Invest for the Future: Women Driving Economic Growth

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Zagreb, Croatia
October 24, 2011

Let me begin by saying what a personal pleasure it is to be in Zagreb, one of the world’s most historic and beautiful cities.

I am so pleased that we in the U.S. State Department could partner on this conference with our embassy here and the Zagreb School of Economics and Management. I want to especially thank Đuro Njavro, the Dean of ZSEM. You’re doing impressive work here in Croatia to increase the number of women entrepreneurs and to strengthen women in business and society. This conference is part of a series of Invest for the Future convenings to grow women’s enterprises and builds off of one that took place in Istanbul in January.

I want to welcome each and every one of you, particularly the extraordinary women entrepreneurs from Croatia, Kosovo, Albania, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovinia and Greece. We are thrilled that you’ve come together. You represent a truly vital force for driving economic growth and progress in the region. Women who are successful in business are also empowered to be leaders in their communities and countries. Women need to be represented at the policy-making table if the needs of their families, communities, and countries is to be fully addressed.

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 opportunities for communication and trade. We know that as leaders in business you will also work to strengthen democratic institutions and civil society. And working together, you will not only benefit your businesses and grow your countries’ economies, but also grow and strengthen cross-border relationships and opportunities.

I want to acknowledge Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor of Croatia and President Atifete Jahjaga of Kosovo. Their examples of women’s leadership are surely a testament to the capabilities of women all around the world. All of you gathered here are men and women who possess a reservoir of talents and experiences in finance, technology, management and so many other areas. As you share best practices, I know you will truly represent an Investment for the Future.

I also want to welcome Croatia’s Deputy Prime Minister Miloshevich. I want to thank Ambassador Foley and his staff here in Zagreb who have done so much to bring us to this day. I’m also grateful to the U.S. embassy and consulate. They were not only instrumental in selecting all of you participants, 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 just beginning our journey.

If we build a network of women leaders in business that spans this region, there will be no stopping you and no stopping the progress that can come to this part of the world. 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.

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 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. As the World Bank put it: gender equality is smart economics.

Women entrepreneurs offer people everywhere so much promise. Data shows 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.

We see this in the work of business women here like Keti from Albania, who runs a thriving business that she began only a year out of the Shkodra Economic School. Not only is her business doing well, introducing “Made in Albania” products to new marketplaces, but it is also doing good – employing disadvantaged women in her hometown and combating high unemployment. She is a true entrepreneur and a pillar of her community.

Sanija from Kosovo is a founder and Executive Director of an NGO called “Lady”, which was established to support women by providing better employment opportunities. During 2010 it facilitated the employment of 70 Kosovo women and has made a tremendous impact on their lives.

Vaska from Macedonia is already exemplifying the key elements of this conference: persistence, hard work as an entrepreneur, and networking. Her winery has added modern technology to a family tradition and now employs twenty people. Her wine has earned certificates and medals for their outstanding quality – she has become a successful entrepreneur.

Saturday night I was at a reception in Sarejevo and spoke to Elizabeta, whose furniture business started with 3 employees and has now grown to over 600. Serbs, Croatians, and Bosnians – men and women are working together and prospering. I’m glad that she too is with us. As she said, to achieve the economic expansion we all seek, we need to unlock a vital source of growth that can power our economies in the decades to come. And that vital source of growth is women.

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 laws and regulations or practices in some places 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 and growing 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, you will be better positioned as entrepreneurs.

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.

A few weeks ago, Secretary Clinton laid out a compelling, evidence-based case for women and economic growth. If we want to grow our economies and grow productivity, women need to take their rightful place in the economics of our countries.

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 others, particularly young women in your own countries. We hope that you will truly pay this experience forward to benefit others.

I hope you have a productive and rewarding experience over course of this conference, 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. Thank you for all you will do and for your commitment, intelligence, perseverance, and hard work – your entrepreneurship. We have every confidence you will realize your dreams for a better tomorrow.