Address by Ambassador (Ret) Ruth A. Davis: Challenges Faced by Businesswomen and Solutions to Overcome Them: Successful Stories from Different Parts of the Globe

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B to B International Businesswomen’s Exhibition In the Kingdom of Bahrain

To the Bahrain Businesswomen’s Society, I would like to thank you for inviting me to participate in this exciting international gathering. I am here in my capacity as Chairwoman of The International Women’s Entrepreneurial Challenge (IWEC), whose mission is to create a Global Network for successful women entrepreneurs.

One of our signature events is an annual conference at which we recognize and bestow the IWEC achievement award on highly successful international businesswomen.

Last year’s award was presented to 27 women representing Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and North and South America. The annual combined revenue of these businesswomen was approximately 610,000,000 dollars and they employ over 12,000 employees. I am happy to say that one of the most outstanding, of all the superb awardees, was your very own Feryal Abdulla Nass, General Secretary of the Bahrain Business Society and Head of the Trade Exhibition Committee for this conference.

I know what the literature says about the challenges faced by women entrepreneurs but to give you a truly realistic account of some of those challenges and how they were overcome, I collected information from 17 women, 13 IWEC Awardees from across the globe, all of whom are successful business owners with a minimum annual revenue equivalent to two million U.S. dollars and also from four business women from Pakistan and Afghanistan who are participants in the Commercial Law Development Program (CLDP) of the Office of the General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The businesses of these women represented many sectors, including textiles, fashion designers, marketing, trading, events management, exhibitions, human resources and training, supplying piping for drinking water and irrigation, construction, commercial waste and recycling services, producing wheelchairs for children, whole sale party accessories and a number of other enterprises.

They all have compelling stories. So what do they have to tell us about how they overcame challenges and what advice do they have for those of us here today?

What I found in the stories of all 17 of these successful women was that no matter what part of the globe they came from, they are challenged by many of the same issues in their quest to create, develop, sustain and expand their businesses: in many instances it is a matter of degree, but by in large the problems are of the same nature.

The one glaring extreme was found in Afghanistan from where Fouzai Hariri, President of Hasti Trading Company, reported that cultural issues in the rural areas present obstacles because women are not allowed to have access to the market and are further hampered by government policy and procedures. Nonetheless, these Afghan women courageously push ahead, in some instances using men who serve as “female facilitators.” They are known for actively pressing local government for change.

Let’s now look at seven of the top challenges that the women entrepreneurs face and how they have been overcome.

1) Dealing with the socio-cultural perceptions of what a woman’s role should be and the belief that certain business endeavors are better handled by men.

Maria Rios, proud President and CEO of Nation Waste, Inc., based in Houston, Texas began with one dump truck, collecting commercial waste, and now has a thriving business with 25 trucks. Maria felt the sting of being a women in a male dominate field where men doubted her ability and her industry expertise.

She succeeded by becoming certified as a women-owned, and minority owned-business which gave her credibility and leverage. Also being acknowledged by the Fortune 500 and her participation in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Program caused her to be recognized as one of the top female business owners in America. Maria developed and utilized connections with organizations such as the Houston Minority Supplier Development Council and The United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce where she met her mentor, Carmen Castillo, who is the Vice Chair of IWEC.

2) Accessing funding:

I think we all know that generally it is easier for men to raise capital or obtain a bank loan than it is for women, unless the woman has a track record of competence and credibility. Women who come from families of entrepreneurs have an advantage, as was the case with several of our IWEC awardees whose families paved the way for their entrepreneurial beginnings.

Others overcame the challenge of funding through selling assets, forming partnerships, practicing good cash flow management, or presenting well thought out, sound business plans or proposals to banks or donors. In South Africa, to support her existing wheelchairs for children enterprise, Shona McDonald established an NGO, “Uhambo” in the USA and in South Africa, to secure the funding and grants necessary to operate and achieve their social objectives.

3) Developing the staffing for a successful business:

From South Africa, IWEC Awardee Margaret Hirsch, successful in the appliance and electronics business, is a very different kind of boss who attributes her company’s success in large part to her focus on staff development. Although she has a staff of 2,500 workers she knows all of them by name and is familiar with their families and life histories. Her company’s leadership works with each employee to bring out the best in them and encourages them to maintain their health. Also, they have training centers in each store, conduct daily staff training and all of their managers lead by example.

