The Maria effect

Maria Eitel, BA’84, helped rescue Nike from a PR nightmare and led the way as the company was transformed into an international role model. Now she is targeting poverty in the developing world by focusing attention on the lives of adolescent girls.

by Lisa Fitterman, BA'81

It all came down to this: an audience in 2004 with Nike board members to sell them on an idea that raised the company’s slogan, “Just Do It,” to a completely new, altruistic level. Maria Eitel, who had parlayed a stubborn streak and an unassailable work ethic into a high-profile career, wasn’t one to let her nerves get the best of her. But here she was, a year after company founder Phil Knight had challenged her to find a project that would make the world a better place, steeling herself as she opened the door to make the pitch of her life. About poverty, child brides and education. In the developing world. More specifically, in countries where Nike had no factories or investments.

She could see Knight seated at the head of the table. Mark Parker, the man who had hired her eight years earlier and the company’s future CEO, was there too. Eitel took a deep breath and began to speak about what it’s like to be powerless. She talked about the alarming number of adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa whose deaths are linked to unconscionably early pregnancy.

“Let me tell you about a 13-year-old girl in Ethiopia named Kidan,” she said. “And let me tell you about how we can do something very unique to help break the back of intergenerational poverty.”

A wider world

The middle child in a Greek-American family, Eitel grew up just north of Seattle in Everett, Washington—at the time, an often smelly pulp and paper town, depending on which way the wind blew. Her parents instilled in their children the notion that they could do whatever they wanted, no matter how far-fetched and untraditional, as long as they worked hard and weren’t afraid to fail.

Maria took those sentiments to heart. She was thwarted in her attempts to realize one of her earliest ambitions—to be an altar boy. The notion that gender could be used as an excuse to narrow anyone’s opportunities appalled her even then.

She wasn’t the type of kid that minded getting her hands grimy. Eitel remembers visiting her father’s boat repair business frequently as a kid, revelling in the smells of oil, grease and fish as she helped out.

Growing up, she was the family diplomat, especially when riding in the back seat of the car in between her older brother and younger sister—the negotiating skills she developed during family trips have come in handy ever since. Like when she turned 15 and decided she wanted to go to a boarding school in Switzerland. She presented a proposal to her startled parents about why they should send her, complete with all the requisite information associated with the cost of tuition and plane fare. If the arguments she presented for her unconventional plan didn’t sway them, her passion certainly did. How could they say no?

“I was gone for a full calendar year,” Eitel recalls. “When school let out, I travelled around with a non-roller suitcase, something I learned never to do again.”

Upon her return, she applied sight unseen to a small-town New England college. But she soon understood she’d made a big mistake. Having just experienced a year in Switzerland, she realized she wanted to see more of the world.

When her father asked if McGill—and Montreal—was “overseas” enough for her, something clicked. It was a happy cross between European style and North American convenience, with theatres that showed films in French. What was not to like?

Eitel arrived in the fall of 1981. She didn’t commit to a single program right away—she was interested in trying out a little bit of everything (she graduated with a degree in humanistic studies). While some American students rarely ventured into francophone neighbourhoods, Eitel took delight in fully exploring her new city and even had a boyfriend from the Saguenay.

Politely persistent

In her junior year, Eitel took a course in TV production that made her realize she wanted to be a journalist. That summer, she decided she would do an internship at the PBS affiliate in Seattle, only it didn’t have any to grant. She showed up anyway.

“I’ll just sit here in the lobby until there is something I can do for you,” she politely told the station director. “I’ll come back every day in case something opens up.”

The first day, she read a book. On the second day, the director came out again.

“Are you really going to sit there?”

“Yes,” she replied.

She got a job making coffee and photocopies. Soon, she was doing research. One day, the reporter she was paired with called in sick; Eitel filled in so expertly, she started doing her own stories.

Eitel (right) at the White House with (l to r) First Lady Michelle Obama, Jill Biden and former first lady Rosalynn Carter (photo: Samantha Appleton)

After graduating from McGill, Eitel did a master’s degree in foreign affairs at Georgetown University. As she began building her career, things didn’t always go according to plan and she learned to be resilient. Like when she wasn’t given the promotion she was hoping for while toiling for an NBC affiliate in an entry position. Or when she moved back to Montreal for a job at the CBC that fell through (she ended up working out of the basement of her boyfriend’s parents’ house, translating medical supply catalogues).

