// . //  Insights //  Empowering Gender Equity With The WOW Foundation


There comes a stage in any organization when you have to stop and think, what’s next?
Sandie Okoro, Inaugural Chair, The WOW Foundation

The WOW Foundation, a UK-based charity and global arts network, advocates for gender equity worldwide. Founded by Jude Kelly in 2010, when the first WOW festival took place at the Southbank Centre in London, it aimed to establish a global movement promoting safety, acceptance, and support for women, girls, and non-binary people based on the belief that a gender equal world is desirable, possible and urgently needed. Since then, WOW has expanded across 45 countries and six continents, impacting over five million women and girls annually through WOW festivals, events, and campaigns.  

As The WOW Foundation continues to grow, it has been forging collaborative partnerships and developing innovative strategies for the future. We have supported WOW’s expansion by assisting its development of a global operational framework, allowing WOW to extend its reach and kickstart new initiatives such as the global knowledge centre. Through stakeholder engagement and design sessions, we helped evaluate WOW's vision and mission, creating a structure that fosters collaboration and strengthens global connections.  

In this interview with Oliver Wyman Partner Victoria Evans, Jude Kelly and The WOW Foundation’s inaugural chair, Sandie Okoro, share the story behind the foundation and describe their collaboration with Oliver Wyman to drive meaningful, sustainable, and scalable change in gender equality.

Victoria Evans

Hello, I'm Victoria Evans, a partner in our Government and Public Institutions practice at Oliver Wyman. And today I'm joined by two phenomenal leaders: Jude Kelly, CEO and founder of The WOW Foundation, and Sandie Okoro, the inaugural chair of The WOW Foundation. Jude, great to have you here. Can you tell us how The WOW Foundation came about?

Jude Kelly

I am a storyteller by trade. I'm a theater director and producer. I was the artistic director of the Southbank Centre in London, which is the largest arts organization in Europe. For a woman to have that role and a woman from the north of England, too, I realized that was an example of social progress and upward mobility. But I was scanning a landscape of the cultural ideas that were on stage in concert halls, in films and music, etc. and they were still basically lionizing male achievement. And I believe that if you speak the stories of humanity, and they’re mainly created by men and about men, girls’ and women's rights fall off the radar because their stories aren't there.

So I suddenly thought that what I should be doing as a woman leader in this incredibly powerful position is creating a moment when we can celebrate everything that girls and women have done in history, which is enormous but often unspoken, and then use that kind of optimism and amazement to ask, what's still to do? Because there’s a lot to do.

And I know that as a white woman, I also only had my bit of the story. I could only see through my lens, and I needed all the women of the world­ — our organization is called WOW, Women of the World — who felt like I did to chip in with their story, their sense of perspective, and their histories, and that would help us understand what the journey really looked like in the future.


WOW is so much more than an acronym. It's a special movement. And I'd love to hear from you, Sandie, about what the foundation means to you. Why is it important and why did you get involved?

Sandie Okoro

The first time I got involved was when I was asked to sit on a panel talking about the politics of Afro hair, and I thought ‘wow!’ – literally – is this something people are going to come and listen to? Because it was such a big debate among black women about how to have your hair in a professional environment, but it's not a thing that we said outside of our own environment. We thought it was like a secret. But being able to express it was amazing. It was liberating. Because I think at that time, you felt you had your issues, and they were just your issues and you had to keep them quiet, and you had to put on this sort of professional face. I felt liberated by that, and I just loved it. And after that I couldn't get enough of WOW.

I had always been involved from that moment. The thing that I remembered most about it was the way it brought joy to the women who were at the festival, but it also brought a connection that you didn't even realise you needed. That, for me, was unique. And then you had to wait another year for that to happen again.

It was an opportunity to discuss all the things you really didn't have another forum where you could discuss them. It brought great panelists together, and I wanted to get more involved. What can I do to help? I was delighted when Jude approached me to be the inaugural chair. And I was going to give it my all because I really believed in this. And the arts are a way to shine a light on some of the issues without making it heavy for people. Sometimes people are afraid to say the wrong thing. They're afraid to have that discussion. You are never afraid in WOW.


