This Mentoring Program Helps Women Learn to Win, and Make Their Communities Better

Female execs from RPA, Saatchi, Disney XD and others sign on

Camila Pirelli wants to corral thousands of disadvantaged youngsters from shantytowns in her native Paraguay and teach them life lessons through sports—and maybe cultivate a future Olympian or two—while Paola Kuri travels around Mexico teaching girls to play soccer and advocating for the first professional women's league in the country.

Both women, along with about a dozen more, have been part of a mentor program that brought them to ad agencies, media companies, sports leagues and top-tier brands in the U.S. for a residency of sorts.

During their monthlong stay this fall, they fine-tuned ideas to improve their communities—with most programs aimed at women and children in low-income areas—and wrote action plans with help from female executives at RPA, Saatchi & Saatchi LA and Disney XD in Los Angeles. (Other hosts included Ketchum, WNBA, NHL, Procter & Gamble and Google.)

RPA's Conley (l.) with Pirelli

Kuri, whose efforts to break the gender barrier have started picking up steam recently via social media in Mexico City, said her stint at Saatchi was like a marketing boot camp.

"Now I understand how marketers think, and that will help me when I knock on doors," said Kuri, who last year founded Soccer Without Gender, a group that provides soccer clinics, equipment and life skills training. "I think they'll listen to me because I can speak their language."

Dubbed the Global Sports Mentoring Program, the effort comes from the U.S. State Department, espnW and the University of Tennessee. It began on the 40th anniversary of Title IX, and this is its fifth year of working to empower women in countries such as Pakistan, Kenya and Iran through sports. The participants, called "emerging leaders," are tackling gender bias, macho cultures, extreme poverty and educational ills with few resources to give life to their plans.

"They feel it's their duty to create social change," said Gwen Conley, RPA's vp, group media director, who mentored Pirelli, a Paraguayan track and field star in training for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. "For Camila, the goal was to help her break down her mission into tangible parts."

The emerging leaders in L.A. spent their time networking, learning about crowdfunding, nonprofits, grant writing, personnel management, social media and sponsorships, with an occasional Disneyland trip thrown in, particularly memorable for Rima Yacoub from Jordan, who was visiting the States for the first time. She said recently that she's "still absorbing" the experience.

 Saatchi's Coraggio (l.) and Soccer Without Gender founder Kuri

Her mentor, Jill Hotchkiss, Disney XD's vp, marketing and creative, wanted to include some fun along with "exposing her to the right people who could help her solve problems and take the next steps forward."

Yacoub, a gold medal jujitsu athlete, plans to grow her existing program that teaches martial arts to underserved women and children. Eventually she wants to establish a dedicated sports facility. "She won't just be building a building, she'll be building a brand," Hotchkiss said. "This will be an incredible resource for the community."

Joan Coraggio, Saatchi's group director of sponsorship and experiential marketing, has been part of the program for four consecutive years, saying it offers "an opportunity for us to apply our skills to a completely different kind of challenge."

She and her Saatchi colleagues have kept in touch with previous mentees, visiting South America to see their "tangible and measurable results."

"We want them to continue to feel supported even after they've left here," Coraggio said, and Hotchkiss compared the program to the beginning of a journey. "This isn't a finite period of time, and I'll continue to help Rima with her plans even when she's back in Jordan," she said. "It's not the end of the relationship."

This story first appeared in the November 14, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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