank of America that connects women leaders — at a pivotal point in their professional, business and leadership paths — with established women executives for mentorship. As I worked to get my fledgling peacebuilding organization off the ground, I kept my eye on Vital Voices, hoping to participate when the time was right.

After a few years, my organization grew to become one of the leading peacebuilding organizations in the Western Balkans. To date, we have reached millions with our interventions and have received global recognition for our innovative peacebuilding approaches. Throughout five years of our work in the Western Balkans, my team and I went through both difficult and exciting times, constantly faced with new challenges and opportunities.

In late 2015, we hit a major roadblock. We started to lose funding. We knocked on many donors’ doors in the Balkans, but without much luck. My team was lost and tired. And so was I. At the peak of my exhaustion, I got an email from Liam Dall, former Senior Director of Development at Vital Voices and a personal friend announcing a new call for applications for Vital Voices’ Global Ambassadors Program was open. After some encouragement from Liam and my team, I sat down and filled out the application. A few weeks later, in February 2016 I’m traveling to London to become the first Global Ambassadors mentee from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Group photo with participants during the GAP week in London (photo: Vital Voices, FB Page)
Group photo with participants during the GAP week in London (photo: Vital Voices Facebook page)

Before arriving in London, I was introduced to my mentor, Susan Ann Davis – a pioneering woman business owner and an icon in the public relations industry. As a lifelong advocate for social entrepreneurship, democracy building and leadership development for women, Susan is the former Chair of the Board of Vital Voices Global Partnership and was the first International President of the International Women’s Forum, now representing over 6,000 women leaders. She is also the Board Chair for the Zabuli Education Center, educating 400 girls in Afghanistan.

Susan became a great supporter of my work and has, since the GAP week, helped me with her professional suggestions and advice as well as useful business connections. In addition to being my mentor, Susan became a close personal friend. She opened the door of her house to me, introducing me to her family and relatives and creating a bond much beyond a professional one.

The Global Ambassadors week in London changed my life. I was given an amazing opportunity to meet and work with incredible women leaders, such as Allison Shapira, CEO and Founder of Global Public Speaking LLC, Zoë Dean-Smith, Senior Director at Vital Voices and Ahu Serter, President of Farplas Group and Founder of ARYA Women Investment Platform.

Ahu later became a big supporter of my work inviting me to attend the Women Retreat 2016 – a unique event that combines leisure and business bringing together women entrepreneurs and potential investors from around the world.

In addition to these introductions, during our GAP London week, Vital Voices and Bank of America Merrill Lynch organized a public forum Women, Progress and the Global Economy. The forum convened experts and thought leaders to discuss contemporary issues concerning women’s economic and social empowerment, with special emphasis on women in the Middle East/North Africa and Eastern Europe. I spent the day in constructive discussions and panel sessions with the most amazing women change-makers, including Ambassador Melanne Verveer, Co-founder of Seneca Women, Anne Finucane, Vice Chairman of Bank of America, Christiane Amanpour, Chief International Correspondent at CNN, Atifete Jahjaga, President of Kosovo, and Baroness Mary Goudie.

Velma Šarić with Baroness Goudie during the London forum (photo: Velma Šarić Facebook page)
Velma Šarić with Baroness Goudie during the London forum (photo: Velma Šarić Facebook page)

This event brought so many amazing experiences and meet-ups, but for me, one was most humble and memorable. After the gathering two outstanding women, Anne Finucane and Melanne Verveer, co-authored an article for The Huffington Post, titled “Women’s Leadership to Advance Economic and Social Change, mentioning my work. In the article, they discussed how important questions of gender equality are and how ‘’from participating in peace talks to advancing stability through their businesses and economic development, women help drive progress’’.

After this amazing week, I had gained so much; in particular, I have a new family. A Vital Voices family.

Months passed and I continue to work together with my Vital Voices mentor Susan A. Davis and my Bank of America mentor Vivian M. Porcelli who helped my center and me to develop new connections and partnerships, work on our business and strategic plans and improve our outreach strategies. Alongside professional growth, what makes the Vital Voices initiatives special is their desire to also see your personal growth, to help you advance as a leader and as a person and find balance in life.

