Maria Eitel

Foundation Leader

Location: Beaverton, OR

"We need to get girls on the global agenda. We need to get them resources and we need to make them part of the economic equation."

When I was the Vice President of Corporate Responsibility at Nike, I reached this great moment where I felt I had accomplished what I came to do. I thought about leaving the company, but my gut told me there was something more, something really big I could create that would build on what I’d been doing and would help take Nike to the next level.

The idea was simple: Take a diamond in the rough, the Nike Foundation, and turn it into something that could have a major impact on the world.

So I went on what I like to call a “learning journey.” I talked to all of the most insightful people I knew and got their ideas. Then I asked them for three more people to talk to, and got those ideas, too. I also spent an enormous amount of time on the ground in developing countries. It was clear that poverty was, and still is, the issue of our time. But to truly solve the problem, not just put a Band-Aid on it, we had to get to the source and find the highest point of leverage to fix it.

At first, I believed addressing women in developing countries was the answer. But after more time on the ground, it became clear that once a girl becomes a woman, it’s already too late. She has likely quit school and already has several kids. Game over. Yet before she’s a woman, there’s still a chance. If we were going to break the poverty cycle, we had to start upstream.

But how? Reaching young girls in developing nations wasn’t an easy task. When we tried, we were told: “Oh, she’s out in the field,” “She’s tending the sheep,” or “She’s at the market.” It was clear “she” wasn’t in school, “she” wasn’t available, and “she” certainly wasn’t valued. Most often her family would ask, “Why would you want to talk with her?” That’s when we knew we were onto something.

We knew we needed to get girls on the global agenda. We wanted to get them resources and make them a part of the economic equation.

So that’s what the early years at the Nike Foundation were all about: making our plans known and helping people to understand that this was a real and important issue. At first, nobody thought it was an issue, which meant no one was thinking about solutions. I’d talk to people and they’d say, “Girls? Yeah sure, girls’ education.” And I’d say, “No, I’m not talking about girls’ education, I’m talking about girls as a driving force of economic change on the planet.” The more we talked, the more people started to listen.

And that was how the movement began. I soon realized that this was the “big” thing I had been seeking, and I had found the path to my authentic calling. I now spend my days cultivating social and economic change, and it feels great.