Business of Empowerment

Last week, I had the honor of meeting a group of women entrepreneurs from 38 different African countries, ranging from Botswana and Kenya, to Sierra Leone and Ghana.  The group traveled to Washington, DC to participate in the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program, coordinated by the State Department.   The goal of the program is to increase the integration of African businesswomen into the global economy through increased trade relations and business activity with U.S. businesses through the African Growth and Opportunity Act.

Each 38 African women in our meeting was a business owner, offering products and services in a variety of fields including farming, textiles, and retail. The fact that these women started their own businesses—successful businesses—is an amazing feat considering the extraordinary barriers some of them faced in pursuit of this dream.

After my colleagues concluded their remarks, the discussion opened up to the African women to talk about the unique needs of women on the ground in Africa. For example, many of the women highlighted their need for more resources, more networking, and more educational opportunities.

The discussion not only centered on such country-specific experiences, but it also brought to light the common experiences shared by women entrepreneurs around the world.  For example, all of the women in the room related to the strain placed on their careers by family obligations, and the obstacles often confronting women as start-up enterprises. Ginger Lew, Senior Advisor to the White House National Economic Council and the SBA Administrator, spoke firsthand about the business she began in the early 1990s and the challenges that women, such as her, continue to face when attempting to access capital or acquire loans.  In that vein, we discussed what the federal government is doing to address these challenges and to advance workplace flexibility.
 
After an hour long discussion, Michelle Gavin, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for African Affairs, concluded the meeting by expressing the Administration’s ongoing commitment to the women of Africa, as well as women and girls everywhere. 

But the conversation about the future of Africa didn’t end there.

The following day, President Obama hosted a town hall at the White House with 115 young leaders, both men and women, representing more than 40 African countries. It was an honest, frank discussion about issues most pertinent to the future success of Africa, such as HIV/AIDS prevention, governance, civic participation, and America’s relationship with the continent, now and in the future. Here is a White House blog with more informatoin and a video of this event.

Valerie Jarrett is Senior Advisor to the President and Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls.
 

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