Anne (“please, call me Annie”) Hathaway may be best known to movie fans as a princess, the spoiled wife of a closeted cowboy, or Catwoman. But to the Nike Foundation’s Maria Eitel, she has become an essential partner. “She’s super authentically committed,” says Eitel. “Annie did a World Bank event at a critical time for us when we really needed to get the attention of mid-level staffers to get them to move stuff around autocrats. Usually you only get 50 people to show up for a World Bank event. We had, like, over 500.”
When Fast Company spoke to Hathaway this spring on the subject of Extraordinary Women, she was wrapping up work on her latest film, Les Misérables. She was, as promised, super authentically committed.
FAST COMPANY: Maria Eitel talks a lot about “ignition,” and how it’s the first step to helping a girl fulfill her potential. What or who ignited you?
ANNE HATHAWAY: It was my parents. I was raised to consider my own privilege. We were not a wealthy family, but we had more than a lot of people. My parents made sure we were aware–we worked in soup kitchens and talked about women’s issues. I was a child of the ’90s. It had a huge impact on me to be raised to believe that my gender was neither a benefit nor an obstacle. That is not the norm for a lot of people in the world.
Then as I started to gain recognition for my work, there was a spotlight on me. What to talk about? Shoes? Well, yeah, I can talk about shoes. I love shoes. But what can I do with my time and level of attention that I’ve been given? I was looking for something that could have a real benefit.
How did you start?
Well, I’ve always loved children. If you have an ounce of energy in you, I think you should try to use it to make the future better. I met with Michelle Kydd Lee–she’s at CAA–who works in the philanthropic sphere and hooks up causes with different celebs. Over lunch, while we were talking, she came up with the idea to meet Maria. And that was pretty much it. We went to UN meetings, started discussing world problems. Then the Girl Effect video came out and we really started crushing hard on each other. As soon as I met the girls I was so in.
Tell me about your first trip to the field.
We started in Kenya, in Nairobi. It was an eye-opener–I was forced to confront my own pre-conceived notions. I’d done aid work before, but this one got me down for a few days of the trip. This is never going to work, I thought. It’s too big. There are too many challenges.
But by the third day I was meeting girls and hearing their stories. Your eyes start to adjust and you start to see incremental changes. And they’re real. This is the type of work that can’t be undone. It’s not a typical aid thing where you come and create a model, and then leave and the model collapses. You’re igniting their souls, and giving them confidence and tools they can use the rest of their lives. If you can affect one girl, it impacts four people in her life. It’s the most amazing return on your investment.
How do you and Maria work together?
Maria and I brainstorm a lot. We talk about what we can do on the ground and how we can bring the Effect to the world at large. I’ve learned a lot–she’s been in the trenches for 8 years on this thing. What I still can’t believe is that there wasn’t data available about girls. Blew my mind! In some cultures, there wasn’t even a word for this category of human.
Maria has a rare gift–a remarkable mind that can make huge, gorgeous acrobatic leaps. Hard to have a mind like that and be a great communicator, and yet she is both. She is the most passionate woman I’ve ever met. Now, for me, it’s about supporting her vision with the slightly surreal level of fame that I have.
She tells a great story about what it was like to try to get heard at the World Bank. She brought you, and every mid-level bureaucrat showed up for a meeting.
I went to the World Bank to speak for Girls Day, and I met some of the girls for the first time. They were so sweet and beautiful and well-mannered. I was somewhat shy talking to them. But I did ask one girl what the biggest thing she’d learned from our programs was. She said, “That it’s all right to make eye contact. Where I come from, a girl is not supposed to look anyone in the eye.” That’s when I knew I was pre-square one and there is so much that I take for granted. I want every single girl to have the experience that I had growing up. Freedom, support, doors open. It had never occurred to me that I couldn’t get through every door I wasn’t working hard to go through.
That’s what makes the child marriage issue so difficult–it shuts everything else down.
It’s the thing that pains my heart the most. Especially because one of the huge misunderstandings around it is that people think it’s done for religious reasons, and not because there is a lack of dialogue between men and women. The Berhane Hewan program changed everything. It’s as simple as a group of men and women coming together to talk.
I was in the Amhara region of Ethiopia for the last day of our trip, to learn about a water project. They’d developed a water program but no program to support the girls in the community. They collect the water! So we asked if we could partner. We visited one school that had three different clubs, and one girl was in all three. As we visited, she raised her hand three different times, this tiny slip of a 12-year-old girl. She spoke with complete confidence and authority about how she wanted to be the best Ethiopian citizen.
What exactly did she say?
We asked her, “Yamada, you’re 12. Do you know any girls who are married?” Yes. “What if your parents say you have to get married?” I would take them to court. It is illegal under Ethiopian law and I would find a village elder. She did this with no Internet. Okay? She is going to be a community leader. If her education continues and she delays her marriage and can plan her first child–if we can protect her–then imagine what we’ve just done.
What’s your call to action?
Not to sound greedy, but financial support is always welcome. We have amazing tools to connect us to each other; keep that connection alive and make it part of your day. Think about the girls. Find out how they’re doing. What they need is not glamorous–kerosene, for their lamps. It would make such a difference. They have to do all the chores so they can only study at night. If you can ensure that the community has lamps, the Girl Effect grows. Learning about Girl Hub is really huge. As Girl Hubs expand, there will be more and better ways to help.