Every startup ecosystem is different. Each economy, city and nation alike, faces exceedingly unique challenges. So what could 17 female entrepreneurs from 11 countries in Latin America find in common with their American counterparts, let alone amongst themselves?
That is what an exchange program called the Women’s Entrepreneurship in the Americas (WEAmericas) program sought to discover.
The U.S. Department of State partnered with a number of companies to launch the initiative during the 2012 Summit of the Americas in Panama. It aimed to foster relations between the two continents and economies and to promote investment in women-owned small and medium businesses. Operating under the International Visitor Leadership Program, the project involved a three-week professional tour of the United States, including Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Kalamazoo, Syracuse, San Francisco, and Sacramento.
The women’s backgrounds variedly tremendously. Some were small business owners or small business promoters, others taught entrepreneurship at universities, and several ran incubators and co-working spaces.
But soon enough, the women noticed they had some things to talk about.
Many faced a lack of education among women in their communities. Most related to the low social and economic value placed on housework by standard economics. They were interested in ways to increase microfinance and economic opportunities for women. They admired U.S. initiatives that united women and girls.
Discussing these issues through meetings with The Hot Mommas Project, Cleveland’s Department of Economic Development, Kalamazoo’s Girls on the Run, and many others, the 17 women shared the challenges they faced as business owners and entrepreneurs day-after-day.
Suddenly, it became very clear. There are very real obstacles for women entrepreneurs, in every country in North and South America. In order to help solve these problems, for their businesses and their societies, they needed each other.
As the project progressed, a strong and supportive friendship formed. Dalia of El Salvador noted that the “feeling of friendship strengthened” after the women traveled to their city splits in Ohio, Michigan, and New York State. We had “Tom’s Angels” in Cleveland (as an ode to one of the interpreters), the “Golden Girls of Kalamazoo,” and the Syracuse contingent had a memorable visit to Niagara Falls.
Despite a grueling three weeks of travel and professional appointments, two of the participants woke up early on a Sunday to prepare for and host a brainstorming session for the group. In San Francisco, the participants were collectively motivated to create their own organization, inspired by a meeting with Diana Ruiz of the Women’s Global Leadership Initiative (WGLI), called “The Global Initiative for Latin Women.”
At the beginning, several participants were skeptical of their involvement in WEAmericas. América of Venezuela said she started this program asking, “Why me? Why was I selected?” By the end, however, her questions were answered. Rachelle of Peru said they finally realized that “there’s a reason we’re here.”
The relationships they made with each other were perhaps the most important aspect of the program. Idania of Cuba said, as a female entrepreneur, her “strength is now multiplied by 16.” Similarly, Anaika of Haiti made a reference to their keynote with Kathy Korman Frey of the Hot Momma’s Project by saying that her “table of 5” has turned into a table of 21. Janny of Nicaragua also knows that she now has 21 people to contact and ask for advice: “And they won’t charge me for it!” she said. Simply put, in the words of Macarena of Uruguay, they are taking home “a network, a group of friends, and a group of leaders.”
There is no doubt these women will make significant changes, within their own communities and in partnership with friends and colleagues around the region. As time goes by, they will face similar conflicts and challenges, as women, as entrepreneurs, and as members of society. But now, they have 21 international colleagues and a network in the United States to support them, collaborate with them, and cheer them on as they strive to make a difference for years to come.
P.S. Oh yeah, and they saw the Pope, too.
Learn more about the impact of the International Visitor Leadership Program.