CIPE board chair and Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council President and CEO Karen Kerrigan is actively involved in many efforts to empower women, particularly through entrepreneurship. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, here are some of her insights on increasing women’s political and economic participation around the world.
CIPE: Some of the key aspects of women’s empowerment – political, economic and civic – are not fully understood around the world, especially when it comes to the inherent linkages between all three. How do you view them? Why do you think they are important and interconnected?
Karen Kerrigan: The voice and full participation of women in all realms – political, economic and civic – is essential to building and sustaining an inclusive, innovative, and opportunity-driven environment for countries and societies. Government policies and inequitable laws, for example, may erect roadblocks for women who want to start businesses or pursue certain careers. Similarly, economic opportunities and growth are limited for all citizens when a nation fails to harness the energy and value of half of its human capital assets.
Moreover, the power and opportunity to contribute to the future direction of one’s country or community – either by electoral participation or organizational involvement – is essential to embedding the levers of accountability and representation that keep these interconnected linkages working effectively.
CIPE: Women comprise two-thirds of the world’s workforce and produce half of the world’s food, yet they earn only 10 percent of the world‘s income and own less than one percent of the world’s property. What are the elements of a successful women’s economic empowerment program and how can women’s participation in economic decision-making be improved?
KK: Obviously, there are many successful global programs and models to help empower women – and particularly so in the area of entrepreneurship where I specialize. Providing women with access to education and training, capital, and role models or mentors to encourage and help them succeed are all essential components.
An effective model will also serve to widen and extend impact beyond the program itself; that is, the program should serve as a catalyst for change with a multiplying effect. Women who become successful entrepreneurs need to be celebrated and held up as role models for other women. This is a powerful tool in helping to reshape the mindset of women in terms of visualizing what is possible. Advocacy is crucial in helping to educate about and change the policies that impede economic growth and entrepreneurship. Even small, strategic changes to policies can serve to accelerate the pace of women’s economic participation. Identifying political leaders (even one) who can champion the cause for women’s economic inclusion at an influential level, along with the policies that are needed to strengthen or improve our participation, is effective in helping to impact the pace of change.
Quantifying success, or how women’s full participation will lead to a more prosperous, competitive nation, is important. After all, almost every nation is looking to attract outside capital and investment. Sound policies, particularly those affecting how nations leverage their human capital assets, are important “selling points” for investment decisions. How a nation treats half of its human capital – women –is, I believe, a key measure of its investment worthiness. Political leaders can be educated to understand this, and then put into place the policies that will showcase their support of women.
CIPE: Women in developing countries are often portrayed as victims rather than active citizens who can shape their own lives. How can they change this perception? What is the significance of local role models for women’s empowerment?
KK: What is visualized, one’s mindset toward life, is incredibly powerful in determining outcomes. Role models have always served to inspire. Successful women role models help to reset the mindset for those who are without hope, or have not been exposed to opportunities outside of their communities. Seeing and hearing from a woman, especially someone like you or with a similar background, who has climbed the ladder of success is a powerful motivator. The utilization of role models will never become obsolete as a tool for women’s empowerment. In fact, we should vastly increase the use of role models and look for innovative ways to deploy and showcase successful women in our work.
CIPE: What message do you have for women entrepreneurs around the world?
KK: Pursue your dreams and never allow barriers or naysayers to smother your passion. Continue to engage with other entrepreneurs to help your business grow and get better at what you do. Stay closely connected to your customers and consumer base as they will help you identify innovative ways to expand, add value and differentiate your offerings in the marketplace. Continue to treat your human capital well, train them well, and ask them for solutions in helping to solve business problems. They are an essential asset, if not the most important asset, and remain key to building a powerful and competitive brand.
We need your leadership in business associations to help strengthen the ecosystem for global entrepreneurship, which includes policy reforms that will encourage more startups and accelerated business growth. Consider running for political office! Your country, and our world, need your voice and the common sense solutions you bring to the table. Your political leadership will inspire others and bring more women the opportunities and courage to pursue entrepreneurship and succeed in business ownership.