With big-name thinkers and doers in town for the annual Aspen Ideas Festival last week, conversations were compelling but one session still lingers in my mind. At the Doerr-Hosier Center, where several business experts discussed America's role in the global economy, WNYC host Brian Lehrer introduced the diverse panelists for a live broadcast show before an audience loaded with entrepreneurs and I noticed a glaring absence.
I've enjoyed Lehrer's show in the past and the panel's live broadcast aspect was an exciting format. The topic was also relevant to my social entrepreneurship work in Southeast Asia collaborating with artisans to produce textiles. The discussion brought together TIAA-CREF president and CEO Roger Ferguson, award-winning economist Raghuram Rajan, Philips president and CEO Gerard Kleisterlee, and Wall Street Journal economics editor David Wessel.
Lehrer asked the panelists, "At this time, if you could start a business anywhere in the world, where would you start a new business and why?" As each one started to answer the question, it occurred to me that the diverse panel was inadvertently missing a woman's perspective.
Rajan told the audience that there are many opportunities in Asia since service businesses are under-represented there and the population that can afford services is growing. Ferguson made many great points and suggested targeting areas close to universities and urban centers. As an American businesswoman whose company Lulan Artisans, http://www.lulan.com, focuses on economic options for women, families, and communities in developing countries, I was sure that women around the world would answer Lehrer's question differently.
Some Middle Eastern countries prohibit women from owning businesses by law. Even where there are no laws stopping women, cultural barriers persist in other countries. India is not an easy place for a woman to start her own business. While there are examples of women who have succeeded there, societal norms still don't entirely support it. And, when laws and unspoken rules don't edge women out, lack of support, networks, and investment can still stand in the way.
Access to capital, peer mentoring groups, social acceptance, precedents from other women, and a host of other factors still make the United States and Canada the best countries for a woman to start a company. There are other countries that also support women-led businesses, such as in Scandinavia and Australia, but the largest growth of women-led businesses over the past 10 years was in the United States. The number of women-owned firms in the United States has skyrocketed: they account for over 30% percent of all businesses in the United States for 55 percent of new startups.
Listening to the panelists speak in turn I wondered, "What would the economy look like if women the world over had the same opportunities I did?" We do know that it would change the state of poverty substantially. Current transformations in the world economy have changed social development in all countries but the trend shows increased poverty of women, due to lack of opportunity in markets, not a decrease. Solution: participation and changes in economic structures that ensure access for all women to resources, opportunities and public services.
In addition, it would likely begin to reduce the horrific human trafficking epidemic by giving women and families more opportunities to earn a living. Such a shift would foster cultures where women are respected and girls are better cared for. Over time, these communities will thrive on productivity and ideas, instead of repression and fear. The communities that don't discriminate on the basis of gender are those most suited to competing on a global stage. After all, these businesses can maximize their talent pool instead of cutting it in half.
Realizing that a woman's perspective and voice was not represented on the panel and concerned that the answers to Lehrer's question missed the point, I waited for the question and answer session. As soon as the floor opened up, on behalf of women who have ever dreamed of starting a company, I stepped up to the mic.