This is echoed by Manizha Paktin, President of the Pakistani Rad Construction Company, who says that she cares about her employees and their families and invests time, energy and resources in making sure that not only the employees, but their families are taken care of. From New Delhi, Kiran Sharma, director of the premier organization for trading activities through exhibitions , events and shows had to overcome the problems of the lack of employees with experience in her industry and of her experienced staff members being lured away. Kiran identified the best people to engage in her line of work and instead of hiring expensive staff out of a limited pool of candidates, she chose to hire new graduates and to train them. 

4) Balancing business with family life:

Our IWEC awardees face the issues of work life balance. They believe that you cannot have a truly successful business career with an unhappy family. Harjinder Kaur from India, whose business is large scale systems integration, e-governance projects and intelligent transport solutions, says that she made sure to have adequate household help to care for her children. Even so she took two hours of time each day to teach them, play with them and interact in a way that they remained a firmly connected family. This interaction was facilitated by locating her home near her office. Our awardees believe that good time management and savvy delegation are the keys to achieving reasonable work life balance.

5) Dealing with competitors and pricing:

Wendy Shen, President and CEO of the FLOMO USA/Nygala Group, located in New Jersey, manages a major national brand of gift bags and party supplies. To remain successful Wendy has had to deal with issues related to pricing and maintaining quality, while production costs increase and inferior, cheaper party accessories are being introduced into the market by her competitors. She says that the majority of customers only look for very low price suppliers. She continues to overcome this obstacle by providing quality, innovative and creative products.

Kiran Sharma agreed that to tackle newly emerged competition, she had to establish her services as a ‘bigger brand’, different from the rest, showing value and professionalism, proving that the competitors cannot match her service. 6) Overcoming Corruption: One challenge in Afghanistan is getting contracts competitively when they are not awarded on the basis of bids or competence, but by corrupt methods. Our previously mentioned CLDP Participant, Manizha Paktin, succeeded by earning the respect of contractors, laborers, Government leaders and colleagues – all male. She also worked hard to earn the respect of stakeholders who in turn could advocate for her and her company. According to Theresa Tapfuma, Managing Director of Zimbali Valley Flowers, a leading events management company, in Zimbabwe, when officials tried to exhort bribes for services, she turned the request over to her legal advisor who was prepared to initiate legal suits. So far this has been effective and she has avoided paying bribes.

7) Developing and utilizing connections and role models:

Most of the women entrepreneurs who I was in touch with either had mentors, male or female, family or friends, or even paid coaches, although the paid coaches did not always receive high marks. They recommend belonging to organizations such as Chambers of Commerce, The Women’s President Organization (WPO), We Connect International, United Success, Women Chief of Enterprises International (WCEI) and local business organizations that provide moral support and can be used as a sounding board.

Diane Thompson, Managing Director of The Powercom Group, in Australia, gives high marks to (WCEI) saying “I joined WCEI in 2002 and the world opened up!! I discovered how wonderful other women were and how good at sharing they were! Some of these women are now my closest friends.”

Advice from successful women entrepreneurs:

I have shared with you insight into some of what made our IWEC and CLDP women successful. I would like to conclude by leaving you their words of advice:

From Australia, Donna Meredith reminds us that:

—Reputation is everything, absolutely everything, so make sure that your business and personal reputations are the center of your decision-making.

—Ask for help when needed and surround yourself with those who want to help you succeed – avoid the negative and the naysayers

From Turkey, Ruhsar Pekcan’s advice is:

—Believe in yourself and your abilities and proceed with passion, creativity and innovation

—Evaluate the political risk if you intend doing business with a foreign country and if needed take out profit loss insurance

—Study and learn about your main competitors

From Pakistan, Syeda Amna Nasir Jamal says:

—Don’t waste time, always try to make timely decisions

—Do lots of research in order to have a clear idea of the pros and cons of any action. Consult others in your line of business for advice

From Africa, Theresa Tapfuma challenges all to:

—Not to give up on your dreams and visions. Have the confidence to compete and excel in what is normally termed “a man’s world” because you can definitely achieve your objectives

Other advice included:

—Give your health and work life balance high priority

—Value, respect and nurture your staff

—Become the source of professional knowledge and respect in your field

—Never stop learning; and, finally

—develop a network of like-minded women entrepreneurs who invest in staff development, technology and innovation.

And that, my friends, is what IWEC is all about – developing a strong global network of women entrepreneurs and creating a level playing field that guarantees businesswomen opportunities to achieve success on a global scale.

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