As fall was approaching, I was invited to another Vital Voices gathering, this time in partnership with Johnson & Johnson in Half Moon Bay, California. I was one of the 100 women from all around the world to attend this gathering and the only woman from Bosnia and Herzegovina to be a member of Vital Voices VV100 network .

During the gathering, I had an amazing opportunity to meet and work with Obiageli Ezekwesili, the co-founder of Transparency International and former Vice-President of the World Bank Africa. Obiageli told me that “whenever you become part of a network like this, it is because you share the drive, motivation [and] passion”. And this is exactly what I felt throughout the five days in California. The unbelievable power that these women have, the compassion and understanding they share and love and help they give were so overwhelming that I was left feeling humbled yet empowered.

Group photo with participants during the gathering in California (photo: vitalvoices.exposure.co)
Group photo with participants during the gathering in California (photo: vitalvoices.exposure.co)

Vital Voices strive to end gender-based violence realizing that as long as violence against women persists, women’s human rights are compromised. However, their approach is completely inclusive as they know that success will not be achieved by women alone. This is why they started Voices of Solidarity — a presentation of the Vital Voices Solidarity Awards — recognizing men who have shown courage and compassion in advocating on behalf of women and girls in the United States and around the world.

I was lucky enough to get the invite to the Voices of Solidarity 2016 event in New York. What started as a formal outing, ended as a night full of empowerment, laughter and positive energy. I had the honor to sit at the same table as the amazing Barbara H. Zuckerberg, Director of Barbara Hope Foundation and, as it turns out, Barbara was a great supporter of my first producing adventure – PBS’s Women, War and Peace. I was also thrilled to meet the new Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. António Guterres, who received the Voices of Solidarity Award for his work in the fight against gender-based violence.

Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres receiving the ‘’Voices of Solidarity’’ award (left) and during the ceremony dinner with Velma Šarić (right). (photo: vitalvoices.exposure.co & Velma Šarić Facebook page)
Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres receiving the ‘’Voices of Solidarity’’ award (left) and during the ceremony dinner with Velma Šarić (right). (photo: vitalvoices.exposure.co & Velma Šarić Facebook page)

Behind this great organization is the incredible Alyse Nelson – president and chief executive officer of Vital Voices. Alyse has worked with women leaders to develop training programs and international forums in over 140 countries and under her leadership, Vital Voices has tripled in size and expanded its global reach to serve a network of over 15,000 women leaders in 144 countries. For me, Alyse always stands out with her incredible energy and positive attitude and the way she always lifts our spirits with her encouraging words.

Alyse Nelson ‘’The experience of women gives them a unique advantage. Women have a deep desire to be heard and they recognize that need in others.’’ (Photos: vitalvoices.exposure.com & Pinterest)
Alyse Nelson “The experience of women gives them a unique advantage. Women have a deep desire to be heard and they recognize that need in others.” (Photos: vitalvoices.exposure.com & Pinterest)

One year after joining the Vital Voices family, I couldn’t be more proud and honored to be a part of such an amazing and empowering network of women leaders. Recently, Vital Voices nominated me to take part in the Vital Voices’ Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women’s Mentoring Program which pairs international business women at the crossroads of their leadership paths with top American female executives—Fortune’s Most Powerful Women– and their teams who serve as mentors. Just being nominated for such a program represents an amazing and exciting opportunity and I can’t wait to see where my Vital Voices path will take me next.

Velma Saric

Velma Šarić is Editor-in-Chief at Balkan Diskurs. She is a trained journalist and graduate of the BBC reporting school. Velma has dedicated her 14-year career to investigative reporting in the Western Balkans. She has worked as a court reporter for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, and Association of Court reporters in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As a freelance journalist, she has collaborated with: Al Jazeera, BBC, PBS, National Geographic, Süddeutsche Zeitung, The New York Times, La Repbulica, Le Monde, The Guardian, The Observer, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, TV Espana, Danish TV 2, and Deutsche Welle.

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Winner of the Intercultural Achievement Recognition Award by the Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs

Post-Conflict Research Center
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