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Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: Women entrepreneurs, example not exception

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We do not invest in victims, we invest in survivors. And in ways both big and small, the narrative of the victim shapes the way we see women. You can't count what you don't see. And we don't invest in what's invisible to us. But this is the face of resilience.

Six years ago, I started writing about women entrepreneurs during and after conflict. I set out to write a compelling economic story, one that had great characters, that no one else was telling, and one that I thought mattered. And that turned out to be women.

I had left ABC news and a career I loved at the age of 30 for business school, a path I knew almost nothing about. None of the women I had grown up with in Maryland had graduated from college, let alone considered business school. But they had hustled to feed their kids and pay their rent. And I saw from a young age that having a decent job and earning a good living made the biggest difference for families who were struggling.

So if you're going to talk about jobs, then you have to talk about entrepreneurs. And if you're talking about entrepreneurs in conflict and post-conflict settings, then you must talk about women, because they are the population you have left. Rwanda in the immediate aftermath of the genocide was 77 percent female. I want to introduce you to some of those entrepreneurs I've met and share with you some of what they've taught me over the years.

I went to Afghanistan in 2005 to work on a Financial Times piece, and there I met Kamila, a young women who told me she had just turned down a job with the international community that would have paid her nearly $2,000 a month -- an astronomical sum in that context. And she had turned it down, she said, because she was going to start her next business, an entrepreneurship consultancy that would teach business skills to men and women all around Afghanistan. Business, she said, was critical to her country's future. Because long after this round of internationals left, business would help keep her country peaceful and secure. And she said business was even more important for women because earning an income earned respect and money was power for women.

So I was amazed. I mean here was a girl who had never lived in peace time who somehow had come to sound like a candidate from "The Apprentice." (Laughter) So I asked her, "How in the world do you know this much about business? Why are you so passionate?" She said, "Oh Gayle, this is actually my third business. My first business was a dressmaking business I started under the Taliban. And that was actually an excellent business, because we provided jobs for women all around our neighborhood. And that's really how I became an entrepreneur."

Think about this: Here were girls who braved danger to become breadwinners during years in which they couldn't even be on their streets. And at a time of economic collapse when people sold baby dolls and shoe laces and windows and doors just to survive, these girls made the difference between survival and starvation for so many. I couldn't leave the story, and I couldn't leave the topic either, because everywhere I went I met more of these women who no one seemed to know about, or even wish to.

I went on to Bosnia, and early on in my interviews I met with an IMF official who said, "You know, Gayle, I don't think we actually have women in business in Bosnia, but there is a lady selling cheese nearby on the side of the road. So maybe you could interview her." So I went out reporting and within a day I met Narcisa Kavazovic who at that point was opening a new factory on the war's former front lines in Sarajevo. She had started her business squatting in an abandoned garage, sewing sheets and pillow cases she would take to markets all around the city so that she could support the 12 or 13 family members who were counting on her for survival. By the time we met, she had 20 employees, most of them women, who were sending their boys and their girls to school. And she was just the start. I met women running essential oils businesses, wineries and even the country's largest advertising agency.

So these stories together became the Herald Tribune business cover. And when this story posted, I ran to my computer to send it to the IMF official. And I said, "Just in case you're looking for entrepreneurs to feature at your next investment conference, here are a couple of women."


But think about this. The IMF official is hardly the only person to automatically file women under micro. The biases, whether intentional or otherwise, are pervasive, and so are the misleading mental images. If you see the word "microfinance," what comes to mind? Most people say women. And if you see the word "entrepreneur," most people think men. Why is that? Because we aim low and we think small when it comes to women.

Microfinance is an incredibly powerful tool that leads to self-sufficiency and self-respect, but we must move beyond micro-hopes and micro-ambitions for women, because they have so much greater hopes for themselves. They want to move from micro to medium and beyond. And in many places, they're there. In the U.S., women-owned businesses will create five and a half million new jobs by 2018. In South Korea and Indonesia, women own nearly half a million firms. China, women run 20 percent of all small businesses. And in the developing world overall, That figure is 40 to 50 percent.

Nearly everywhere I go, I meet incredibly interesting entrepreneurs who are seeking access to finance, access to markets and established business networks. They are often ignored because they're harder to help. It is much riskier to give a 50,000 dollar loan than it is to give a 500 dollar loan. And as the World Bank recently noted, women are stuck in a productivity trap. Those in small businesses can't get the capital they need to expand and those in microbusiness can't grow out of them.

