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Diplomacy in Action

South Asia Women's Entrepreneurship Summit

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Dhaka, Bangladesh
December 9, 2012


Thank you Eileen. I want to thank Assistant Secretary Blake for his remarks and leadership on this initiative. He and Ambassador Mozena (whom you will hear from later in the conference) are examples of my government’s strong male leadership on women’s economic participation. I also want to thank Foreign Minister Moni for being with us and for her and her government’s hospitality. It is a personal pleasure for me to be back in Bangladesh, a country which has made considerable social and economic strides in recent years with a strong focus on women’s empowerment. In fact, this is my fourth time visiting Bangladesh as Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues. Each time I visit, I am impressed by the entrepreneurship of the people here. After all, Bangladesh is the home of Grameen and Brac which has lifted up millions of women here and around the world.

I want to offer a very special welcome to each and every one of you, particularly the extraordinary women entrepreneurs, policy-makers, private sector representatives and civil society leaders from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. It is fitting for this regional symposium to have representation from each and every country in South Asia.

This Symposium in South Asia is an extension to what we began in Central Asia with the very successful Central Asia and Afghanistan Women’s Economic Symposium (WES) that we launched in July 2011. And we have several alumni from Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, who participated in the Central Asia and Afghanistan Women’s Economic Symposium in Bishkek to share with us their experiences and successes. With this South Asian Women’s Entrepreneurship Symposium, we will link both South and Central Asia into this New Silk Road Vision to continue to expand women’s economic opportunities and galvanize a region-wide economic support infrastructure for women entrepreneurs amongst the greater region. The Symposium in Bishkek resulted in a number of follow-on activities, including the first ever regional women’s business association in Kazakhstan, a Tajik women’s business association, handicraft and textile training and trade in the Fergana Valley, and regional mentorship programs. You represent a truly vital force for driving economic growth, jobs, progress, and for improving livelihoods for yourselves and families across all of South and Central Asia. I also want to thank the members of the U.S. embassies and consulates who are here, and particularly the talented staff in Embassy Dhaka who worked so hard with my own staff and the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs in Washington to bring us together. Our embassies were not only instrumental in selecting you, but they will continue to work with you when you return home, through online conversations and meetings in your country and the region, as well as new investments in training programs, mentorship opportunities and more. This conference is not an end, but a beginning.

We also have a wealth of partners here today, from leading international organizations, including the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, to civil society, including Grameen, BRAC University, CIPE, and the Wadhwani Foundation, to a range of business leaders. All of you are men and women who possess a reservoir of talent and experience in finance, technology, management and so many other areas. We are pleased that you, as representatives of your institutions and companies, have come together to share best practices and to make this, as Secretary Clinton said, not just a one-time event, but rather the beginning of a meaningful collaboration and a true investment for the future. Why we are here is to invest for the future—a better future—that’s a more prosperous future for you and for your families, your country, and your region because when women thrive all of society thrives.

Today, there are many converging studies--from the World Bank to the World Economic Forum (WEF), from think tanks, universities, and corporations--that show that investing in women is a high yield investment. Gender equality in access to education, healthcare, political participation, and economic participation is key to a country's competitiveness and prosperity. No wonder the World Bank calls gender equality "smart economics." Women's economic participation also provides a multiplier effect because women invest upwards of 90 percent of their income in their families and communities on health, education, and other investments for the betterment of society.

Women entrepreneurs offer people everywhere so much promise. It is a fact that women-run small and medium-sized enterprises (SME's) drive economic growth and create jobs. This is true in my country and it is true around the world. And, women-owned enterprises often have a better growth rate and a better loan payback rate. That's why one CEO remarked, "If you want to drive GDP, the best investment that can be made are women-run SME's."

And many of you here today are perfect examples.

Take Kamila Sidiqi from Afghanistan, who was only 19 when the Taliban began banning women from schools and prohibiting them from working outside the home or leaving the house without full cover and a male relative.

Despite these circumstances, Sidiqi succeeded as an entrepreneur and role model. Her older sister taught her to sew. Desperate for work, other girls and women in the neighborhood joined Sidiqi and her younger sisters to fill the growing number of orders, which resulted in rapidly growing operations.

Collectively, they developed strict operating procedures, training classes, and quality control, and attempted to avoid drawing the Taliban's attention. Eventually, even the Taliban asked Sidiqi for jobs and even once requested that she produce clothing for a Taliban wedding. Sidiqi is now running her own consultancy firm aimed at helping women start their own businesses.

