Lindsey Nefesh-Clarke has a vision for 2020: through digital technology, girls and women will have the access to education they need to be empowered as economic players. "I want a world in which women, men and children everywhere can live dignified lives, free from poverty and the violation of human rights," she says.

When Nefesh-Clarke was first doing development work in poor areas of Africa and Asia, there was no access to technology, and therefore no window to the outside world of knowledge, education and women's empowerment. Helping anyone out of abject poverty was tough going before the era of mobile phones, Facebook and online donations.

Then one day in the Philippines, while trying to help homeless children who had lost everything in a fire and were sleeping in a cemetery, Nefesh-Clarke saw something that gave her an idea. The children were living without electricity, water, or sanitation, and their education was threatened because they had lost schoolbooks and uniforms in the fire. But somebody had a mobile phone, and it became a lifeline for the whole community. A mobile phone made it possible to start an education program, and even became a way to hook up to a microfinance network. Years later, Nefesh-Clarke would come back to the cemetery to open an IT training center for girls right next to it.

Her work has focused on educating girls and women, because of the known correlation between female empowerment and successful economic development. "Increasing access for girls and women saves money on healthcare and welfare expenses and increases GDP," says Nefesh-Clarke. "It impacts the social and economic stability of a region--and as a result there is less extremism, less violence and terrorism."

Nefesh-Clarke decided to use technology to accelerate this trend, and she founded Women's WorldWide Web, or W4, an online crowdfunding platform aiming to promote girls' and women's empowerment in cities and in rural areas, in both developing and developed countries. W4 has three purposes: crowdfunding, connecting, and raising awareness.

First, it brings money from individual donors to women's empowerment projects--local projects run by local people in some of the most resource-constrained parts of the world--through a platform similar to the Kiva.org model. Projects seeking financing on the platform are rigorously vetted and W4 staff meets their leaders personally. The projects, which range from providing school meals to micro loans for women entrepreneurs, are listed on the website, and prospective donors can select a project and click to make a donation. As little as $5 can make a big difference for the recipients.

Second, W4 connects project leaders with each other and with mentors, so that someone sitting in an office in New York City can provide digital support and mentoring for a woman on the ground in Congo, for example. And third, it tracks stories and progress in order to spread the model, empower more women, and create more peace and prosperity.

Nefesh-Clarke says her top priority is to bring more education to girls and women, especially in technology. "If we want to realize the huge potential for sustainable development we have today with digital technology," she says, "we have to overcome the gender divide." She adds that in many areas of the world 45% fewer women than men have access to technology.

She recounts the story of a project in Pakistan promoting education for girls in a tribal area. A young co-founder of the project, a girl passionate about education like Nobel prize winner Malala Yousafzai, was assassinated. The other project leaders pressed on, but their office was bombed and they had to relocate. Still they pressed on, and now they are making progress. W4 supports them financially and digitally. "Our partners in Pakistan are heroes," says Nefesh-Clarke. "Every day they are putting their lives on the line."

Although she is continually confronted with harsh realities, digital technology makes her hopeful. "Each click is driving positive momentum. We are weaving the women's worldwide web, creating a virtuous spiral effect. The clicks will drive this to critical mass--and we will see change." In 2020, the world should already be a better place for women, and for all people.

Published on: Mar 5, 2015