Recently I was at the State Department in Washington and I met an incredibly passionate entrepreneur from Ghana. She sells chocolates. And she had come to Washington, not seeking a handout and not seeking a microloan. She had come seeking serious investment dollars so that she could build the factory and buy the equipment she needs to export her chocolates to Africa, Europe, the Middle East and far beyond -- capital that would help her to employ more than the 20 people that she already has working for her, and capital that would fuel her own country's economic climb.

The great news is we already know what works. Theory and empirical evidence Have already taught us. We don't need to invent solutions because we have them -- cash flow loans based in income rather than assets, loans that use secure contracts rather than collateral, because women often don't own land. And, the microlender, is actually now experimenting with crowdsourcing small and medium sized loans. And that's just to start.

Recently it has become very much in fashion to call women "the emerging market of the emerging market." I think that is terrific. You know why? Because -- and I say this as somebody who worked in finance -- 500 billion dollars at least has gone into the emerging markets in the past decade. Because investors saw the potential for return at a time of slowing economic growth, and so they created financial products and financial innovation tailored to the emerging markets.

How wonderful would it be if we were prepared to replace all of our lofty words with our wallets and invest 500 billion dollars unleashing women's economic potential? Just think of the benefits when it comes to jobs, productivity, employment, child nutrition, maternal mortality, literacy and much, much more. Because, as the World Economic Forum noted, smaller gender gaps are directly correlated with increased economic competitiveness. And not one country in all the world has eliminated its economic participation gap -- not one.

So the great news is this is an incredible opportunity. We have so much room to grow. So you see, this is not about doing good, this is about global growth and global employment. It is about how we invest and it's about how we see women. And women can no longer be both half the population and a special interest group.


Oftentimes I get into very interesting discussions with reporters who say to me, "Gayle, these are great stories, but you're really writing about the exceptions." Now that makes me pause for just a couple reasons. First of all, for exceptions, there are a lot of them and they're important. Secondly, when we talk about men who are succeeding, we rightly consider them icons or pioneers or innovators to be emulated. And when we talk about women, they are either exceptions to be dismissed or aberrations to be ignored. And finally, there is no society anywhere in all the world that is not changed except by its most exceptional. So why wouldn't we celebrate and elevate these change makers and job creators rather than overlook them?

This topic of resilience is very personal to me and in many ways has shaped my life. My mom was a single mom who worked at the phone company during the day and sold Tupperware at night so that I could have every opportunity possible. We shopped double coupons and layaway and consignment stores, and when she got sick with stage four breast cancer and could no longer work, we even applied for food stamps. And when I would feel sorry for myself as nine or 10 year-old girls do, she would say to me, "My dear, on a scale of major world tragedies, yours is not a three."


And when I was applying to business school and felt certain I couldn't do it and nobody I knew had done it, I went to my aunt who survived years of beatings at the hand of her husband and escaped a marriage of abuse with only her dignity intact. And she told me, "Never import other people's limitations."

And when I complained to my grandmother, a World War II veteran who worked in film for 50 years and who supported me from the age of 13, that I was terrified that if I turned down a plum assignment at ABC for a fellowship overseas, I would never ever, ever find another job, she said, "Kiddo, I'm going to tell you two things. First of all, no one turns down a Fulbright, and secondly, McDonald's is always hiring." (Laughter) "You will find a job. Take the leap."

The women in my family are not exceptions. The women in this room and watching in L.A. and all around the world are not exceptions. We are not a special interest group. We are the majority. And for far too long, we have underestimated ourselves and been undervalued by others. It is time for us to aim higher when it comes to women, to invest more and to deploy our dollars to benefit women all around the world.

We can make a difference, and make a difference, not just for women, but for a global economy that desperately needs their contributions. Together we can make certain that the so-called exceptions begin to rule. When we change the way we see ourselves, others will follow. And it is time for all of us to think bigger.

Thank you very much.


Video Details

Duration: 12 minutes and 55 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 229
Posted by: tedtalks on Jan 27, 2012

Women aren’t micro -- so why do they only get micro-loans? At TEDxWomen reporter Gayle Tzemach Lemmon argues that women running all types of firms -- from home businesses to major factories -- are the overlooked key to economic development.

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