The Americas Roundtable on Women

By:Rebecca Saltman and Stan Pence Issue: Biennial of the Americas 2010 Section:The Americas Roundtables

Drivers of the New Economy

Roundtable on Women

Normally I don’t choose favorites because, as a “connector” who draws the best from all parties to ensure a successful collaboration, showing favoritism gets me in trouble. However, having the incredibly good fortune to attend every one of the America’s Roundtables I get to relate the highlights from the best of all of them. And, the Roundtable on Women as the drivers of the new economy was the best, in my opinion. The setting was the inspirational Ellie Caulkins Opera House, where some of the most powerful women and men in the Western Hemisphere were introduced. There were staggered intros with each participant taking time to tell their story. The idea was to allow brief remarks to flow into open dialogue regarding the best approaches in accelerating women’s economic development.

According to the World Bank, women own or operate up to one third of all private businesses in the world, and those enterprises tend to grow faster than those owned by men. Many NGOs have taken up the call to focus on women as drivers of the new economy and as agents for positive and effective change. How might women owned-and-operated businesses continue to grow and thrive?

U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, Ambassador Carmen Lomellin (U.S. Representative to the Organization of American States), Rigoberta Menchú Tum (1992 Nobel Peace Laureate), María Hinojosa (Senior Correspondent PBS), Rosa Rios (Treasurer, U.S. Department of Treasury), Ambassador Vilma Martinez (U.S Ambassador to Argentina), Mayu Brizuela (former Minister of Foreign Affairs in El Salvador), Beth Brooke (Global Vice Chair, Public Policy and Sustainability, Ernst & Young), Danielle Saint-Lot (Member, Vital Voices Global Leadership Network), Nell Merlino (President & CEO, Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence), Laura Albornoz (former Minister of Women’s Affairs in Chile), and Marco Antonio Orozco Arriola (Mayor, San Pedro Sacatepéquez) were ready to talk business with, by, and for the women of the world.

Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper opened the event with a warm welcome to the audience and a Bob Dylan quote, "I think women rule the world and that no man has ever done anything that a woman either hasn't allowed him to do or encouraged him to do." Hickenlooper went on to say, “As women gain power and rights, solutions begin to happen to major problems.” This open mindset set the stage for the impassioned dialogues which followed.

Secretary Solis was introduced and framed the conversation through her experience. While still in high school she was advised to forget college and become a secretary. I am fairly certain that guidance counselor would have been floored (Maria Hinojosa paused in her moderating at one point, exclaiming “There’s Secret Service backstage guarding a Latina – it’s too much for me!”) were he present.

Ms. Solis talked about how wonderful it was to discuss women being the drivers of the new economy. She has seen female entrepreneurs increase employment by 70,000 during this recession, while men have lost one million employees during the same period. “We see women working harder, but they are not making more,” she stated. “We need to fix that.”

María Hinojosa, Senior Correspondent at PBS, introduced and moderated the panel and moved the various conversations masterfully. Between speakers at one point, she described how it was a tough process to earn her voice as the lead correspondent for PBS. “I am now a media entrepreneur, becoming the president of my own company because my show got cancelled,” she explained. “We as women look at a situation and say, ‘How am I going to change this?’ I knew that I would not be where I am if I was not inspired by other women!”

Other panelists agreed that such inspired motivation was key, and that outside assistance also made the difference. But that assistance, even that motivation, was often disguised by hard work and forthright struggle. “Follow what excites you,” exhorted Ambassador Carmen Lomellin. “I spent four years in a convent, thinking I wanted to be a nun. But that meant ending up a teacher in a steel mill. I had a family to support, but I wanted so much more. I learned from the nuns the responsibility of ‘community’ — of giving back.” Lomellin’s drive has led her to think personally and globally, in the same breath. She said, “The question should be... What kind of children are we going to leave our world?”

