May 16, 2019

“Well-behaved women never make history — it’s time to start misbehaving,” said Leymah R. Gbowee, the 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate.

Gbowee gave her poignant acceptance speech in front of more than 350 guests at the Mandarin Oriental in New York City on May 9. She was one of the three honorees at SIPA’s Global Leadership Awards 19th Annual Gala, joining Muhtar Kent, former chairman and CEO of the Coca-Cola Company, and Jim Yong Kim, former president of World Bank Group.

The Global Leadership Awards recognize individuals and organizations that have made exceptional contributions to the global public good through their work in public, private, and non-profit sectors. This year’s event raised more than $875,000 to provide critical fellowship support for SIPA students and resources to recruit and educate outstanding students from around the world.

Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger kicked off the evening by praising SIPA’s efforts to “double down on facts, science, and data” in an era when they are imperiled in the public policy realm. Dean Merit E. Janow of SIPA acknowledged the three honorees and saluted University Provost John Coatsworth, himself a former SIPA dean, as he prepares to step down from his position as Provost.

Each honoree spoke briefly of his or her efforts to make a difference.

In Kent’s time at Coca-Cola, the company set goals to empower over 5 million women entrepreneurs in a decade, to lend its logistics systems to deliver medicine and provide clean water to underserved communities, and to launch a series of low- and zero-calorie drinks to fight obesity.

Kent explained in part how he met his ambitious goal of making the company water-neutral by the year 2020.

“It wasn’t understood well at the time,” he said. “‘How can [Coca-Cola] become water-neutral? You’re one of the biggest users of water in the world’. And we achieved it five years ahead of our target through reduction, recycling, and replenishment.”

Gbowee discussed how inequality and economic hardship often drive conflict, and vice-versa. She also urged the audience to speak truth to power.

Kim recounted the story of how his parents met each other in New York as young refugees from the Korean War, using their example to highlight how much living standards in South Korea, and around the world, have improved. He emphasized the importance of fostering growth and job creation and the utility of the global market system in helping countries achieve these goals.

“Without roads, energy, transport systems, access to broadband, there are going to be literally billions of people who, by accident of their birth, will have no opportunity to enjoy what they’re looking at on their smartphones,” he concluded.

The three honorees joined Janow for a conversation about pressing global issues. Gbowee said that many young people are taking up arms because they don’t see any hope in the future and suggested that things will worsen if proper education and healthcare systems are not in place after the conflicts end. Kent said that city governments have proven to be more agile and efficient than national ones in tackling global challenges since they must report directly to their residents and constituents.

Offering advice for students, Kim said that understanding what one’s own fundamental values are is more important than the field or sector one works in.

Kent said students shouldn’t give up, because the world has transformed drastically for the better within the last two decades.

Whenever students have an idea for what they want to do in the future, Gbowee advised, they should write it down and share with others.

If they tell you that your ideas sound crazy, “then you’re on the right track.”

— Jeenho Hahm MPA ’19