Remarks at a Luncheon in Honor of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women-U.S. Department of State Entrepreneurship Program for Women in the Middle East

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Ben Franklin Room
Washington, DC
March 9, 2015

Hanan, thank you for those wonderful comments.  More importantly, thank you for your extraordinary personal example.  You’re a role model to so many people, and I think everybody here joins me in expressing such great respect for what you do.  It’s wonderful.  Thank you. 

And Hanan actually is not just successful and she doesn’t just understand that entrepreneurship is not just about making money.  As you heard, she’s founded two companies: importing affordable oncology medications to Egypt, and then another one that she runs with her daughters where they manufacture textiles, which you heard about a moment ago, and they support artisans in the local community.  So it is really a pleasure for me to be able to welcome Hanan here and the others who have traveled here from more than a dozen different countries in the Middle East, and we welcome all of you.  Thank you for being here. 

As I was looking around the audience, a lot of friends here.  And you’ll forgive me if I don’t single all of you out and run through everybody’s names here, but we’re deeply appreciative for all of you being here.  And there are many leaders from the State Department who are at the tables spread around here, who have worked together with Goldman Sachs in order to make this event happen.  And I thank every single one of you.  I particularly want to thank Evan Ryan, who you heard from a moment ago.  She’s a star and doing a spectacular job.  (Applause.)  As you all know, she’s been with me almost from the beginning.  From the beginning here means something different because of the new nominating process.  (Laughter.)  It takes a while.  But from the moment we were able to get her confirmed, she’s been here as my assistant secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs.  And somehow, somebody she’s related to named Tony Blinken managed to sneak in later, and we welcome him, obviously, also.

Evan is a huge believer, as I am, in people-to-people diplomacy, and she played a really key role in launching the State Department Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women partnership, which we’re very proud of and which is growing in its capacity thanks to many of you who are sitting here right now.  It’s no coincidence that one of her first trips as assistant secretary, she journeyed to Rwanda to meet with women tech entrepreneurs. 

And I also want to pay a special tribute to Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs for his partnership, for his leadership.  There are a number of folks here who are part of that partnership.  The success of Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women program is really proof positive, which many of you have come to understand through your lifetime commitment to this kind of endeavor, that empowering women pays huge dividends – not just for some countries, but for all countries, for all societies.  And to date, the program has reached – the program itself has reached across 43 countries, so it’s growing in its impact and in its capacity.  And Lloyd, I just want to thank you for your vision, for your leadership, your commitment to this.  It is a very important initiative, and it would not have been possible without the commitment of Goldman Sachs and the leadership of it.  I also want to thank, particularly, World Bank President Dr. Jim Kim – (applause) – and in unity with him my old friend, crossing paths in many different places but now most importantly at Harvard, David Gergen.  Thank you so much for your engagement and involvement in this.  (Applause.)

Last year, Goldman Sachs and the World Bank created the first global fund of its type for women, opening doors of opportunity for women around the world.  And the State Department is very, very proud to join with the combination of Goldman and Harvard and the World Bank in order to promote women’s entrepreneurship and access to capital through the new program that we are announcing today.  I’m particularly proud that we are launching this important public-private partnership on the first day of Global Partnership Week.  And the principle really could not be more direct.  It’s very simple:  If women are able to thrive, societies thrive.  And nowhere is that more true than in the Middle East and in North Africa.  Everybody here knows we are facing a moment of some enormous challenges in all of these places.  But it’s also a part of the world that is richly blessed with unbelievable untapped opportunities.  People think I’m a little obsessed by the notion that the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere is sitting on this goldmine of possibility; there’s no question in my mind.  The foreign minister of the Emirates recently, they did a big, deep dive economic analysis, and it proved that if we can move forward, if we can empower people, if we can get those economies moving, it will become an enormous center of finance and of new energy possibilities, new agriculture possibilities, and a crosspollination between all of this, and ultimately with tourism, will make it an economic powerhouse globally.

There are – so there’s no better example, really, of when you go micro from this sort of macro-vision that I was just expressing, of the potential for innovation and of ingenuity of its women than the examples that they set themselves.  And we’ve seen an increasing income share that is controlled by women as they begin to get this foothold economically, and that benefits all the way down the economic and societal food chain.

Time and again, we see that countries with the greatest representation of women in management positions deliver a higher return to shareholders than those who push women out.  And time and again, we’ve seen that gender equality and health, education, political, and economic participation means more jobs and greater economic competitiveness.  So the facts tell this story, not the desires of a Secretary of State or a State Department or a good corporate citizen who want to make this happen.  The facts tell this story.

And remember that behind each example, there are real people trying to make a living, trying to put food on the table for their families, trying to explore the boundaries of their talents and their capabilities.  And each of us has an ability to help tear down those barriers that deny women a fair chance to start their businesses, to obtain credit, to take advantage of modern technology, to pursue a successful career.  Now many of our participants here today are doing exactly those things, and the work that they are doing truly is inspirational.

Hassiba Sayah consults with Algeria’s ministry of environment and runs a company that helps Algerian women create and develop their own businesses, and she is an inspiration. And Talan Aouny, who operates one of Iraq’s largest companies and has made the recruitment of women a top priority, is an inspiration.

