I arrived in Hyderabad, India in the evening. Even in the obscurity of darkness, I could make out the brightly colored signs welcoming delegates to the 2017 Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES). With the significant time difference, I was very much awake and ready to take on the coming week.
Leading up to the summit, I met with with the leaders of various female-led enterprises - from a technology company to a women’s empowerment organization. This year’s theme at GES was “Women First; Prosperity for All” – championing the notion that the economic empowerment of women not only advances individual lives but transforms communities and nations.
Alongside two local graduate students and alumni of a U.S. State Department exchange programs, we began by visiting the Shaheen Women Resource & Welfare Association. Founded in 2002, the organization works tirelessly in Hyderabad to address gender inequity for women who come from under-served or marginalized communities. Shaheen provides a wide-range of programming from vocational training to legal counsel to leadership development.
We had the opportunity to hear from the women who had participated in Shaheen’s programming and they spoke of the variety of barriers that they faced from gender-based violence to challenges in completing their education. In sitting down with the founder Jameela Nishat, an activist and poet, I asked what Shaheen meant. She said that Shaheen is a bird that is limitless—that can soar to great heights. “Shaheen” was not a just name, but a promise to address the issues that kept women within the community from realizing their full potential.
In speaking with the women of Shaheen, there was an unmistakable value placed on Shaheen’s efforts to empower women economically. Ms. Nishat shared her view that economic empowerment is the first step towards liberation—towards finding your voice and becoming a key decision-maker within your community. The most powerful component of Shaheen’s work is the ripple effect and potent cycle of empowerment set forth. This wasn’t simply about changing the lot of one woman but generations of women.
The following day we visited with the leaders of a virtual reality company entitled Merxius. Co-founded by Vaishali Neotia and Hasan Ali Khan—Merxius works to democratize access to virtually reality, so that everyday people can utilize this powerful technology.
I had the opportunity to test out the technology myself. With the help of a virtual reality headset and controller—I was transported into a completely different world. In one stimulation, I was placed into a virtual garage with an engine where I was challenged to disassemble and interact with a car engine. In another stimulation, I was able to take a virtual tour of the interior of a house. CEO and alumnus of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, Vaishali Neotia spoke to me about her experiences navigating entrepreneurship as a woman and the barriers that still exist for female entrepreneurs. She spoke at great length about the unequal division of labor within the home that can often stunt the progression of women entrepreneurs. In addition, she touched on the importance of representation and role-models for young women breaking into the tech industry in reference to the mentors who have helped her along the way.
My visits to Shaheen and Merxius served as powerful testaments to the transformative nature of investing in women and ensuring that all people are economically empowered. It is only then that communities and countries can move forward and secure prosperity for all people.
About the Author: Munira Khalif serves as the 2017-2018 U.S. Youth Observer to the United Nations.
Editor's Note: This entry was originally published on the United Nation's Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA) GenUN blog. It also appears on the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.