Nevertheless, he's helped create a partnership, "Together for Girls," now tackling sexual violence against girls in African countries. Participants include BD, the Nduna Foundation, the CDC Foundation, four United Nations agencies, the CDC, the U.S. President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Office of Global Women's Issues, and the Brazilian marketing firm Grupo ABC.
For the last decade, Cohen has been working in HIV/AIDS, for which BD pioneered diagnostic tests to count CD-4 immune cells destroyed by the disease. During trips to sub-Saharan Africa, he says he realized "the world will never treat our way out of this disease" and began focusing instead on underlying contributors to the spread of AIDS, including sexual violence against girls.
"I got to know the vulnerability of children," Cohen says. Using skills honed in the private sector -- "I know how to mobilize, how to get things done" -- and building on longstanding collaborations with international health agencies, he grabbed the reins of the project.
"If you want to relate it to a business area, it's strategic market development," he says. Cohen rattles off staggering statistics compiled from house-to-house surveys in Swaziland: 38 percent of women 20 to 24 are HIV-positive (compared with 11 percent of males). About 25 percent of girls 13 to 17 have experienced sexual violence, and 29 percent of them became pregnant as a result.
Cohen, the father of 15- and 20-year-old daughters, says the issue hits close: "Girls 15 and younger are five times more likely to die in childbirth" than women, he said.
"Together for Girls," begun in Swaziland, is now in Tanzania and will be in Kenya by year's end, Cohen said.
"There's a momentum building here," he said. "We've starting to reach that turning point on these issues. This is actionable. This can be changed."
Rural 'Avon Ladies' for Affordable Health Products Make a Living, and a Difference
"What we're doing here is shamelessly stealing the Avon model in service for the poor," says Chuck Slaughter of Sausalito, Calif., founder of LivingGoods. "We recruit, train and support networks of health entrepreneurs -- independent agents, just as you'd be under Avon, who go door-to-door, school-to-school, church-to-church... selling the cheapest, simplest, smartest solutions to the leading killers of young children."
The poor but literate Ugandan women who have become LivingGoods sellers are trained to dispense over-the-counter drugs and products that prevent key contributors to childhood mortality: malaria, diarrhea, poor nutrition.
"We're not just about health," he says. The company already has moved into energy solutions for the poor, such as high-efficiency cookstoves, and plans to expand into agriculture as well. The goal is to grow into an international business that can "pay for itself."
Slaughter says he's looking for "enlightened philanthropists" from the investment community who are interested in a very high social return on their philanthropic dollars, and also hopes to attract "big direct-selling business and packaged consumer goods businesses to see the potential of this."
In the end, he said, the success of this project will lie in its social impact: "We are building a sustainable pro-poor franchising operation."