In 1973, Dayle Haddon graced the cover of Sports Illustrated wearing a bathing suit, making her an iconic symbol of America’s affluent consumer culture. On stage at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit Wednesday, she spoke about her current initiative: Educating women and girls who would otherwise have little access to schooling, in societies that are anything but affluent.
Haddon, the founder and CEO of non-profit WomenOne, said her organization partners with Fortune 500 and other companies to bring her education programs to disadvantaged women in eight countries so far.
Visiting a health clinic in Angola, Haddon saw women who “had walked all night with babies strapped to their back to get medical services,” she said at the conference in Laguna Niguel. But upon trying to obtain two microscopes that the clinic needed from UNICEF, she was told that the request was too small. “I thought, wow, that’s not too small for these women that walked all night. And at that moment a lightbulb went off,” she said. “I thought to myself, there is room for a smaller organization that can work with these bigger organizations that can seize the problem and turn it around.”
To make an impact as a relatively small organization, WomenOne has partnered with MasterCard (ma), which has provided grants for the non-profit to study countries and identify problems it might solve. With luxury goods corporation LVMH, WomenOne has built schools in Haiti and Senegal.
“We find wonderful companies that want to make a difference for girls, women and girls out there,” Haddon said, appealing to the executives in the audience who might be interested in their own partnership with the organization.
In the female populations that Haddon’s organization targets, poverty is just the start of their problems: Women and girls endure unwanted arranged marriages, as well as abuse including rape and female circumcision. “But education to me is a game-changer,” Haddon said.
She has also traveled to refugee camps, including Zaatari, the largest Syrian refugee camp, with 95,000 people. There, WomenOne provided cameras as part of a leadership and media program, asking female refugees “to film and photograph what they couldn’t speak about.” Haddon said the initiative provided an outlet for young girls to express their pent-up emotions, as well as offering motivation. One 14-year-old girl in the program “said, ‘I’m a bridge between despair and hope,'” Haddon recalled.
Because WomenOne has limited funding, it must hold tryouts and interviews for the female applicants to its programs, and often only has room to take 40 of them. Haddon looks for signs of dedication and commitment in selecting participants. In one extreme example, she described a girl who came to her audition limping, grimacing mid-interview. “What’s the matter?” the panel of decision makers asked. “I have a nail in my foot,” the girl answered.
“She wanted it so badly,” Haddon said. “We thought, someone with that kind of passion—she’s in. Because we know if you give her an opportunity, she’s going to go for it.”