Or Mahmuda Habiba from Bangladesh who runs a fiber-glass factory and has promoted the use of fiber glass in areas where it had never been used before. As CEO of Zendor Fiberglass Industries, she is working in a field where there are not too many women. She has made a name for herself, specializing in manufacturing swimming pools, bathtubs and shower trays. Zendor successfully utilizes a local product found in Bangladesh, the jute fiber, as a replacement for glass fiber, which is cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

In a country like Sri Lanka, which has just come out of a 25-year old civil war, Neela Marikkar is Managing Director/CEO of Grant McCann-Erickson Sri Lanka, a leading Sri Lankan advertising agency. She was also vocal in promoting women, peace and security efforts as president of Sri Lanka First, a group of business leaders that advocated for a negotiated settlement between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

From Pakistan, women like Ayla Majid was the first female member of Islamabad Stock Exchange Limited.

I could go on and on because you are an extraordinary group and I wouldn’t be surprised if you all started doing business with each other before the conference ends.

Women always pay investments like this forward. As women acquire skills, they are more than willing to offer training and mentor other women. I see this everywhere I travel and whenever I meet with female entrepreneurs.

But as many of you know, and as these women would also readily acknowledge, women's success is often hindered by barriers that undermine their ability to start or to expand their business. Barriers like lack of access to markets, to training, mentors, and technology. Today, for example, 300 million fewer women than men have mobile phones. This gender gap is depriving women of a vital technology that is critical to economic success.

In addition, women often confront corruption, discriminatory regulations and laws, and lack of inheritance and property rights. Sometimes women are subject to blatant or subtle harassment, disparagement, or dismissive treatment. In some places, women cannot conduct transactions without the permission or participation of male family members. And, of course, it's also difficult to balance the responsibilities of family and work.

Access to finance is perhaps the major challenge to women for business growth everywhere. Micro-credit has lifted up millions and millions of poor women here and around the world and enabled them to earn an income, support their families, and pay back their loans at close to 100% repayment rates. I remember a woman who told me how she had longed for a high-powered sewing machine, but did not have the means to purchase one. She told me that she felt like "a bird released from its cage" when she got the loan that enabled her to finally get the machine, grow her business, and pay back her loan.

Yet the significant gender gap to finance remains painfully acute as it affects what we might call "the missing middle" of the vital small and medium enterprise sector, and has the best growth and jobs creation potential. That's why my government is working to help women overcome obstacles to greater economic participation. We are hoping that through this conference and the follow-on activities, you will be able to build your enterprise. .

Last year, Muhtar Kent, the CEO of Coca Cola, explained why this matters when he announced a significant new commitment by Coca Cola to empower five million women entrepreneurs by 2020. He said that the "21st century goes to the women." He went on to explain why: "The only way a projected billion people will rise to middle class in the next ten years, the only way nations will rise out of poverty and become politically stable will be by women achieving gender parity on a global scale." Just a few weeks ago Booz and Company published their report “The Third Billion”—women who when empowered can be an economic force equal to that of China or India.

To reach their full national economic potential, countries must also prepare and train their girls and women to participate equally, and to compete effectively, in the local, regional and global marketplaces. Educating a girl is the simplest, most effective development investment that can be made with high yield dividends for her and her future family. Young women also need market-relevant education, leadership skills, and encouragement to apply their talents in the more lucrative, although perhaps less traditional, sectors.

In addition, women need to be represented at the policy-making table if the needs of their families, communities and societies are to be fully addressed. As your businesses grow, we are confident you will speak out against corruption when you see it. As your businesses grow, we know you will be voices for a climate that fosters innovation and prosperity. As your businesses grow, you will advocate with your leaders for a system that promotes greater communication and trade. As leaders in business, we know you will also work to strengthen democratic institutions and civil society. And working together, you will not only benefit your businesses and grow your economies, but also strengthen cross-border relationships.

Each of you is helping to chart a path to a better tomorrow for yourselves and your families, your communities, and your countries. And in so doing, you are also role models for young women who want to start their own business or move ahead in their careers. If you build a network of women leaders that spans this region, there will be no stopping you and no stopping progress for this region. We know that empowering women is one of the most effective and positive forces for reshaping the globe. It is a simple fact that no country can get ahead if it leaves half its people behind.

As you continue on your journey toward your destination of economic, social, and political progress, you, like the traders of old, will create new opportunities for all.

I hope you have a productive and rewarding experience over the next couple of days, and in the months and years to come. We will work together with you as partners, in order to create a better future for people throughout this region.

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