“I am not a feminist, no,” Chiara Corazza declares. This sounds a bit odd, coming from the newly appointed managing director of the Women’s Forum for the Economy & Society, an international organization founded more than a dozen years ago in France to improve the status of women in the world.
“I’m not a feminist in the sense that I’m not in competition with men, or fighting them,” she continues, suggesting that the battle for female inclusion in the previously all-male business world has evolved into a new frontier over the past four decades. “As women, our way forward is to prove we have added value. For example, we take a long-term view. We are mothers so we are thinking of what kind of future there will be for our children; you don’t learn this at business school. We have to show that ‘I am so good that you need me’.” Because society needs us. We just have to prove it. Every day.”
Corazza has herself “proved it” consistently as General Manager of the Greater Paris Investment Agency (GPIA) – tasked with attracting talent and investors to the French capital – for the past 15 years, before taking on the Women’s Forum – an organization best-known for its global meetings attracting thousands of women (and men) every autumn for the past 12 years. She spoke with me in Paris for this blog.
Born in Parma, Italy, raised in Rome by a German nanny in an international family, Corazza speaks five languages fluently, holds British-Italian dual nationality, and holds a degree in political science and a PD in law from the University of Rome. Since marrying and moving to Paris in 1984, she has been active in a range of economic development activities and has developed a global perspective as well as an international network of business and political contacts that is already serving her well in her new role at the Women’s Forum.
“My goals for the Women’s Forum,” she says, “are two-fold: to stimulate people, to give them an opportunity to grow, and to instill confidence in women.” This includes not just women aiming for a seat in the corner office, but also women at the bottom of the pyramid. It’s about economic empowerment and political visibility.
“At the Greater Paris Regions in the ’90s I created a Solidarity Fund in Mali, Mauritania and Madagascar to improve the quality of life for women,” she says. “In Madagascar we rebuilt 27 schools after a hurricane destroyed a large portion of the island in 1993, for example.” In Vietnam, she was instrumental in creating schools for management and technology and ensured women students were included. She’s visited China some three dozen times, and is a frequent traveler to the Middle East. She is concerned about the rising tide of conservative religious politics in the region. “If we don’t help these women, they will be sent back to the Middle Ages!” she opines. That help is forthcoming through Women’s Forum outreach and seminars planned for the region.
For women in the industrial world, Corazza admits quotas have been useful in helping them find their place on corporate boards (she herself is Board member of RATP, the Paris regional rapid transit system). And she still thinks the issue of “choice” is paramount. “Women have to be able to choose whether to stay at home or not, and they have to understand that it’s OK to be ambitious.“
She’s also on the lookout for those she calls “hidden women” – women between the ages of 40 to 55, who have had solid careers but who remain unknown, out of the limelight. “We need to give these women the opportunity to be seen,” she says. “We always showcase new talent, but we should also be talking about these other women who are too shy to put themselves forward.”
Another agenda item for Corazza is the development of women as mentors. “We grew up with mentors who are men,” she recalls – and among hers are two French icons: legendary businessman Claude Bébéar, founder and first Chairman-CEO of AXA, the global insurance and financial services company, and Thierry Jacquillat CEO of drinks company Pernod Ricard. “But there are women who can step up and become mentors,” she says. Corazza herself cites IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde as the best example: Lagarde awarded Corazza the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest civilian award, in 2009.
Corazza has set out an ambitious agenda for the Women’s Forum over the next three years. For one thing, the global meeting will move from its original home in Deauville to Paris in October. “I’ve been promoting Paris for the past 33 years in my professional life. It is THE place to promote women,” she believes. “Paris is a feminine city, with 12,000 startups it is a city of innovation. If you want to create a manifesto for women, you do it in Paris!”
The next forum, however, is a regional one – in Rome, at the end of June, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, the cornerstone of the European Union. Then in November, the Women’s Forum holds a meeting in Mexico. Next year, sites include Singapore, Toronto and possibly South Africa.
But while the venues and the attendees may be diverse (and the attendees always include men), the goal for Corazza remains singular and focused – bringing the power of women to bear on important issues of the day. “If I were to name one overarching goal,” she says, “ it would be to continue to level the gender playing field – to help our economies and societies rebound from historic gender bias, and to help women fully realize their ambitions for their lives and their careers.”