What Does Coca-Cola Have To Do With Women’s Empowerment? Actually, A Lot.

With the exception of a brief period in 1985, Coca-Cola's taste has famously remained unchanged for over a century. In contrast, the foundation that carries this soda’s name has continually been a work in progress since its launch in 1984. Over the past thirty years, the Coca-Cola Foundation has expanded and shifted its giving many times over. In 2007, for instance, it added water stewardship, fitness, and nutrition to the mix.

And not long after that, it made room for a fourth new grantmaking niche: women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship. 

Grantees in this category are found on all corners of the globe and include schools, youth-mentorship programs, and scholarship funds, to name a few. The common denominator is that all of them expand girls and women’s opportunities for pursuing education and attaining fulfilling careers.

“We know that empowering women to be entrepreneurs and leaders yields dividends of community growth, prosperity and sustainability,” said the foundation in a Dec. 18, 2014, media release.

That statement marked the end of a year in which around $2 million of foundation money had gone out to programs that support girls and women who aspire to other life goals than traditional stay-at-home motherhood. And that total marks a long-term trend: In 2013, the foundation gave $1.67 million in grants to the same cause.

The grantees span the globe, including much of the “Global South,” from Sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East, South Asia, and beyond. A Pakistani operation known as the Kashf Foundation received $75,000 for a microloan program for business women in Pakistan. And a Kenya-based program, the Zawadi Africa Educational Fund, got a $100,000 grant to pay for college scholarships for Kenya’s female high-school graduates.

Some grantees are U.S. based. Girls, Inc., which maintains chapters throughout the United States, is one of these. Coca-Cola gave its Atlanta, Georgia, chapter $50,000 for several initiatives, including an Exploring Entrepreneurship program that teaches basic business skills to girls ages 6-18.

Even when Coca-Cola’s giving to U.S. organizations, though, it keeps an eye out for those that act globally. For instance, it gave a jumbo-sized $250,000 grant to Agnes Scott College, a women’s college in Georgia, for its annual hosting of the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, a federally sponsored leadership and mentoring program that brings over 25 female students from Africa every summer for several months of coursework and study.

So why did Coca-Cola suddenly take an interest in empowering women in the developing world? It’s actually not a surprising move at all, for a few reasons. First is that, for quite some time, the foundation has been deeply engaged in improving life in developing countries in general. The foundation was a huge benefactor to survivors of the 2010 Haiti earthquake and to various droughts and disease outbreaks throughout Africa. And it’s been a continuing source of support for efforts to boost public health, water security, sanitation, and education within developing countries everywhere. It’s helped the world’s most impoverished populations on many, many issues already. Women’s empowerment is, in essence, just one more.

Of course, this is also an issue that has gained a great deal of prominence over the past decade, with many experts arguing that gender equity is the key to development. The UN declared empowering women to be the third of its eight Millennium Development Goals. And a wide swath of other institutions, from the World Bank to the IMF and USAID, have individually asked what they can do to specifically help the developing world’s women. Numerous foundations operate in this area, in different ways.

And so while it once may have been notable that a mainstream corporate funder like Coca-Cola is embracing women's empowerment, it isn't any longer. Indeed, multinational corporations—with their first-hand understanding of how important human capital is to growth, whether for a company or a country—are often particularly quick to grasp the connection between gender equity and greater prosperity. (Walmart is another big company that's focusing heavily in this area, both in its business and philanthropic operations.)