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Q&A with Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Monique Villa

Article Date: 2014-06-03

Thomson Reuters Foundation Chief Executive Officer Monique Villa on June 10 will moderate the ICRW panel discussion, “We Can Solve This: Tackling the Roots and Repercussions of Sexual Violence,”as part of the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London. Below, ICRW talks to Villa about what she hopes the discussion will achieve, what inspires her professionally and how she approaches business and philanthropy.

ICRW: You have a long, successful background in media, first as a reporter and bureau chief, and later as a business leader. You’re also well known as a passionate advocate for women’s rights as well as anti-slavery and trafficking. What inspired this professional and personal passion?

MV: As you know, I started my career as a journalist, and I think I never really stopped being one. The passion for stories, especially those less known, has never left me. As a journalist, I also experienced first hand the value of personal connections and how to make things happen, something that I also greatly value as a business woman.

In 2008, when I was asked to lead the Thomson Reuters Foundation, I was given the mandate to transform the Reuters Foundation into something bigger, I started from what made the most sense to me: observe, report, connect. At the foundation, we work now with the best law firms in 150 countries to provide free legal assistance to NGOs and social enterprises. We cover the world’s under-reported stories and promote the highest standards in journalism around the world. Plus, we take action to put the rule of law behind women’s rights. Our annual conference, Trust Women, has become one of the leading forums to take concrete action to fight human trafficking.

Slavery is an unknown crime. Yet, today, there are 30 million slaves in the world, the highest number in history. Slavery is an industry, and a wealthy one. It’s worth 150 billion dollars a year, more than the earnings of Apple and Google combined. We need more people to understand the issue and to take action. And we can take action. Slavery today doesn’t necessary mean people in chains. The chains are still there, but have become invisible to many of us, as they take the shape of debt bondage, forced labor, unpaid labor, sexual exploitation and philological control. The slavery issue is much more complex now that it has ever been.

ICRW: You’ve been described as holding a “strong belief that philanthropy and business must go together.” Tell us a little bit about this philosophy and how you have employed it while at the helm of the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

MV: I am a business person working in philanthropy. To some, this concept is still difficult to grasp. It’s based on the misconception that charity and business are two different worlds, not meant to intertwine.

I take quite a different approach. When I joined the foundation, Thomson had just acquired Reuters, grafting its legal, accounting and risk expertise into a news agency known across the world for its outstanding journalism and financial news. The new company, Thomson Reuters, had a much wider business scope, burning ambition, and tremendous talent. I saw this as an incredible opportunity for both the business and for society at large. I thought I was presented with the possibility to catalyze this energy to create something unique, something capable of having real impact across society. For this precise reason I completely reshaped the foundation’s approach to philanthropy.

The goal of the Thomson Reuters Foundation is to inform, connect and empower people around the world. We no longer give grants. Instead we have taken the lead in bringing business and society together by offering access to a number of innovative services which use the company’s unique set of skills to trigger change and empower people. It’s a model that is far from the social responsibility mind-set, but pretty close to the principles of shared value introduced by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer.

The idea is that profit and social progress go hand in hand, not their own ways. They happen together. There is no reason why a company cannot boost its competitiveness while also creating value within society. For this to happen a change of mindset must take place, along with a complete re-evaluation of the links between global society and global corporate performance. It is very much possible.

ICRW: This upcoming November you will be holding the third Trust Women Conference in London. What sparked the idea to start this annual gathering, and what do you hope to achieve?

MV: When I joined the foundation I started attending a lot of women’s rights conferences and I was a bit frustrated: these are often expensive talk shows, where you hear and meet very interesting cases but (without) delivering change. I decided to try to flip the model around. Trust Women is totally geared to action. Delegates who attend the event know that by coming to the conference they have an opportunity not just to network, but also to use their connections to make change happen.

As a direct result of the conference, together with the Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., I co-hosted a working group to encourage some of the biggest banks in the United States to contribute to the fight against human trafficking. The financial institutions accepted to share suspicious data with law enforcement agencies, and the issued international guidance aimed at helping the wider financial communities to identify and report irregularities in financial transactions when they see a pattern of human trafficking. We then distributed the document to a select number of top financial institutions, law enforcement agencies and anti-trafficking NGOs. The financial working group is a striking example, but the Trust Women website shows the list of many more actions taken at the event and the progress made so far.

This year, Trust Women takes place in London, on Nov. 18-19. Slavery and human trafficking remain high on the agenda. In particular we are going to explore the physiological damage inflicted by traffickers on their victims. We are also going to scrutinize the modern supply chain: Can big international companies that outsource parts of their production look at their customers in the eyes and tell them that the products they sell them are “slave free”? We are also going to look at issues such as access to finance for women, women and land rights, and women in the cities. It’s a rich agenda and we expect a very international turnout.

ICRW: You will be participating in an ICRW panel discussion during next week’s first-ever Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, hosted by the UK government in London. It’s bringing together experts from all over the world, from donors and policymakers to practitioners and advocates. What do you hope to see happen as a result of this conference?

I hope to see action taking shape. The panel that I am moderating includes John Crownover from CARE, who will be discussing the results of a very interesting program called the Young Men Initiative. CARE has been working with male youth in the Balkans region to help overcome gender norms that encourage violence in intimate relationships, as well as the idea thatphysical strength is a core feature of “being a man.” This kind of initiative is spot on. It shows real understanding of the issue and has delivered tangible results in a region where violence is so endemic that 55 percent of youth admits to have experienced it. This is the kind of approach I would like governments to take in relation to the issue of violence against women.

ICRW: Who is your hero and why?  And how has he or she shaped your own vision for the future?

Courage, generosity and leadership are qualities I deeply admire. I am inspired by Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl shot in the head by the Taliban because she dared to go to school, but I am also inspired by Warren Buffett, one of the most successful businessmen who has donated more than 3 billion dollars to the Gates Foundation without asking them to add his name. And of course, still and forever, by Nelson Mandela, who managed to revert decades of hatred and reconciled his nation and his people after 27 years in detention.

 

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