Rosa Rios, middle child of nine and raised by a single mom, recalls her early years as fraught with challenge, as well. And yet, she made it work for her. “All of us were working by the age of 14, and the young girls were never told it was ok to excel in math or science,” she recalls. “Working taught me the tools and the skill set I needed to learn and grow.” Clearly, while the United States Treasury appreciates Ms. Rios’ qualifications and drive, there is still room for change. “Now, only 17% of the seats in the House are women,” she points out. “We can change that with the vote; there is a window here - as voters and as women. Today it’s about the 'why,' not about the 'when.' Today, it is about HOW and NOW!”

Rigoberta Menchú Tum came by her Nobel status via a particularly hard road. A Quiche Mayan in Guatemala with a strong penchant for government reform, she witnessed both her activist parents being arrested and brutally murdered — her mother raped, her father burned alive — by army troops. She states, “It is important that women play protagonists, that they are never the victim. I never play victim. It's a big process to understand you need to assume leadership.” Ms. Menchú Tum does not mince words when presented analyses of the hurdles women face. She states, "A revolution has to start at a local level! I don't want to be with women who say they are apolitical. If you are apolitical you should be where there are no rights.”

Beth Brooke, from the powerhouse accounting giant Ernst & Young, is recognized as a pioneer in encouraging resources for women globally. She shares Tum’s blunt appraisals. “We are angered over the difficulty in supporting women entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship is about innovation. It is about the spirit within. Women get stuck with lack of access to capital and with responsibilities outside ‘the business’. When the culture of a country refuses to move, something needs to be done to support change, because talent is equally distributed but the opportunities are not.”

Danielle Saint-Lot echoed Brooke’s sentiments, albeit from a “feet on the street” perspective. Her experiences in Haiti after the devastating January earthquake, on behalf of Vital Voices Global Partnerships, have left her emboldened. The death and destruction were due largely to bad management and corruption, stigmas women currently in the camps strive against. “We lived without codes, without rules. Now is the moment because we have new players in the game. Women in the camps are not waiting for aid. They are in business!” Saint-Lot has been recognized internationally for her continued work in making “micro-entrepreneurship” flourish and helping Haiti recover.

The U.S. Ambassador to Argentina knows well the challenges ranging throughout the Western Hemisphere, and has no qualms about applying her tart Texas wit to the issues. Vilma Martinez’s father raised her in an openly segregated San Antonio. He was both discouraged by, and discouraging about, any future prospects for her. She likes to channel Ann Landers, “The reason opportunities are often overlooked is because they are disguised as hard work. The only one way to prove my dad wrong was to make it... and that's what I did!”

Former Chilean Minister of Women’s Affairs Laura Albornoz spoke eloquently about how women need to realize that change and advancement doesn’t “just happen.” “We need to foster women. This is not a matter of conviction - companies would be more profitable with women. We need to change our frame of mind about women and their value and invite the private sector to be part of the conversation.”

“I know politics do not work,” said Marco Antonio Orozco Arriola, mayor of San Pedro Sacatepéquez. “We have to give an ear to the critical mass. If women are not taken into account on policies, there will be no change. The best ally of women is the local government. When women become participants they transform everything! We surpassed what the government gives because of women’s participation."

Nell Merlino from Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence described how Norway inculcated its male-dominated corporate structure with women to serve in positions of authority. In 2003, the parliament mandated that 40 percent of board positions on large companies be held by women, even though a majority of CEO’s in Norway said they would not find qualified female personnel. The program’s impact was immediate and nationwide.

The Roundtable closed with the profound words of Rigoberta Menchú Tum, 1992 Nobel Peace Laureate. “Many times women are lonely and struggle because they don't have a network. However, I don't believe women who say they cannot. Why do you live if you cannot? We all have it within ourselves to become an agent of change.”

Rebecca Saltman is a social entrepreneur and the president and founder of an independent collaboration building firm designed to bridge business, government, non-profits and academia.