Absolutely, And I think what you're touching on there is that a lot of the journey we've been on as we think about the future of WOW is how do you tackle gender inequity on a global scale?


What WOW is particularly good at is reaching communities, whether they be indigenous communities in Australia, or large groups of women in favelas in Rio, or big groups of women in Baltimore. It’s basically saying that you can reshape your life, you can rethink your ideas, and you can make sure that your daughters, granddaughters, nieces, etc. are all given just one more step forward, if not ten steps forward.

You have to talk about things locally. You can't make changes top down because although there are lots and lots of rules, regulations, and laws being put in place to make change happen, culturally people stick to what they know. So I think it is about making local people feel that these conversations are theirs to be had and that they can shift ground.

Ministers will come to launch programs and youth groups will come to demonstrate what they're talking about. Women's bakeries will come with their fare. All kinds of people. And what that makes happen is people start wondering if enough happening on the global stages. And if not, how do we lobby? And is what is happening on the global stages reaching us at grassroots level? And if not, what do we do? We're a meeting point for lots of different ideas and offering them back out again.


I remember you interviewing me and I told the story of how growing up I was told that little black girls from Birmingham don't become judges, and others saying, ‘go be a judge, Sandie, come back and tell us!’

That was the impetus. I thought that I have to do something now. I can’t leave it as just a story, I really have to go and succeed because I’ve got all these women who want me to succeed. It was a really powerful moment for me, actually, because I hadn't really spoken those things out loud before.

And I think many women do that here. They speak some things out loud that they haven't before. And they land and they're caught. And that is a really important thing. And once you land and you’re caught, all you can do is fly.


A lot's happened since 2020. How is WOW evolving?


We’re now in six continents and reaching a live audience of nearly six million. We are the only civil society movement of its kind. And understanding that — which Oliver Wyman helped us to do by helping us with the research — we now want to evolve into something that has a branch everywhere. So people really can say, yes, I know how to do a WOW, or be with a WOW, or I can go to a WOW, or I can go onto the WOW global website, and I can find this information out. It's not like pure grassroots activism. It's a space for all people to together start a journey about how change can happen. So it's been a real privilege to just be able to work with you and have Oliver Wyman’s support in this next stage, this evolution.


I'd love to hear a little bit more about your collaboration with us.


I think it's been a fabulous partnership because you've taken us on a journey to show us where we've been as well as where we are now. Sometimes you're so in the middle of doing things that you forget how far you've come. We now have this amazing knowledge bank, this amazing history and we're all really grateful to Oliver Wyman for taking time to show us what we've become and help us articulate that so that we can evolve.

The global nature of WOW is something we realize is so precious and so important. I think there comes a stage the history of any organization where you have to stop and think, what next? Where are we going to go next? We have such a great following, so what are we going to do with that? And so the work we've being doing with you has been terrific to help us on that journey.

The global knowledge centre that we now want to build where we’ll bring some archival material together so everybody can have access something I don't think we would have thought of without your help. But we knew we had a lot to share with a lot of women across the world. It’s been a great collaboration and a great partnership.


So what's been the most challenging and rewarding part of this journey?


There have been a couple of actual physical challenges. In one country, half the audience was just men - this was Somaliland - who came to check out whether what we were going to say was suitable for their wives, partners, and daughters. And then two days later, they took out a kind of death threat against us, thought they removed it in the end. In Pakistan, the woman who was going to run it originally was assassinated.

So we've had a couple of moments in our history where we realized that if you're sitting in the global north, you can have an idea and you can make it happen. Your reputation might be in jeopardy, but your life will not be in jeopardy. Whereas somewhere else in the world, it's a much higher level of risk. That's a challenge to try to deal with emotionally because you have to understand your privilege, your entitlement, and also you have to be incredibly culturally sensitive. And that's an education that you have all the time.

