Selima Ahmad won the Oslo Business for Peace in 2014.
Founder of the Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry Selima Ahmad discusses how she built an organization that helps thousands of women entrepreneurs and what it takes to takes to be a successful businesswomen in Bangladesh.
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Participants at a Women’s Business Network meeting in Nepal in 2014.
Here at CIPE, we are celebrating International Women’s Day by highlighting the achievements of the South Asia Regional Women’s Network, an informal group of 31 inspiring and empowered women from Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Members of the network are business leaders and owners, board members, and senior managers who represent organizations with membership figures ranging from 100 direct members to nearly 4,000 members in Bangladesh.
They are women who have overcome great obstacles to build their careers, and their businesses, and are now giving back to other women seeking to do the same thing by building the capacity of their organization pushing for policy reform. Over the last four years, the network has come together nearly ten times to exchange information and best practices, to establish mentorship links between weaker and stronger organizations, and to build relationships between women in business, as well as between entire organizations, across the region.
Not long after the launch of this program, these organizations have grown in strength and numbers and have seen solid advocacy successes that have started to reshape economic policy, easing the burden of doing business for women and improving access to credit helping women to scale their businesses and bring more women into the workforce.
International Women’s Day is an important opportunity to shine a light on the success stories of women around the world—and their perseverance to achieve equality despite legal, political, economic, and social discrimination. Entrenched gender discrimination continues to prevent women from contributing equally to their country’s overall economic growth and from owning their own capital, which in turns limits their political representation and social status.
Despite these obstacles, numerous grassroots women’s associations have worked tirelessly to train new female business leaders and empower them to become stakeholders in the economy, further enabling them to successfully demand more political and social recognition and inclusivity.
Three influential women leaders and business experts recently discussed the growing economic empowerment and entrepreneurship of women in the developing world in videos for CIPE’s Development Institute. In these interviews, the discussants explain the vital contribution of women’s associations to not only the financial wellbeing and independence of women in society, but also to the overall economic development of a country.
Pat Agbakwu-Ajegwu in front of her store.
“As a business owner, you either choose to survive or die. And surviving in this state of economic crisis in Nigeria requires creative thinking.”
On my recent trip to Lagos, Nigeria, I spoke with Patricia (Pat) Agbakwu -Ajegwu, the owner of Xklusive Patsie and the former president of the Fashion Designers Association of Nigeria. She shared with me some challenges that women entrepreneurs in Nigeria are facing in midst of economic turmoil.
Since the peak in 2014, the global price of oil has decreased by over 70 percent. As a result, petrostates like Nigeria, which relies on oil sales for 75 percent of government revenue and 95 percent of its export earnings, are hurting. This is especially felt by small business owners in Nigeria.
Karen Kerrigan is the president & CEO of the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council and a board member and former chair of CIPE. For more than twenty years Kerrigan’s leadership, advocacy and training work has helped foster U.S. entrepreneurship and global small business growth.She regularly testifies before the U.S. Congress on the key issues impacting entrepreneurs and the economy, and has been appointed to numerous federal advisory boards including the National Women’s Business Council, the U.S.-Iraq Business Dialog, the U.S. Treasury’s Taxpayer Advisory Panel, and the National Advisory Committee for Labor Provisions of U.S. Free Trade Agreements. Kerrigan regularly engages with the President’s cabinet and key advisors, and has participated in several White House economic summits, scores of events hosted by the U.S. SBA, U.S. Treasury Department and other federal government agencies and departments. She has written hundreds of Op-Eds and newspaper columns, and regularly appears on national television and talk radio programs.
Medhawi Giri interviewed Kerrigan for CIPE.
How did you get started in the path to entrepreneurship and what motivated you initially?
My path to entrepreneurship was a journey. Before starting out on my own, I had a variety of career experiences that helped me build critical skills that are necessary for successful entrepreneurship. These skills and experiences provided me with confidence and know-how. The motivation to start my own business came about when several factors aligned. I saw a need in the marketplace. I had a desire to work on my own terms and innovate and create with fewer restrictions. In addition, I wanted financial independence. Of course, I was passionate about my idea and business opportunity and felt confident in my ability to execute. The bottom line is I wanted more freedom, and entrepreneurship allowed for that.
When you were getting started, how difficult was it to bring your idea to life and to make a business out of it?
Participants at the ITCILO training in Turin. (Photo: ITCILO)
As many previous CIPE blog pieces have pointed out, empowering women entrepreneurs leads to inclusive economic growth around the world. This point was further explored in a recent McKinsey report, The power of parity: How advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth:
“We consider a “full-potential” scenario in which women participate in the economy identically to men, and find that it would add up to $28 trillion, or 26 percent, to annual global GDP in 2025 compared with a business-as-usual scenario.”
One way to increase the number of women entrepreneurs is by addressing the bottlenecks that prevent women from becoming business owners or circumstances that prevent them from expanding their businesses. And this can be done through policy reforms via business associations and chambers. To this end, CIPE and the International Training Centre of the International Labour Organization (ITC-ILO) held a joint week-long training-of-trainers session “Women Empowerment through Business Member Organizations (BMOs)” at the ITC-ILO campus in Turin.
Read more about the Women’s Business Network in a five-part blog series published earlier this year.
Women across South Asia face myriad challenges when it comes to participating in the economy — especially as business owners. Women’s business organizations can help their members learn from each other, overcome barriers, and push for changes to laws and regulations that work against women entrepreneurs.
This August, CIPE held its eighth in an ongoing series of capacity building and networking workshops in Kathmandu, Nepal for its South Asia regional network of women’s business associations. Since its inception, the participants of this network, which includes organizations from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and India, have been enthusiastic and engaged in learning from both CIPE and their peers.
This year, building on the results of previous projects that aimed to strengthen the internal capacity of these organizations, CIPE has focused on building the advocacy skills of the participants, in order for women entrepreneurs’ voices to be heard in the policymaking process.