Women Driving Economic Growth

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Invest for the Future Women's Conference
Istanbul, Turkey
January 24, 2011

Let me begin by saying what a personal pleasure it is to be back in Istanbul, one of the world’s most historic and beautiful cities and dynamic societies. I am also pleased that we in the U.S. State Department could partner with Kagider on this conference. I want to especially thank Dilek Bil, its President. Kagider has been working here in Turkey to increase the number of women entrepreneurs and to strengthen women in business and society.

A very special welcome to each and every one of you, particularly the extraordinary women entrepreneurs from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey. We are thrilled that you’ve come together. You represent a truly vital force for driving economic growth and progress in their region. Women, who are successful in business, are also empowered to be leaders in their communities and countries.

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, even between nations dealing with conflict.

I also want to welcome others who have journeyed here--my colleagues from the United States; from Sweden, we welcome State Secretary, Catharina Hakansson Boman; and from Georgia, the Minister for the Economy, Vera Kobalia, and many others. I want to thank the representatives from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Finance Corporation for being here. All of you are men and women who possess a reservoir of talent and experience in finance, technology, management and so many other areas who have come together to share best practices and to make this what we hope will truly be an Investment for the Future.

I also want to thank the members of the U.S. embassies and consulates who are here, and particularly Consul General Scott Kilner and his staff in Istanbul who have done so much to bring us to this day. Our embassies were not only instrumental in selecting you, but they will continue to work with you when you leave here, through follow on training, through online conversations, through meetings in your country and the region. With Invest for the Future, we are beginning what we hope is a journey together with you.

If we build a network of women leaders in business 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.

Since we are here in Turkey, I want to quote the great founder of this republic. He said, “A society, a nation consists of men and women. How is it possible to elevate one part of society while neglecting the other half and expect the whole of society to progress?” Ataturk’s observation is true wherever we live. Differently put, when women progress, all of society progresses.

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. The World Economic Forum, which is meeting later this week in Davos, annually produces a gender gap report. You might ask, why does a forum comprised of top leaders in business and other fields focus on the gender gap in countries?

The WEF report compares equality between men and women in a given country on four key measurements: educational attainment, health and survivability, economic opportunity, and political empowerment. In those countries where the gap is closer to being closed, those countries experience greater productivity and economic competitiveness. Gender equality is key to a country’s progress because it yields higher growth outcomes and lower poverty.

Women entrepreneurs offer people everywhere so much promise. It is a fact that 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, the lowest hanging fruit to pick, are women-run SME’s.

We see this in the work of buisnesswomen here like Nigar, a bookstore owner from Azerbaiijan, who refused to pay a bribe to a tax inspector. When he remained in her shop doorway, she made a video of his actions and defended her rights against his demands. She observed this is proof of how important it is to know the laws and one’s rights.

Others of you, like Tabagari from Georgia, know how to take advantage of potential business opportunities. Even when her country was experiencing challenges, she noticed that backpackers were coming thru Georgia in great numbers. As a result, she co-founded an adventure travel business, one of few in her country.

And Kareen from Armenia is already exemplifying the key elements of this conference: regional cooperation, personal effort as an entrepreneur, and networking. Her production company creates TV videos about neighboring countries, especially Turkey and Georgia, and her programs have been a success on TV and their contributions to sustainable regional peace are not to be underestimated.

But as many of you know, and as these women would also readily acknowledge, women’s success is often hindered by barriers that often undermine their ability to start or to expand their business. Barriers like lack of access to markets, to training, mentors, and technology. Women often confront corruption, discriminatory regulations or practices like lack of property rights. And, of course, it’s also difficult to balance the responsibilities of family and work.

Access to finance repeatedly comes up as the major challenge to women for business growth. This significant gender gap to finance is painfully acute as it affects what we might call “the missing middle” of the small enterprise sector, which is mostly women-run 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, we will better help you to overcome such barriers.

Women’s economic participation is critical to emerging markets and many of you represent those emerging markets. The vitality of your markets will depend to a large degree on successful businesswomen like yourselves. Women’s work 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.

It is for reasons like these that the World Bank has a program called “Women’s Equality Equals Smart Economics.” Muhtar Kent, the CEO of Coca Cola and a native of Turkey, put it another way. A couple of months ago 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 10 years, the only way the world will grow 20 trillion dollars richer, the only way nations will rise out of poverty and become politically stable will be by women achieving gender parity on a global scale.” He added, “If we fail, the world economy will fail.”

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. As part of Invest for the Future, we hope you will also share your wisdom and experiences with young women in your own countries, that you will pay this experience forward to benefit others.

I hope you have a productive and rewarding experience over the next day and a half, and in the months to come as we work together to Invest for the Future. When women progress, everyone benefits: men and women, boys and girls.

And now via video it is my special privilege to introduce Secretary Hillary Clinton, a strong supporter of this initiative and the important work that all of you do.