UNDER SECRETARY FERNANDEZ: Good morning. Good morning. It’s wonderful to be here. It’s wonderful to see so many faces of friends and families who’ve come to celebrate. Thank you, Ramin, for that introduction. And to Ramin and our Special Representative for Commercial and Business Affairs Dilawar Syed, thank you. Thank you all for what you do to support American companies and American workers around the world.
I actually had the pleasure of hosting this ceremony last year, and also while I was assistant secretary for economic, energy, and business decades ago – centuries ago. And I was delighted; I was always happy to be here. This is such a good opportunity to celebrate our companies who really live our values. So thank you all for coming.
We’re also joined by Kelly Fay Rodríguez, our new special representative for international labor affairs, who’s dedicated her career – there you are – who’s dedicated her career to improving labor rights at home and abroad. We’re also joined by Congressman Ro Khanna, who’s a big believer in the power of American innovation. Thank you.
We also have several international representatives here today. A couple of them I know quite well. Manuel Tovar, Costa Rica’s minister of foreign trade; Rosan Roeslani – thank you for coming – the Indonesian ambassador to the U.S.; and Ambassador Muhammad Imran from Bangladesh. Good to see you, sir. Thank you all for your partnership. Thank you all for helping to make today such a wonderful day.
I’m honored to help celebrate the winners of this year’s Award for Corporate Excellence. And it’s fitting, actually, that we gather here today in the Benjamin Franklin Room. In addition to being one of America’s first diplomats, one of our founding fathers, Franklin was also a brilliant businessman. Actually, before he was 20 he started running his own printing shop and over time he turned it into one of America’s first franchises, stretching from New England to the Caribbean. When he died, Franklin left 2,000 pounds to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia, which is more than $2 million in today’s money, to fund low-interest loans to young apprentices starting businesses on their own. He also had – he also wrote a book of – basically his autobiography for his son, and my father gave it to me and I’ll never forget he highlighted one – one of the advices that he gave, Franklin gave to his son, was, “Keep your eyes wide open before marriage,” and closed afterwards, which I always thought was great advice. (Laughter.)
So it’s wonderful to be here, and I – today is – U.S. businesses are a critical source of ingenuity at home and abroad around the world. At their best, they showcase America’s highest standards, providing good-paying jobs, advancing workers’ rights, investing in local communities, protecting natural resources, preserving our shared planet. It’s those strengths that make America’s private sector such a powerful partner to our administration.
Right now we face challenges that are just too big – they’re too big for any one country to handle, whether that’s combating climate change or protecting public health. And thankfully, we don’t have to take these on alone. American companies are using their expertise around the world, their creativity, and their resources to help find innovative solutions to these problems. In doing so, they’re proving the old adage, which is a truism, that business can serve the public good, that you can do well by doing good. And so this year we’re celebrating four companies who do all of this and more.
Our first award goes to a company that’s addressing a challenge that’s faced by countries and by communities all around the world, including here in the United States, and that’s inequity. We all know that when we broaden access to economic opportunities, whether that’s providing an education or ensuring equal pay for equal work, we help to unlock the full potential of our peoples and our societies.
That’s what employees at Intel in Costa Rica have done, and that’s what they wanted to do. They started a program for young people interested in STEM, focusing on students in the historically underserved region of Costa Rica, Limón. Through the program, young people can learn STEM skills like computer programming, improving their English, and finding internships in other tech comanies.
I’ve actually visited the Intel plant in Costa Rica, and it’s been wonderful to see the kind of partnership, the kind of effect that they have had in that country. More than 100 students have participated in the program so far; 40 percent of them are women. And now Intel is partnering with the Costa Rican Government to expand this program around the country.
Our next award goes to a company that’s building resilience to climate change in Bangladesh, where only about a third of the population has access to safe drinking water. That’s critical for avoiding serious waterborne illnesses like cholera and typhoid fever, and it’s also vital to a – to having a healthy population. As climate change warms our planet, droughts and rising sea levels are making clean water even scarcer, drying up some sources and contaminating other sources with seawater.
So one of Drinkwell’s founders developed a water purification system that’s cheaper and that’s more efficient and it’s easier to operate than other models. The company has also created a new delivery method, ATM – ATM-style machines – that sell and dispense clean water in Bangladesh and are more accessible for people whose homes aren’t connected to water pipes. For about eight years, since 2015, Drinkwell has created hundreds of jobs for people in Bangladesh and brought almost 200 million gallons of clean water to low-income communities in Dhaka, enough drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people a year.
Drinkwell is also a testament to the power of international exchanges. And one of the company’s founders is a Bangladeshi American whose grandfather died of a waterborne illness. He – so he got a Fulbright – he got a Fulbright to study the problem and potential solutions to Bangladesh, and there he met a chemical engineering professor from an American university, and together the two of them went on to found Drinkwell. I couldn’t have been more impressed when I met this young man, and I just wish I had a little bit of stock in his future. (Laughter.) He’s going to do quite well.
Finally, we’re awarding two companies for their responsible operations, and they’re proving that they can do good business while also doing right by their employees and their community.
The first one is Gap in India, where it’s using its reach as a multinational company to improve conditions for local workers and for their communities. Throughout Gap’s supply chain and across the country’s apparel industry, Gap has implemented policies for their vendors to help prevent and address gender-based violence in the workplace, and they have also created training programs that have benefitted more than half a million women and girls in India since 2007.
During the COVID-19 pandemic in the last couple of years, factories in one Indian state failed to pay employees their full wages and benefits. So what did Gap do? Together with other companies, Gap joined labor representatives to help an estimated 400,000 garment workers get more than $60 million in back salaries for their uncompensated work.
The last company is Anova, a company from Indonesia. It’s leading the way in producing seafood that meets high standards for quality and safety, and it’s doing so ethically. Unlike other seafood companies, Anova is involved throughout the process, from working with fishers in the Indo-Pacific to running its own inspection laboratories to getting fish to stores. It’s how they know their product because they can trace them from – literally from the time they get off the boat to the time they get to the table. It’s how they know their products are safe for consumers and sustainable for the environment.
As a fair trade company, Anova is also dedicated to supporting their fishers, helping them secure higher wages, expanding their access to U.S. and Canadian markets, and training them in how to combat bribery, corruption, illegal fishing, and other activities that are bad for the environment and – and – for their livelihood.
Since 2015, the company has provided over $100,000 to fisher collectives on top of their regular wages so fishers can work together to invest that money back into their businesses, local schools, and communities.
These four companies that I just highlighted are more than just places of business. They’re driven by more than the bottom line. They’re champions of our country’s highest principles and values, and partners in tackling the most vexing global challenges in our time. And they’re helping us make a real vision in a world that’s open, free, secure, and prosperous.
As I go around the world, oftentimes I am asked why – how can you compete with state-owned enterprises that receive subsidies, that don’t pay taxes, that don’t even have to make a profit? Well, these four companies are examples of something that I talk about all the time: Give us our private sector, give us a level playing field, and I’ll take my chances every single time.
So with that, let me congratulate these companies. We’re honoring them today. Thank you – all of you, and especially these companies – for your leadership, for your contributions, and for your congratulations. We need more of you. Thank you. (Applause.)