The biggest, most challenging curve ball she faced early on was also the most rewarding. She became a single mom to her daughter, Alexandra, who is now in college.

Alexandra entered her life at a critical juncture. Eitel was now at the White House, working in media affairs as part of George H. W. Bush’s administration. She landed the position through sheer tenacity.

“I can be a real pain and I badly wanted [that] job,” Eitel recalls.

“I called [the White House] day after day to ask if there was an opening. Finally, there was—a woman was going on pre-maternity leave.”

Eitel ended up serving as an official spokesperson for President Bush and managed major White House communications initiatives. “It was exhilarating—the kind of job where Nelson Mandela was there one day and Michael Jackson the next,” says Eitel.

The man who hired her was David Demarest, the White House communications director at the time.

“Maria was a consummate professional—cool under pressure, with lots of grace and good humour. Those qualities were often in short supply at a place like the White House, as it’s a workplace often characterized by pressure, power politics and prima donnas,” says Demarest, now the vice president for public affairs at Stanford University.

In the late nineties, Eitel and her daughter were living in Paris, where she had helped set up Microsoft’s European headquarters, when she got a call from a headhunter that Nike was looking for someone to help them recover from a public relations disaster.

It was 1996 and Life magazine had published a story about child labour in Pakistan, complete with a photo of a little boy named Tariq, surrounded by pieces of a Nike soccer ball that he spent the day stitching together for the grand sum of 60 cents. Soon, protesters across North America were calling for a Nike boycott as stories spread of the mistreatment of workers, not only in Pakistan, but also in factories in Indonesia, Vietnam and China.

“No one would be dumb enough to take on that job,” Eitel remembers thinking.

And yet, several months later, when Mark Parker personally called to ask if she’d fly to Nike’s Oregon headquarters for a meeting, she agreed.

“I thought, ‘That's pretty cool [that he called me directly] and it’s close to my family.’ I’d been a single mom for years. I’d dragged my daughter along to a ridiculous amount of stuff. Alexandra was really good at colouring during meetings.” The idea of settling somewhere close to her parents held definite appeal.

Over the course of three days, Eitel became convinced that the company was firmly committed to solving the problem no matter what it took. She and Alexandra moved to Oregon, close to her old stomping grounds. The first day she began work as Nike’s first-ever vice president for corporate responsibility, Knight asked her how long it would take to make the changes that were needed.

“Five years, with you behind me,” she said.

Eitel with Liberian president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and former U.S. president Bill Clinton (photo: Jason DeCrow/AP Photo)

It took seven. Over that time, the world watched closely as Eitel and her team dealt with health issues, sexual harassment charges and troubling allegations of child labour. It wasn’t easy, but she helped Nike transform its culture by instituting an agenda for corporate responsibility that encompassed fair labour practices, environmental sustainability and investment in communities from which the company drew its pool of workers.

Nike made sure that suppliers signed a code of conduct to ensure that they would adhere to new environmental and labour standards. The company increased the minimum age of workers in its footwear factories to 18 and in all other factories to 16. It insisted that all factories adopt U.S.-mandated standards for indoor air quality.

“This was an industry issue, not just a Nike issue,” Eitel insists. She believes that every major manufacturing company with a global profile was involved in similar practices. “Nike was chosen as a symbol because it was a ubiquitous brand.”

Seven years after Eitel and her team had begun their work, Nike, once in danger of becoming a corporate pariah, began to be viewed as a role model. Recently, for the second year in a row, Corporate Responsibility magazine rated Nike among the top 10 in its rankings of the 100 best corporate citizens, based on such measures as how companies treat human rights issues, their environmental track record and their approach to employee relations.

The effort took a toll. Eitel felt burned out and she was ready to move on. But Knight didn’t want her to go. Instead, he asked what her dream job would be.

After some thought, she told him that solving problems like workplace sexual harassment was largely meaningless if women were still mistreated when they came home at the end of the day. Why not use the Nike Foundation, which at the time was just a name on a piece of paper, to promote the empowerment of women more actively? It was time the company took on a bigger role in the world, she said.

Knight challenged her to come up with a plan.

So she did.

The girl who inspired The Girl Effect

Back in the boardroom in 2004, Eitel described Kidan’s day: laboriously drawing water from a filthy well, crouching in the dirt to hand-grind grain and revealing a dream to be a doctor and help the people in her village. Eitel had little doubt that the bright and determined little girl was destined for big things.

