"Strong woman inspire me," says Diane von Furstenberg. In 2010, she decided to reward the women who motivate her by starting an annual award to recognize those who harness their personal experience to better the lives of others. Every spring since, the fashion designer has honored five women. The inspiration award is given to a woman who uses her influence to effect positive change; the lifetime leadership honor recognizes someone who has dedicated herself to helping women learn to lead; and a people's voice prize is chosen via online vote. The two remaining distinctions go to members of the Vital Voices network, a nongovernmental organization that identifies, trains, and gives a platform to emerging female leaders around the world. (Sohini Chakraborty, a 2011 Vital Voices Honoree, for example, helps victims of violence and trafficking recover by teaching them to dance. A 2012 honoree, Panmela Castro, uses graffiti to raise awareness about women's rights.) Winners receive $50,000 to further their work and are honored at an event at United Nations Headquarters in New York City. We spoke with von Furstenberg ahead of this year's event.
MARIE CLAIRE: Congratulations on the anniversary! How have the awards evolved over the past five years?
DIANE VON FURSTENBERG: When we first started, I was so shy about it. I thought, Really, I'm giving a DVF Award? You always feel intimidated when you start something new. Now when I look back, I say, "Wow, we did so well!" I'm so much in awe of the women we've honored over the years.
MC: Why is investing in women important to you?
DVF: If you have any kind of success in life, one of the great advantages is that you can use it to give exposure and help to people who need it. That's the most beautiful thing about success. There are so many ways you can help people, but I'm a person who has always wanted to empower women, so I created something just for them. It's important to invest in women if you want to save the world. Actually, it's not just important—it's indispensable.
MC: Are there any women to whom you've given the award over the years who stand out in your mind?
DVF: All of them are amazing, but one I remember especially is Jaycee Dugard, who was abducted, held for 18 years, and has two children with that horrible man. When you meet someone like that and you see how resilient she is, how much she wants to achieve with her own foundation [which helps families recovering from abduction and other traumatic events], and how much she wants to help others—that's just remarkable. She says she wants to be remembered for what she does and not for what happened to her—that's powerful.
MC: What do you hope all women take away from these awards?
DVF: I hope they are as inspired by these women as I am. They have so much strength because not only did they survive their own misery, but they also used that strength and that leadership to help others. I think that is a fantastic thing to do. One of the things my mother, a Holocaust survivor, always told me is that you go for the light. Instead of focusing on the darkness, you look for the light and then you build around it.