Maria Eitel – WOMAN of ACTION™



A Celebration of Women™

is elated to Celebrate the Life of Maria Eitel, president and CEO of the Nike Foundation, discusses how to increase the economic opportunities for adolescent girls and young women during the Adolescent Girls Initiative in Washington DC in 2010. 

Maria Eitel may be at the helm of a multi-million dollar corporation, but she’s also a woman passionate about changing conditions for girls and women in developing countries. She’s putting the needs of disadvantaged girls on the global agenda by driving resources through a number of initiatives, including The Nike Foundation’s Girl Effect project which aims to bring 50 million adolescent girls out of poverty by 2030. In less than a decade, Girl Effect has created ground breaking research that has put the needs of impoverished girls on the global agenda by promoting the powerful social and economic changes that can bought about by investing in and empowering girls.




maria eitel

Maria Eitel



Maria Eitel is the founding President of the Nike Foundation where she works to unleash the girl effect, the powerful social and economic change brought about when girls have opportunity. She leads the Foundation’s efforts to put girls on the global agenda and drive resources to them with the goal of eradicating global poverty. The work of the Nike Foundation is supported by Nike, Inc. and the NoVo Foundation, a collaboration which has enabled exponential impact of the Girl Effect.

maria_eitalMaria Eitel is one of the leading philanthropists in the world today in the area of Women’s Roles in Society.

She is the founder and the president of the famous Nike Foundation, the charitable arm of Nike that aims to improve the lives of adolescent girls around the world through various programs that would promote the awareness of their situation and help them rise from poverty and abuse.

Maria is also well-known for co-establishing “The Girl Effect”, a project by the Nike Foundation that seeks to empower the more than two hundred fifty million adolescent girls to make their mark in society. Through the Nike Foundation and The Girl Effect, Maria has collaborated with numerous organizations in helping the women around the world in participating in their society’s activities.

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.

Untitled-1Growing 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 traveled 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 theaters that showed films in French.

What was not to like?

Mcgill_CoAEitel 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 neighborhoods, 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.

McGill News reports: “It was 1996 and Life magazine had published a story about child labor 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-and-Clinton-300x213It 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 labor. 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.”

teal-nike-logoSeven 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.

Maria has a diverse career background, having worked as a reporter, producer, public servant and manager. She has experience in working in both the public and private sectors, and has a deep understanding of how people in both sectors think. This has enabled her to successfully run the Nike Foundation and work with numerous organizations in helping make the world a better place for the adolescent women.

Prior to founding the Nike Foundation, Maria became the company’s first vice president for corporate responsibility. Under her leadership, Nike was able to smoothly go through the challenges of the business world during the financial crisis that hit the late 1990s, through developing and implementing Nike’s very first corporate responsibility agenda, which included environmental sustainability, labor practices, community investment, governance and diversity.

girl effectMany of Maria’s colleagues describe her as a very determined individual, never letting obstacles or challenges keep her from achieving her goal.

novo buffetsShe has also exhibited a love and passion for young women, something that drove her in creating “The Girl Effect” with Novo founders Peter and Jennifer Buffett.

Maria’s success in her career can be attributed to her ‘never say die’ attitude.

Throughout her life, she has been faced with numerous challenges and disappointments that would have gotten her off track, had it not been for her sheer determination in moving forward. She is a great example of what it means to pursue your dream, and what it means to do something great for the community.

She said:

“I want people to be inspired to believe that seemingly intractable problems are solvable. 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.”

maria nike resMaria has such a talent with words that since she was young, she already exhibited the traits of being a diplomat. This has helped her all these years in the positions that she held in various companies and sectors, being able to use her diplomatic skills to convince both sides of any argument to arrive at a feasible conclusion.

This talent for speaking has also enabled her to become a very effective and powerful speaker; Maria often goes around the world speaking at various events and forums on topics such as corporate social responsibility, good governance, sustainable development, philanthropy, human and labor rights, as well as social entrepreneurship.

Prior to the Foundation, Ms. Eitel served as NIKE, Inc.’s first Vice President of Corporate Responsibility working on the development and implementation of its first corporate responsibility agenda. Before Nike, she served at the White House, the Microsoft Corporation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and MCI Communications Corporation. Early in her career, she was a reporter and producer in commercial and public broadcasting. She holds degrees from McGill University (BS) and Georgetown University (MSFS), and Stanford University (SEP).

Formerly, Ms. Eitel served as European corporate affairs group manager for Microsoft Corporation where she managed corporate, public and community affairs initiatives for the company’s European headquarters and 24 European subsidiaries from Paris, France. Before joining Microsoft in 1995, Ms. Eitel served as director of public affairs for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and was senior manager of communications and community relations at MCI Communications Corp.

US-WhiteHouse-Logo-300x204From 1989 to 1992, Ms. Eitel served in the White House as deputy director of media relations and later as special assistant to the president for media affairs. She directed White House communications initiatives and programs, served as an official spokesperson for the president and managed Cabinet involvement in White House and communications initiatives. Her earlier career experience was as a reporter and producer in commercial and public broadcasting.

She serves on numerous boards and advisory groups including the Initiative for Global Development, the Acumen Fund, the World Bank Gender Action Plan, the World Economic Forum HIVAIDS Global Agenda Council, the Millennium Promise, and the Lakeside School in Seattle, Washington. Formerly, she served as a director of the Safeco Corporation, the World Economic Forum Global Governance Initiative, the Global Alliance for Workers and Communities, the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Monitoring International Labor Standards and Business for Social Responsibility, a business membership organization that promotes corporate social responsibility among global companies. Ms. Eitel speaks at numerous forums on corporate social responsibility, governance, human and labor rights, sustainable development, philanthropy and social entrepreneurs.

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.

Maria-holding-hands1-1024x801It 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.”

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.

Maria-Eitel-300x225But 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.

girleffect (1)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.

novo20100723-psi-jennifer-buffet-300x205The 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.

Maria Eitel – The League of Extraordinary Women


“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.

Her passion for the adolescent woman stems from her own ‘learning journey’. Maria spent a great deal of time researching and exposing herself to her fellow women around the world. At first, Maria thought that aiding women in developing countries was the key, but soon enough, she found that it would have been too late. She then realized that the best time to help a woman was during her adolescent years, the very crossroad that determines how the girl is going to become a woman.

The girl effect is about leveraging the unique potential of adolescent girls to end poverty for themselves, their families, their communities, their countries and the world…

Maria Eitel – theXtraordinary

Maria Eitel – NIKE

The Maria Effect – MCGILL


A Celebration of Women™

welcomes this force of pure energy; a wonder in the world of philanthropy, and look forward to watching much more future positive change that this change maker has to offer.




Brava Maria!



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