FORTUNE — Why should businesses help women in developing countries? Coca-Cola (KO) thinks it has a few good reasons, but don’t expect anything too syrupy sweet.
Two years ago, the soda conglomerate announced a big goal — get 5 million underprivileged women a stable income by the year 2020. It has plans to train women in more than 100 countries by the end of the decade.
Leading the charge is Charlotte Oades, the company’s global director for women’s economic empowerment — that’s her real title, but Oades isn’t just a do-gooder. She was previously head of Coke’s Great Britain business and was the communications chief for Europe. Her main job is to help Coke work toward another big goal, doubling its revenue by 2020. The company’s logic is that investments in women are a proven way of boosting a region’s economy and, in turn, increasing its buying power.
“Unless you have a sustainable community, you can’t have a business,” Oades says. Coke’s training programs include workshops in the “Parivartan,” a traveling air-conditioned bus in India that can reach women in different areas without making them travel to attend. The company also does financial workshops in Brazil and provides solar paneling to store owners in South Africa who are looking to stay open longer and keep beverages cool. Oades says she hopes that the focus on giving women a shot at earning a stable income will have a longer lasting impact than traditional philanthropy. “At the end of the day, if you’re just writing a check, that’s not sustainable,” she says.
Oades spoke with Fortune senior editor-at-large Nina Easton and women’s rights activist Alyse Nelson at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif. in early October. There, both women argued that there’s a practical reason for companies to support women. For starters, there’s ample evidence that communities benefit from women’s success. When women earn money, they’re more likely than men to spend it on food, while men are more likely to spend it on alcohol and tobacco, according to research by MIT economist Esther Duflo. Women will reinvest 90% of their income into the family, versus 30% to 40% for men.
The data also apply on a broader scale. The World Bank has said that ending discrimination against female workers would increase productivity by 25% in some countries. A Goldman Sachs report estimated that equal female representation in the workplace would boost GDP by 9% in the United States. In countries such as Malta, researchers have estimated the GDP gains from gender equality in the labor market could be as high as 40%.
Larry Summers (not exactly a noted feminist) put it this way when he was chief economist at the World Bank: “Investment in girls’ education may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world.”
But should Coke be the one making that investment? Corporate social responsibility has come under fire in some circles for being a PR tactic at best and, at worst, a distraction or deterrent from government action. Increasingly, though, there has been a call for companies to do more. As the world’s economies grow more interconnected, corporations overseas can have as great an influence as diplomats. At the same time, faith in public institutions has ebbed.
Coke has taken a careful approach with its campaign for women. It started the initiative two years ago, and expects to have helped some 305,000 women become economically independent by the end of 2012 – about on track with its target. The program first launched in four countries, and is in 12 today. That’s big progress especially considering Oades’s staff consists of only two other people, plus her assistant. However, there’s still a long way to go to get to the more than 100 countries and 5 million women it hopes to reach.
At first blush, it seems like Coke’s initial investment is modest. The company declined to say how much it has spent on the effort. But Oades says that having just two staffers, rather than her own division, has been an asset. The project has support from senior executives, including CEO Muhtar Kent, who often gives it lip service in public appearances. “Unless you embed it [within the senior ranks],” Oades says of the mission, “it doesn’t really get done.”
There’s certainly a lot to do. Even though roughly one third of small businesses in emerging markets are run by women, according to World Bank data, women run only 1% of the businesses in corporate supply chains. Focusing on that gap is an “extremely strategic” approach to development, says Alyse Nelson, who is CEO and president of Vital Voices Global Partnership. Nelson founded Vital Voices with Hillary Clinton, and has worked to prop up women-run businesses around the world. “This is extremely important: We’re doing this because it’s smart,” she says. “That approach changes the value of women.”