American Billionaire Tackles Global Poverty Sheila Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television and president of WNBA's Washington Mystics, is partnering with CARE, a humanitarian organization, by investing millions to combat hunger and disease in developing nations.
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American Billionaire Tackles Global Poverty

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American Billionaire Tackles Global Poverty

American Billionaire Tackles Global Poverty

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I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: We'll get on the Double Dutch bus with rope skipping champion Tim Martin and Stephanie Johnes, the director of a new documentary about the history of Double Dutch.

But first, on TELL ME MORE, we like to bring you the stories of people making a difference in the lives of others. Today, Sheila Johnson, one of the country's wealthiest women. She's involved in a new effort to help some of the world's most vulnerable citizens - women. More than 70 percent of the poorest people on the planet are women and children.

Johnson is the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, and she's currently president of the Washington Mystics, a women's pro basketball team. Johnson is going to spend $4 million to match contributions over the next two years to CARE, the international aid organization. She wants to encourage other women in the U.S. to fight global poverty. Johnson recently joined forces with CARE CEO and president, Dr. Helene Gayle. The program is called I Am Powerful. Sheila Johnson and Dr. Helene Gayle join me in the studio. Welcome to you both.

Ms. SHEILA JOHNSON (Co-founder, Black Entertainment Television; President, Washington Mystics): Thank you.

Dr. HELENE GAYLE (President and CEO, CARE): Thanks.

MARTIN: Dr. Gayle, what are you trying to accomplish with the I Am Powerful program?

Dr. GAYLE: Well, the I Am Powerful campaign is a campaign that we hope will bring women in the United States together with women around the world and, kind of, women here rallying to the cause for empowering women in developing countries, women who are bearing the brunt of poverty. What we hope to do is to really start a movement that really gives women here an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the poorest women around the world. So as the campaign says, she has the power to change her world and you have the power to help her do it. It's an opportunity for us here, who live in a rich nation with privilege, with access to resources, to be able to do what we can to change the lives of women around the world.

MARTIN: Exactly what is it that you're asking people to do?

Dr. GAYLE: Well, the campaign is a campaign to increase people's awareness about the issues related to women so that they can be moved to action. And we hope that they will be moved to action through CARE.

MARTIN: Sheila Johnson, you recently visited Guatemala and Tanzania to see CARE programs. First of all, why did you go to those two places, and what did you see when you went there?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, first of all, those are the first two places that were assigned to me as an ambassador. And, you know, they're great countries to visit because Guatemala, on one hand, has CARE programs that have been going on for quite a while where the women have really become sort of entrepreneurial in making goods.

And you can really see the difference over a long period of time of how these programs have really enriched their lives. It's giving them the freedom to move on with their lives, and to me that was one of the greatest programs. For me going out for the first time was great, and my son went with me, so you could really see the before and after of the impact of CARE on their programs.

The Tanzania trip was really an eye-opener. Here we went out into rural villages and some, again, some of the CARE programs, you could really see where the women, through the village savings and loans, were able to really take charge of their lives, to be able to not only sell their goods, but you could see the difference in how their spouses or mates were really engaged in the program as well.

So, I mean, you could really see the range of problems that were going on. But you could also see where CARE's work on the ground is really starting to make a difference. And I said to Dr. Gale, are we coming back here? I want to see what's going to happen in another year, you know. And there's something that we may talk about, you know. I just wanted to stay there and do whatever we could do…

MARTIN: Well, talk to me about that. I mean, you didn't grow up rich, but you certainly didn't grow up poor.

Ms. JOHNSON: Right.

MARTIN: Is there something that you saw that just stays with you?

Ms. JOHNSON: Yes, it's the children. It's the devastation of just the health of the children. And I think more than anything through this campaign, if we can empower our women, if we can help them become stronger, to be able to take care of their families where they can negotiate their family's lives, it's going to help their children. It's going to help the community. The children are really not in good shape because, you know, inadequate water, inadequate health care, and, you know, this is a problem. And if this keeps going on, what's going to happen to our future?

MARTIN: Dr. Gayle, why are women disproportionately affected by global poverty?

Dr. GAYLE: Well, women faced stigma and discrimination and marginalization. And throughout the world, women have not had equal access to the things that are important to give people an equal life, whether it's education, access to health, access to the ability to earn an income. Women don't get paid for what they contribute as far as their work. Women do somewhere in the range of 70 percent of the world's work, but get five percent of the world's income.

MARTIN: Sheila Johnson, how did you two meet?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, I was introduced to Dr. Gayle. Just about a year ago, I was approached by CARE, and I did my homework, and I really got to find out what CARE was all about, about this I Am Powerful campaign. And was also approached to do a retreat with some of the most powerful women across this country. And over the course of trying to put the retreat together and also getting to know CARE, I got to meet Dr. Gayle. In fact, she had just come onboard.

Dr. GAYLE: Right.

Ms. JOHNSON: I think you were there for a couple of weeks.

Dr. GAYLE: Right.

Ms. JOHNSON: And just immediately, we both hit it off, and I was just so impressed that this African-American woman - it's the first African-American woman and president of CARE. I was just enamored by not only her power, but also her intelligence and just the passion that she had for the organization. And I said if she has this kind of passion, I'm going to do it, too.

MARTIN: You're the first African-American woman to head up CARE, which was one of the country's best known, largest NGOs, and I just wondered, does that mean anything to you to be the first African-American woman to lead an organization like this?

Dr. GAYLE: Well, I'm both the first woman and first African-American, so there's never been a woman, either, white or black. And so, yes, to me, it mean - it does mean a lot. You know, I think and I hope that I was chosen for the job because I was the best qualified regardless of race and gender. On the other hand, for the work that we do, where we are looking at ways that we can change the lives of women around the world, I hope that I bring a certain sensitivity to those issues, and hopefully as a role model. You know, I hope it does make a difference.

MARTIN: Sheila Johnson, there are some who would say there are many unmet needs in the United States…

Ms. JOHNSON: Okay.

MARTIN: …and they would argue that as a prominent African-American female businessperson, that perhaps your attention should be focus on this country. To those who have that point of view, what would you say?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, they need to read my resume, and if you go through the resume, I have given close to $26 million away in this country. Just through this movement alone, I think the tentacles that I'm going to put out there and with all the help of many, many wonderful women, that we're going to be able to reach and touch the souls of so many young people.

MARTIN: Well, the reason I ask, of course, is that you're aware that, you know, Oprah Winfrey got a great deal of attention earlier…

Ms. JOHNSON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: …in the year when she opened a school…

Ms. JOHNSON: Right.

MARTIN: …in South Africa, and the same question was put to her.

Ms. JOHNSON: Right.

MARTIN: And so I thought it was reasonable to put the question to you.

Ms. JOHNSON: Yes, but I have put $26 million into this country. What I'm doing through the WNBA, Parsons School of Design, the Jackie Robinson Foundation and the Executive Women's Foundation is that we are taking young people from this country and taking them over there so that they can work in the villages. You know, we do have problems here, but what I want to do is take these young people outside of themselves so they can see that their issues are not just here, but they're global. So I am doing something here, and I'm doing something abroad.

MARTIN: Sheila Johnson is the president of the Washington Mystics. Dr. Helene Gayle is the president and CEO of CARE. They joined me here in our Washington studio. Thank you both so much for joining me here today.

Ms. JOHNSON: Thank you.

Dr. GAYLE: Thank you.

MARTIN: For more information on CARE's I Am Powerful movement, visit our Web site at

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