When women connect, the world changes.
Two recent examples, Rachel Sklar’s for-profit startup TheLi.st and Sheryl Sandberg’s nonprofit network of Lean In circles, both aim to connect and empower women to achieve their goals and aspire to leadership. But these circles are largely limited to those who are already comparatively wealthy and powerful.
The SmartWoman Project is different. It is a mobile social network to be announced at a conference at the UN on June 21 on mobile for social change, and will debut in the iTunes store in September. Versions for college-aged women and girls are coming soon.
The idea is for relatively affluent women to download the SmartWoman app and pay a monthly fee of $5. This gets them access to each other through networking and forums, as well as custom content from celebrities (like Shakira) and other "global ambassadors" on topics like health, lifestyle, and relationships.
The $5 fee is used to pay for mobile access for women in the developing world, initially in Kenya, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Mexico. They will get "learning" messages daily on matters like health and entrepreneurship. SMS has been the format for previous successful education campaigns, enough so for mlearning and mhealth to become shorthand for an entire development approach. The SmartWoman Project is powered by Change-Corp, a for-profit company dedicated to producing educational content for "mobile-only" users in the developing world.
It’s yet to be seen whether using the app will feel more like chatting at a global kaffeeklastch or guiltily sticking cash in a panhandler’s palm. There seems to be a clear divide between how women will interact with the app depending on whether they’re on the paying or receiving end.
Paying users can view profiles of developing-country women, participate in action and advocacy campaigns, donate $100 to buy them mobile phones, or buy their goods on a mobile fair-trade marketplace. The women in the Southern Hemisphere, however, will largely be on the receiving end of text messages in their native languages. And the whole project has an unavoidable commercial aspect. The SmartWoman Project website notes a 22% gap between men and women globally in ownership of mobile phones, and translates that to "$13 billion in lost revenue for telecom operators and consumer brands."
Still, the SmartWoman Project seeks to connect women across barriers of race, class, and nationality. It deserves notice for expanding the idea of what "networking" and sisterhood really mean.