But when she mentioned Kidan’s dream to the girl’s mother, the older woman just shook her head. Her daughter’s future was already fixed, she said, for she was soon to be married off in return for some cows. Cows! Eitel felt powerless as she listened to the mother describe how she too once had dreams that were set aside long ago when she was mounted atop a donkey in her home village and taken away to be wed. It was the way things had always been done.

It was also what Eitel calls her “ignition moment,” when she became impassioned enough to act. In this case, it meant consulting, interviewing, collating and coming up with a plan that would make a difference to girls like Kidan, who were married off before they had the chance to grow up.

There are 250 million girls living in poverty around the world, she told the board. If we can make their lives better, we will make the planet better.

In doing her research, Eitel had discovered that adolescence was a huge turning point in the lives of girls in developing countries. Millions are married off before they turn 18. Most of these girls drop out of school and many quickly become mothers. In fact, pregnancy is the leading cause of death for girls between the ages of 15 and 18. These girls also tend to be at a much higher risk for HIV infections.

But their lives don’t have to unfold that way, Eitel stressed. The longer they stay in school, the more independent and better informed they become—and that benefits everyone around them. They earn higher wages (which they are far more likely to share with their families than their male counterparts). They are far less likely to have children while they are still children themselves. They stay healthier and they make sure that their kids stay healthy too.

Poverty is the biggest issue of our time and this is how we can make a difference, she concluded. While such an undertaking wouldn’t benefit Nike financially or do much to bolster the company’s powerful connection to the world of athletics, it did have the potential to reshape lives.

After the presentation, debate quickly ensued. Why should the board support her proposal rather than set up a sports program that more obviously revolved around Nike’s brand? Shouldn’t they focus on something in the U.S., instead of in countries that had little to do with Nike?

“In the end, Phil gave it a thumbs-up. I had a smile I couldn’t wipe off my face for days,” says Eitel. “For this powerful, driven sports company to choose to stand behind this 13-year-old girl, it’s ridiculously hopeful for all the Kidans in the world.”

As the president of the Nike Foundation, Eitel has been the driving force behind The Girl Effect, but she is quick to emphasize that she and Nike aren’t in it alone.

The NoVo Foundation, headed by Jennifer and Peter Buffet, has committed $117 million to the cause. The Department for International Development in the United Kingdom, which oversees the U.K.’s large-scale development programs, collaborates with the Nike Foundation to ensure that its programs are sensitive to the aspirations of The Girl Effect. Other partners include the UN Foundation, the World Bank and the Clinton Global Initiative. Actress Anne Hathaway has become a high-profile supporter and recently travelled to Africa with Eitel to visit some of the programs supported by the Nike Foundation.

The foundation is currently involved in more than 60 projects around the world. One program in Ethiopia has helped more than 11,000 girls stay in school while delaying marriage (the goal is to expand the project to reach out to 250,000 girls). Another program in Kenya targets older girls, offering financial literacy training and start-up support to help them achieve a measure of financial independence.

“I want people to be inspired to believe that seemingly intractable problems are solvable,” says Eitel. “It takes tenacity and hard work, but we have to stay ambitious. You can’t think, ‘Ah, I can’t solve that stuff, so why get involved.’ We need to get involved.”

It’s been nearly eight years since her fateful presentation to the Nike board and Eitel takes pride in how the vision has taken root since that day. But there is one thing that haunts her. She hasn’t been able to find out what happened to the girl who inspired The Girl Effect. She doesn’t know what happened to Kidan.

“Sometime in the next year, I’m going back to find her,” she promises. “I need to know.”

Lisa Fitterman is a Montreal-based freelance writer who writes regularly for Readers Digest International. Her recent stories include a profile of the man who received the world’s first full face transplant in Paris.

Latest Articles

En route pour les étoiles
Médecin, physicien, ingénieur, astronaute canadien… et, à compter de 2018, chercheur à bord de la Station spatiale internationale. Le parcours du diplômé David Saint-Jacques n’a rien de banal!
Principal Fortier reappointed for second term
Principal Suzanne Fortier will begin a second five-year term as McGill’s principal and vice-chancellor in 2018, while Chancellor Michael Meighen starts his second term as McGill’s chancellor on July 1.
A sister act worth the wait
Juno award winning jazz composer Christine Jensen, BMus’94, MMus’06, partners with a familiar collaborator on her new CD – her sister Ingrid, an acclaimed jazz musician in her own right.