Another challenge, of course, is just to make sure that you are unlearning stuff that you were brought up with. I don't just mean internal misogyny, but internal ableism and any of the things where people are made lower or less relevant than somebody else. We all have to unpack all that and get rid of it in order for WOW to be WOW for everyone equally.

It's a privilege to be trusted across the world with such different circumstances. When women in Brazil or women in Pakistan, women in the Seychelles, or indigenous women in Australia say that WOW really matters to them, it works for them, it is amazing that we've been kind of able to find this sisterhood.


And it’s a safe space. I know those words are used a lot now, but it's absolutely true. It's a safe space to share ideas and to challenge ideas as well. We’ve always steered on a politically neutral path and have not had a political agenda. And quite rightly! Women’s equity is not politics, it’s a human right. And I think that’s been a really important message.

That safe space, which is not just within the festivals but in everything that we're doing, is really important. Even when we were working with you, that was a safe space as well as we collaborated. Being open and putting everything on the table was a real blessing.


All the way along the line, boys and men have been involved. And I have found many boys and men in the societies in which we've being doing WOW who really are excited by this change.


I used to work at the World Bank and I remember I went to a very remote village in Senegal and met some women who were absolutely amazing. And what they said to me was, Sandie, you have a voice. You have a job that gives you a voice. You have to be the voice of the women who don't have one. So every time you get a chance to stand up and speak, say something worthwhile, say something on behalf of us.

I never forgot that. When you have that opportunity to have a voice, use it on behalf of those who don't. So I think that's a lot of what women want: to have a voice, to be heard, to play their part. They're not asking for a hand up or a handout. They just want to play their part. That's what, for many, is to be the best that they can be.

Another thing I would say from my experience: it has to be a safer world for women. One in three women face gender-based violence. The world is very violent against women. I think all of us want the world to be a safer place for women.


So Jude, you're an artist. You're a theater maker, you are a creator. What role does that play?


Artists think about something that hasn't existed yet, and they give it form. And we're talking about a world of equality that doesn't exist yet. We're giving it a form. And what happens with the WOW festival is when it is happening, those two, three, four, or five days feel like the world we'll have when we have equality. You’re conjuring up a sense that this is what a great world would look like. It’s a dream, it disappears after you've left, but it leaves you with a sense that this is what could happen.


Sandie, we both come from a corporate background. And it’s beautiful when these worlds collide, but what do you take from being in this artistic movement? What have you learned from being part of that journey?


I think that's a fascinating question because when you are in the corporate environment there are so many rules and regulations, and you're within a box. When you're in the artistic world it’s like you’re in the fresh air and your mind can run free. But what you also realise that it's the same in the corporate world. Your mind can run free as well because you're still creating the future. Corporate world or artistic world – we are part of that. Now let’s make sure we shape that. And we can shape that by shaping the generation that comes behind us. And there's so much to be learned from the next generation.


And this year there's a slight change in the WOW festivals in the UK. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that change?


The UN created the Day of the Girl Child in October in honor of Malala and her friends who had been fighting for girls’ education. And every year, The WOW Foundation celebrates that day. And we take wonderful women and wonderful girls on the London Eye and they tour across the skies of London and visualise what it would be like if it they were in charge of the world.

And this year for the first time, we’ve launched a girls’ bus. It’s been made possible by Children in Need, by Mattel, and by Standard Chartered Bank. So instead of girls having to come to the bus, we tour this bus through different parts of the country. It is a prototype and if it works (it will work!), we'll then start making sure that the bus pops up in Nigeria, the bus pops up in Seville, the bus pops up in Sacramento - wherever we think that this idea of giving girls a way of celebrating and thinking together and understanding the world is a critical part of leadership. So that's exciting and new for us.


Jude, Sandie, it’s not only been a privilege to work with you both other the last few months. It’s been phenomenal to work with The WOW Foundation and be part of this movement. It’s been wonderful to have you here today and to have this conversation. thank you both for coming and telling us about the ability and the aspiration for WOW. And thank you for watching.