About the Author: Irene Marr serves in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.
This week, women from across North and South America — from Manitoba, Canada, to Santiago, Chile — gathered in Washington, DC, to participate in the first Pathways to Prosperity Women Entrepreneurs’ Conference, held from October 7 to 9. They met with Secretary Clinton, the inspiration for this conference, in the State Department’s Treaty Room. In her remarks, the Secretary discussed how empowering women was integral to progress, prosperity, and peace in every country, and praised the women for having the courage and commitment to work for a better future. This conference featured dynamic, innovative, and interactive programs linking early career entrepreneurs with more seasoned businesswomen. They are developing mentoring relationships and laying the foundation for an ongoing, sustainable businesswomen’s network, with the support of four women leaders from government and the private sector who are serving as Pathways Envoys. As one envoy noted, it is time to realize the untapped potential of the “collective power of women.”
In May 2009, Secretary Clinton relaunched the U.S. commitment to the Pathways to Prosperity in the Americas Initiative in El Salvador, with a new emphasis on advancing social justice and expanding the benefits of trade, open markets, and economic opportunity for all people in the region, especially groups that traditionally have been marginalized. From learning how to strike a work-family life balance while also generating income, to learning innovative approaches to branding, supply chains, quality control, marketing, and responding to customer feedback, the women received practical skills and knowledge to grow their businesses and experienced a rich and productive exchange and the benefit of “lessons without borders.” Expert panelists from the private sector, non-governmental organization community, and financial institutions conducted workshops on access to markets, finance, technology, and training in leadership skills. They also had the chance to showcase their products and services at an “expo” held at the conference, met with a variety of industry experts, and visited two local businesses run by women. One woman from Mexico reflected that although she felt that she was not at the same educational or experience level as most of the others, “we are all learning from this conference.” She left the conference inspired and committed to taking the lessons learned back to her community.
High-level State Department officials also played a prominent role in raising the profile of women’s economic empowerment. Ambassador Craig Kelly, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, energized the group on opening night as the keynote speaker, giving a succinct overview of the new Pathways vision and underscoring the importance of including women as we move forward toward greater security, economic strength, and regional partnerships. Anne-Marie Slaughter, Director of Policy and Planning, made a special connection with the audience in her remarks about how we in this hemisphere need to work together toward common goals and ideals, stressing the reality that we are “all citizens of the Americas.” Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer inspired the participants with her moving speech, which highlighted the importance of networking, mentoring, and “paying it forward,” in paving the ways to prosperity. She also shared some stories of her travels to Latin America in the 1990s with then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, when she saw firsthand how women with entrepreneurial spirit and aspirations were able to use small grants to transform their lives and those of their children. Under Secretary of Democracy and Global Affairs Mario Otero, who was born in Bolivia, closed the conference with words of encouragement, and highlighted the importance of access to opportunity and financial inclusion.
As I listened to women tell their personal stories, and watched them make new connections with other entrepreneurs, I could feel that there was true momentum building for a network that will extend well beyond the conference. These women were not only inspired by the speakers and moved by their meeting with the Secretary, they were also discovering the power of collective action. It was great to be part of this experience.