Women business owners in the U.S. have gained organization, numbers, and clout over the past three decades. But across the globe, many female entrepreneurs still face daunting obstacles. While prospects for some are great, for others they're dismal. A U.S. nonprofit organization, Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World (LWEW), http://www.leadingwomen.org, aims to help even the playing field by providing networking, information, and encouragement to women from India to Brazil.
Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein spoke recently to LWEW President Cheryl Womack about women's business ownership internationally and the group's upcoming conference in Bangkok. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
What does your group aim to do, and how does it function?
The group was founded nine years ago by a Los Angeles businesswoman named Anita Alberts. She had worked with chambers of commerce all over the world and wanted to bring women entrepreneurs together. I was invited to join in Paris in 2002, and when Anita became ill, I took over as president.
We bring in new inductees each year who are nominated by our underwriters and our other honorees. Right now we have 318 members from just over 50 countries who collectively generate more than $162 billion for the global economy by employing more than 500,000 people. We'll be meeting in Bangkok this March to celebrate our 10-year anniversary.
Where do most of the group members live?
The breakdown is pretty evenly distributed between North America, Asia and Europe. We have 16 members from Australia, 19 from South Africa, and 13 from South America. I'm getting ready to go to Brazil to promote the group there so we can increase our South American numbers.
What kinds of businesses do these women own, and what stages of life are they at?
The companies they represent are all over the board, from manufacturing to retail to wholesale. My background is as the founder of a company that provided insurance to the trucking industry. Many of us who are in our 50s find that we've become serial entrepreneurs, and we're now forming partnerships and starting new companies after establishing ourselves successfully.
The age range starts from the mid-30s and goes up to a vital group of members who are over 70. In fact, one of our most energetic members is a remarkable 82-year-old Canadian woman who runs a ball-bearing company. I look at her and realize I can't start slowing down at 55 -- I've got a long way to go!
What differences do you see in the business opportunities that are open to women in various countries?
It varies so widely from region to region and even from country to country. For instance, I was recently in the Czech Republic and met the president of the U.S. Chamber over there. They have 187 chapters -- and not a single woman member! I was blown away.
Then I went to Bucharest, Romania, and couldn't believe what an even footing women are on there. I met women who, in less than six years in business, have built $50 million to $100 million empires in pharmaceuticals and entertainment. Romanian women here that I've talked to say it's not possible -- but they're doing it.
What kinds of attitudes impress you in the women business owners you meet?
In places where women are just getting into business, they are deadly serious about it. To the Romanians I met, and women I know in business in Thailand, succeeding in business is like dueling. They are so focused on winning, it's like they're afraid they'll die if they don't succeed.
And they are just sponges at our conferences, soaking up the entrepreneurial spirit when they meet up with women who've been in business longer and have more experience. Brainstorming with them and supporting their efforts is the most fun I've ever had in my life.
Is the group activity focused solely on education and emotional support, or are there international business deals getting done as well?
Oh, there is definitely cross-border networking and partnering going on. We're also helping women gain access to capital and outside investors, as well as helping those who want to become investors. And we sponsor internships and scholarships for young women who are interested in getting into business.
Where do you find women who have little or no chance to participate in the economy?
There are many parts of the world where both women and entrepreneurs in general are oppressed. One of our members from India had her factory burned down while she was at our conference last year. But even in surprising places we find women don't have the opportunities they should.
In Japan, for instance, I have met with the government twice about promoting our organization there and have twice been dismissed. They have an aging population and a burned-out male population, so they know they need to keep younger women in the workforce after they get married. But the government doesn't seem to want to be part of the solution.
It's so sad. I have seen a room full of powerful women business owners there, and a male bellman comes in the room and they immediately act subservient. I watched a woman entrepreneur try to explain her business to a tech executive in Japan, and she was flustered because he wouldn't even pay attention to what she was saying. I just hope that hosting conferences like ours will help the 14 women from Japan who are in the group learn how to make contacts and develop their confidence.
In what countries do you see exciting possibilities for women?
Central Europe is really on fire, there are so many opportunities. In Poland and Romania we have members who are starting to renovate old châteaux and Community Party headquarters, aiming to turn them into luxury hotels.
What do your U.S. members, who may have been entrepreneurs longer, get out of participating in this kind of international group?
Americans tend to know their own business and their domestic markets really well, but often they don't see the big picture on the global economy. Interacting with women from all over the world opens their eyes to possibilities like outsourcing, new markets, and consulting opportunities.
For many of us, who work very hard with very long hours, attending the conference is like a working vacation. And we bring our husbands and older children along, so that's wonderful. I think it's also interesting for us to recognize that creativity and innovation in business still start for the most part in the U.S.. The trends and the fads really do originate here.
What are the other benefits of your group?
We run a program on our Web site called "Ask a leading woman" where any entrepreneur -- male or female -- can ask a question of our members. I blast it out to our women and respond when I get about 10 answers back.
One question I always get from women is how to start a nonprofit organization. I always ask them why, if they've come up with some idea or product, they can't sell it? I think women are still afraid to make money, and we've got to change that mindset. Because when women make money, they turn around and help others do the same. They look for ways to make a difference in the world. That's why we've got to continue to help women become successful.