Q&A with Bobbi Silten of Gap Inc.

Article Date

25 February 2011

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

Bobbi Silten Gap Inc.Bobbi Silten is chief foundation officer of Gap Inc., a specialty retailer whose brands include Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy and others. Silten will participate in ICRW’s Passports to Progress event on March 8, a conversation focused on innovative ideas that can help improve women’s lives.

We asked Silten a few questions via e-mail about a program for female garment workers in which Gap Inc. and ICRW are partners. Here are her responses:

ICRW: ICRW partners with Gap Inc. on the Personal Advancement and Career Enhancement (P.A.C.E.) program in India and Cambodia. How did this program come about?

BS: In 2005, we reviewed our community investment approach to determine how we could make an even greater impact globally. We leveraged existing research to examine the needs in developing countries and determined where we as a company were best positioned to create lasting change. The research directed us to investing in women, which can help to transform not just women themselves, but also their families, communities and society as a whole. 

Globally, 80 percent of garment workers are women. Our partnerships with manufacturers around the world give us an opportunity to provide a venue to educate women and help female garment workers advance in the workplace and in their personal lives. Since the creation of P.A.C.E. based on these insights, ICRW has been working with us as our strategy and evaluation partner.

ICRW: Tell us a little about P.A.C.E.

BS: The garment industry is one of the largest employers of low‐skilled women workers worldwide. Despite their large numbers in the workforce, relatively few female line workers advance to positions in management, as they have limited opportunities to enhance the workplace skills they need for professional growth.  Also, they often have limited life skills, which can allow their personal challenges to impede their professional development as well as their personal growth.

In response to this need, we initiated the Gap Inc. P.A.C.E workplace education program. Our strategic research began in late 2005, program design and development took place in 2006 and a pilot program was launched in 2007 in two garment factories in India. The program has since expanded to Cambodia, and pilot programs have launched in Bangladesh, China and Vietnam.

An innovative factory‐based program, the main focus of the Gap Inc. P.A.C.E. program is to positively impact female garment workers in factories that make Gap Inc. products by providing them with foundational skills and support that will help them advance in the workplace and in life. The program leverages Gap Inc.’s partnerships with key vendor partners, ICRW and local in-country nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

ICRW: What has Gap Inc. learned from P.A.C.E.?

BS: In designing and implementing P.A.C.E., we recognize that there will be unforeseen challenges and we expect to learn as we go. We are continually reviewing the trainings, structure and implementation methodologies to provide the greatest benefit to the women in the program.  P.A.C.E. was designed to be adaptable to incorporate what we learn as we implement the program. A steering committee is in place to help facilitate these changes.

One example is the need to take different approaches to how we implement the program based on country-specific needs. When we expanded the program to Cambodia, 24 percent of the women enrolled in the first year of P.A.C.E. were not functionally literate, so a literacy module was added to the program.  As a result, participants who previously did not know the Khmer alphabet can write their names and basic words, and can read key words and signs that they encounter throughout the workday.

Another key learning is finding the right balance between quality and quantity. As we see the transformative impact of P.A.C.E., we are experimenting with ways to reach more women. While we look to have a broader impact, we have to make strategic decisions about the depth of impact we have on the women in the program.  Our direction is to maintain the transformative power and consistency of our program, even if it means that expansion is slower over time.

ICRW: What are the benefits of developing partnerships between for-profit organizations like Gap Inc. and nonprofits like ICRW?

BS: Addressing complex social challenges requires collaboration among multiple sectors and types of organizations. Partnerships between for-profit and nonprofit organizations are powerful because each organization brings their core competencies and expertise on how to best address societal issues. These relationships are essential to deepening impact and creating sustainable change.

P.A.C.E. demonstrates how such collaboration can work in practice. ICRW offers deep knowledge of the issues facing women in developing countries and expertise in evaluation, which is essential to help programs like P.A.C.E. improve and expand. Our implementation partners bring insight into local cultures, and deliver the program’s training. Our vendor partners enable us to reach women in the workplace and they deliver the training that help women develop the technical skills they need to advance. Gap Inc. has an in-depth knowledge of the complex garment industry and helps bring these parties together in the program design, development and implementation. 

ICRW: As part of ICRW’s 35th anniversary celebration, you will be part of a March 8 discussion on innovations that have the potential to change the lives of women in developing countries. How is P.A.C.E. innovative in its approach?

BS: The innovation of our programs is derived from two foundational strategies: leveraging our company assets and creating a virtuous cycle in everything we do.

We recognize that we have assets beyond cash that can help us make a deeper impact than by writing a check alone. In the case of P.A.C.E., our knowledge of garment production and the workplace, and our partnership with strategic vendors open doors to engaging with female factory workers. We also leverage our in-country teams, who support program implementation. These company assets help enhance our impact.

With P.A.C.E., all of our partners offer a unique set of assets, which enables the team to create a collective impact more than any of our organizations could do working individually. We also all take part in a “virtuous cycle,” benefitting from the partnership and our work on the program. We believe that this is an innovative element of our program that makes our work sustainable.

The women enrolled in the program gain new skills and experience positive results at work and in their personal lives. Our NGO partners who implement the program engage with the vendor’s human resources professionals to both learn and transfer their knowledge.  The vendor is getting a more skilled and reliable workforce. Meanwhile, ICRW and our other partners are gaining new insights through P.A.C.E. that can help their investments in women more broadly.  And Gap Inc. is able to achieve its social mission of “fulfilling personal promise” and strengthening the communities where we do business.  We believe this is truly a virtuous cycle.