Vital Voices, a nonprofit group established in 1999 by then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, formally inaugurated its new headquarters May 5 with a celebration that included a parade from the White House, a ribbon-cutting, exhibits, luncheons, receptions, a panel discussion and a performance by pop singer Milck.
Despite gray skies and an unusually chilly morning, the party-like atmosphere surrounding the opening of the 35,000-sq-foot Global Headquarters for Women’s Leadership at 1509 16th Street NW attracted hundreds of dignitaries. These included D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, Vital Voices President and CEO Alyse Nelson, chair of the board Kate James, fashion industry icon Diane von Furstenberg and, of course, Clinton.
“It started out of conversations that we all had,” Clinton said in opening remarks, recalling the organization’s birth 23 years ago following a Beijing conference on women’s rights. “What can we do to create a network that supports women leaders across the globe? How do we empower and enable women who are on the front lines, as changemakers?”
Added Nelson: “We created Vital Voices for women leaders around the world, and the women in our network are the reason we felt we needed … to amplify them and their innovative solutions for tackling the world’s greatest challenges.”
The team at Vital Voices says this women’s embassy is the first of its kind. “We want to be the stop on every senior leaders’ agenda,” said Nelson.
Among those most heavily invested in seeing the nonprofit succeed is von Furstenberg. The Belgian-born, New York-based designer and entrepreneur has been involved with the nonprofit for the past 15 years.
“[Vital Voices] immediately resonated with me because, first of all, I’m a feminist, but also because it’s not a handout; it’s really a community,” she explained. “It’s a global network of ‘badass’ women who just do it and get it done.”
Von Furstenberg designed the logo and created the iconic annual DVF Award long before ultimately joining the board. The building even features a bright, tranquil sky lounge with her namesake, and big white sofas.
According to Nelson, the Vital Voices “embassy” was intentionally designed to be intimate; built by women, for women.
“The spaces are smaller to bring together dinners of 20 or 40 people, to really break bread together, have conversations, move things forward,” she said, noting that the largest space is a tiered amphitheater that seats about 160 people.
One distinct voice missing from this chorus of women leaders was that of Albright, who would have celebrated her 85th birthday on May 15. Vital Voices staffers wore pins handmade by South African women in her honor, and a bird sculpture hanging in the lobby was dedicated in her memory.
Nelson says the building needs some final touches before Vital Voices’ 50 or so staffers can fully move in next month.
“We’ve been working globally in 184 countries and territories around the globe, with 20,000 women for years, and while we have worked in the United States, we’re not very well known, even in Washington,” said Nelson, a regular speaker on leadership and global women’s issues.
For that reason, Vital Voices will open its doors this month for Passport DC, when dozens of embassies offer tours to the public. “We felt like we really wanted to be part of this,” she said, “because we are, indeed, the global women’s embassy.”