International Women's Day (IWD), celebrated each year on March 8th, has been celebrated for over a century in order to honour and celebrate women and spark further change when it comes to gender equality. I have always loved International Women's Day, and take the occasion to empower the women around me and appreciate the female mentors and role models in my life. This International Women's Day, I had the opportunity to discuss the day, mentorship, and female empowerment with the inspiring Elizabeth H. Filippouli.
Elizabeth H. Filippouli is a journalist, author, and entrepreneur who founder of Athena40 and Global Thinkers Forum. As a very accomplished woman who has dedicated much of her career to female empowerment, she is a woman to congratulate, look up to, and continue to encourage on a day like International Women's Day. When asked what International Women's Day means to her, Elizabeth replied,
"International Women's Day is a day of celebration and reflection, a day of waking up the activist within. On IWD we celebrate women's talent, achievements, and leadership skills. We reflect on the victories, but also on the long road ahead, the challenges and barriers that our sisters around the world must deal with. It is a day dedicated to activism and the imperative for all of us to become activists for positive change. All of us must think of our own role how we will keep pushing towards change for Gender Equality."
As the founder of two organizations whose work is centred around mentorship and amplifying marginalized voices, International Women's Day holds particular significance for Eliabeth. In honour of International Women's Day, Elizabeth's organization, Athena40, hosts a 'global conversation', creating a space for discussion that transcends national borders. This year's conversation hosted inspirational women from the USA, UK, Croatia, Denmark, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Jordan, and more, each representing different professions and cultural backgrounds. This conversation is inspired by and rooted in Elizabeth's belief in "the importance of connecting women from different cultures, opening our ears and our hearts to the sisters who grow up, live in and support different societies, we welcome their diversity, we appreciate the values they bring and we celebrate each woman’s uniqueness". No conversation could be more fitting to both celebrate diversity in the female experience and generate a focus on present women's issues for the year ahead.
The Power in Female Empowerment
Female empowerment is a central theme to both International Women's Day and Elizabeth's work. In the contemporary age, most women are no longer legally blocked from following their dreams or enjoying equal rights within democracies. However, systematic barriers and lack of encouragement still account for the lack of female representation in many fields of work such as politics. When asked where she imagined herself growing up, Elizabeth said she hoped to become a diplomat, recognizing herself as "someone interested in history, who would become a bridge for friendship and understanding among the different societies". While her path has led her down a different role, she views herself as a diplomat in a different sense, fulfilling her adolescent aspirations by centring the mission of Global Thinker's Forum on collaboration between people, cultures, and religions. I asked Elizabeth if she ever dreamt of reaching the personal and professional achievements she has accomplished today. To this, she responded,
"I always hoped to be able to achieve my dreams. My parents encouraged me to think and dream big but they also taught me to work hard, tirelessly, and always do my best with honesty and integrity. I never compromised on my values, and this is a personal achievement that I am most proud of. The world [is] full of injustice, inequality, and lack of opportunities for so many people. I hope that through my work I have managed to change some lives for the better, either by inspiring them and motivating them or by practically providing them with the skills and networks to pursue their own dreams"
In terms of how mentors and role models played into her successes, Elizabeth defined her mentors as "people who lead by example", "individuals whose life has been driven by a mission". She mentions one of her first mentors who was a collector of art demonstrated his dedication, discipline and focus in his work, his success a product of his devotion. Elizabeth writes, " it made me realize the importance of passion, the importance of serving a mission that speaks to one’s heart, while it creates a legacy of wider importance". In terms of how she accredits her successes, particularly the founding of Athena40 and Global Thinkers Forum, Elizabeth notes that her own personal drive and the network of support around her worked hand-in-hand: while she had developed a network of visionary thought leaders through her time as a journalist, she was also driven by self-empowerment and her own risk-taking nature. She says, "support is a two-way street, support must be received, and it must be given generously, it has to be shared because its effect then is multiplied".
When it comes to empowerment, Elizabeth recognizes both education and mentorship to be important tools for people to thrive. While education "builds confidence, cultivates critical thinking, and teaches people how to develop and use an informed inner voice", mentoring turns knowledge into wisdom. She writes,
"What you receive from a mentor is their condensed experience, the insights they acquired by failing, trying, failing again, then trying again, until they succeed. The realization that no one is faultless, everyone is challenged by prejudice, discrimination, social, economic, and psychological barriers, is a hugely empowering process. If women understand that, the more confident they will feel to push toward systemic change, with informed and confident perseverance".
From Women to the World
Prior to this interview, I began reading From Women to the World: Letters for a New Century, a book of letters composed by Elizabeth from women around the world to their mentors. The book serves as an inspiration to women, most specifically the younger generation of future leaders. When asked what inspired her to compose this book, Elizabeth shared that it was the other women who shared their stories that inspired the book's creation. The unique format stemmed from Elizabeth's personal experience of receiving a letter from her mother as a young woman:
"When I was eleven my mother wrote a letter to me, a young woman writing a letter to her little daughter. She was writing to me about her dreams, fears, her concerns, her aspirations for the future, her hopes for my future. She didn't give to me the letter until I turned 18. At the time I was ready, as a young woman myself, to see my mother differently. That letter was powerful, moving, I was inspired by it. I always thought ever since that when we open our hearts to another woman, it is a liberating and cathartic experience and a unique way to understand each other deeply, and appreciate each other more"
When asked about the legacy her book will generate, Elizabeth says she hopes it will communicate the message that we are stronger together: "That by embracing each other’s diversity, we become richer. The message that our world needs vision, visionary individuals, kindness, empathy, and tolerance". She also hopes the book will act as a catalyst for dialogue between cultures, generations, and religions alike in the hopes of working toward kinder humanity. Having found her voice through many forums throughout her career, including through journalism, the organizations she founded, and her book, Elizabeth has assumed the role of being a trailblazer for female empowerment. As such, she recognizes that those with some form of influence have a "duty to use that influence for positive change". But, as the past centuries of human rights issues, inequalities, and disenfranchised leaders and polities show demonstrate, and as Elizabeth notes- "It's a long road ahead".
In wrapping up with Elizabeth, I asked that she might share some advice for young women who want to be trailblazers for change in their own circles, their institutions and workplaces, and the world, in spirit of International Women's Day. She gave three key pieces of advice. First, identify your values and find a mission in life. She writes, "living a life driven by values builds tremendous resilience and strength and serving a mission brings inner fulfilment". Second, do not be afraid to make tough decisions when they arise- "audacity and fortune go hand in hand". Finally, listen to your gut, your instincts. Overall, she advises going forth with drive, courage, and confidence. With this food for thought, we might reconsider the significance we each bring to International Women's Day. Instead of taking this specific day each year to empower and show compassion to other women, Elizabeth calls us to devote each day to empowering not just others, but ourselves. Mentorship and self-empowerment go hand in hand- in order to create the future where kindness and cooperation fuel us as individuals and as leaders, we must believe in both the work of other women and ourselves.