When I was in Afghanistan the week, regrettably, when we lost a young woman who was going out to – shortly thereafter to take books to students in school, she organized my whole trip.  And she put together 10 remarkable Afghan women that I met, each of whom had started their own businesses.  Imagine – in Afghanistan, that’s hard.  One of them had become the owner of a company that was the biggest employer with respect to trucks and movement of people between the ’Stans and Afghanistan.  Absolutely amazing.  And all of them, despite the difficulties, expressed their energy, their enthusiasm, their belief in the possibilities of what they could do to help change their country, and what they were doing.

So the bottom line is really very, very simple:  No country can get ahead if it leaves half its people behind.  No team can win.  (Applause.)  And no economy can thrive if women are denied a seat at the table.  That is also a fact.  And I want to be clear:  We’re not talking about a largesse that somehow just gives something to women and girls.  We’re talking about getting out of the way, breaking down the barriers so that women and girls can make full use of their energy, their talent, and their brains to do what they want to do and can do.  That’s called empowerment, and that’s exactly what this is about.  Governments don’t grant rights to women or to anyone else in that sense.  Women, like men, are born with those rights, and we need to make certain that this country – President Obama, I know, believes this very deeply – is taking the lead in helping to push that notion out into everybody’s political ether.

Our obligation is to allow for the free exercise of rights by everyone without discrimination, without exploitation, and without abuse, and without violence.  There are a lot of ways to do it, folks.  And first, we need to ensure that women are basically empowered in the ways we’ve described, remove the barriers to opportunity.   No barrier in the Middle East is more readily measurable, frankly, than discrimination against women.  Women participate in the workplace in the region at only half the rate found in other parts of the world.  In some MENA countries, the unemployment percentage for women is three to eight times as high as that for men.  And the result is an immense loss of productivity for the region.  Because when women are able to join the workforce, guess what?  Again and again and again, it is proven the GDP goes up and it goes up fast. 

Now, there are many creative ways to eliminate discrimination without coming into conflict with cultural and religious norms.  And that’s important.  I emphasize, we’re not going to find those ways if you don’t seek them.  I find it heartening, for example, that Saudi Arabia is committed to doubling the number of women in its workforce over the next few years.  Second, we need to ensure that women have access to quality education and professional training that will enable them to succeed and lead in the workforce.  And the Middle East has a lot of fine colleges and universities.  But there’s a troubling disconnect between the skills that schools teach and the expertise that the job market demands.  And that leaves many educated women still – and men, I might add – unemployed. 

And that’s why the State Department is already working closely with a group of locally run nonprofits who are focused on precisely the challenge of matching jobs to skills, and is why we’re working on new ways to do even more than that.  Each year, education for employment reaches thousands of young people across the Middle East and North Africa by helping, for example, a young Egyptian woman to learn English so that she could pursue the career of a journalist, or teaching a woman raised in the Moroccan desert the basics of computer science so that she could become the manager of a technology firm in Casablanca.  And you can tell I’m talking about real people for whom this has happened.

We need to help young women in the Middle East find jobs, but we also need to help them create jobs.  And that means we need to equip women with the tools that they need to be successful entrepreneurs.  And we’re looking to the business community to help point the way in developing tomorrow’s engines of growth.

And that’s why at this year’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Marrakesh, we brought together nearly 4,000 entrepreneurs and business and government leaders from all across the Middle East and North Africa.  And for the first time, the summit had a day dedicated to the specific challenges and opportunities relevant to women and young entrepreneurs.  That’s why the State Department is continuing to invest in TechWomen, which supports our foreign policy goals in technology, increases the trade capacity of our partners, and helps women reach their full potential in the tech industry.  That’s why we’ve launched Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership, which connects America’s senior women business executives with emerging women leaders from around the world.

So our responsibility is clear: to invest in women and to level the playing field so women have access to the opportunities and rights that they deserve.  And that is the story that I want to leave you with today.

On one of my first trips to Kabul as Secretary of State – I’ll just tell you about these women for one minute quickly – there was a woman called Hassina.  And I mentioned this trucking company that she started – she started it with 500 bucks, folks.  Of her 650 employees today, 300 are women who not so long ago couldn’t even think of joining into the workforce.  She told me that when she was growing up, she always knew she wanted to be a businesswoman.  And I asked why, and she said simply:  “Because then I’ll get to be my own boss.”  And that’s not just an Afghan trait.  That’s a pretty universal aspiration.

The Egyptian poet Hafez Ibrahim summed it up best when he said, “When you educate a woman, you create a nation.”  Friends, women like Hassina and all of our participants who are here today are a living testament to those words.  They know that the benefits of investing in women and girls is not limited to one village, it’s not limited to one province or one country; they ripple out across borders.  You all heard that extraordinary speech of President Obama’s in Selma on how you create change.  And he mentioned Robert Kennedy’s famous speech in South Africa about ripples.  Well, ripples are what they are, and they tear down the barriers of oppression and resistance.  They make things happen.

I am convinced that those same kinds of ripples will build a current that will lift up and inspire citizens across the globe to understand that they’re really missing something when they do not include women to be fully empowered in their society.  And let no one doubt we know this is still a journey we have to complete in our own country, as we continue to break the glass ceiling and deal with questions of equal pay and so forth.  We’re still on that journey.  But we know the difference that it makes, and that’s the promise of this partnership that we are celebrating here today.

And it’s my pleasure to turn the podium over to the man who is helping to make this possible, Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs.  (Applause.)