How Girl Effect Uses Nike’s Playbook To Help Young Women Reach Their Full Potential

The latest video from the Nike Foundation spin-off aims to empower girls in the developing world–and inspire us to help them.

A Nike-inspired philanthropy just debuted its own Nike-like slogan. “Do you know that you can fly? That you can change the world?” That’s the opening message in Invisible Barriers, a short animated film from Girl Effect, an independent group that was originally started by the Nike Foundation, which creates culture brands to push messages of female empowerment and equality in developing countries.


The video features a voice-over poem by Nigerian poet Bassey Ikpi about the morale issues that young women in developing countries often face. There may be health and social services available, but many feel too marginalized to take advantage of them. It’s basically the sequel to The Clock is Ticking, another Girl Effect video from several years ago that described how, without more immediate investment in young girls’ futures, we’d lose an entire generation to continued poverty, early pregnancy, the sex trade, and HIV. Many groups listened. “The world is doing amazing work with brick-and-mortar programs, but there are prevailing, incredibly negative attitudes about adolescent girls living in poverty,” says CEO Farah Ramzan Golant. So it’s time for the next step. “We’ve really made a big attempt to dramatize what we think are the cultural and social norms that hold adolescent girls back.”

Ramzan Golant calls this a mission film: The goal is to show what happens when stigmatized women–those facing that invisible barrier–are encouraged to take control of their own destiny. To that end, the group’s Nike heritage is hard to miss. The story focuses on one woman physically struggling through difficult situations. “It was a modern and more provocative way to say, ‘How can we create a new normal where girls actually rise up and bring their communities with them?’” Ramzan Golant adds. There’s even a Just Do It moment: The woman symbolically breaks free of her oppression by running faster and faster until a look of joy crosses her face.

This is a lot like the actual work that Girl Effect does in communities themselves. Over the last decade, they’ve founded cultural brands that promote country specific magazines, events, and radio or talk shows encouraging girls in places like Rwanda and Ethiopia to stay safe, stay in school, and not cave in to pressures like marrying underage. They’ve also partnered with Facebook’s controversial Free Basics program to connect girls in isolated places with a place to network, share, and learn from each other’s experiences. (And hopefully expose more boys to how women want to be perceived.) That effort reaches 10 million people in 44 countries; it’s expected to reach 10 times more by 2018.

None of that works if Girl Effect content isn’t authentic. So they’ve also launched a “girl ambassador” program for girls within some communities to collect video, audio, and digital surveys from other girls who might otherwise balk at sharing such details. Next week, they’ll begin testing an informational hotline in Northern Nigeria that connects women in need with other women at a local call center, who have been trained to act as mentors and counselors. That will allow the group to really track who is using what services, and how well other group missions are working. It’s another Nike-like strategy. “Nike believes in the power of human potential beyond products,” Ramzan Golant says. But both can improve together.

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.