Business Page – September 28, 2003

Womenfolk should step out and assert themselves

 

Introduction  

“My personal disappointment is that there are so few female entrepreneurs... From where I sit, my greatest lament is that the womenfolk are so underrepresented in business. It is clear that their entrepreneurial potential has not been fully exploited.” So said Ms Beverly Lopez, President of the highly influential Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ) in her feature opening presentation at the launching of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Conference being held at the Ritz-Carlton, on the north coast of Jamaica to coincide with the banquet and awards ceremony for the Entrepreneur Of the Year 2003.
Had Ms Lopez seen the list of the finalists vying for the prestigious award, she could have justifiably omitted the missing words ‘in Jamaica’ since there is only one woman among the fifteen persons. All four of the finalists from Guyana - Dennis Morgan of Denmore Garments, Brian Tiwarie of B K International Inc, Mokesh Dabi of Grand Coastal Inn and Anthony Thorne of Wilderness Explorers are male. Indeed, not a single woman was among the eight nominees from Guyana - a statistic that is as representative of the business reality as it is depressing.

The frog

That the statement comes from a Jamaican makes the situation even more troubling for the region since Jamaican womenfolk are regarded as the most advanced and assertive in the Caribbean. In seeking an explanation for this situation, Ms Lopez noted that it is often felt that women like to remain in their comfort zone and called for this myth to be destroyed by women stepping boldly outside of their safety zones, because “that is where the growth takes place.” As a reminder of the dangers of staying in one’s comfort zone she told her audience of Caribbean entrepreneurs the story of the frog which kicked back and relaxed, enjoying the soothing water, oblivious of the increasing heat and in that blissful state, being cooked to death.
She suggested that Jamaican women who are known for their pioneering spirit and who more and more are becoming the sole breadwinner in the household have a ‘unique position’ in the matriarchal society. She identified the following as some of the challenges facing women:
* Their inability to raise capital via the formal financial system;
* The absence of sufficient role models and mentors from whom to draw inspiration and guidance;
* Fewer and less developed networks in the business community;
* The challenge of the stereotype which requires women to prove that they can perform as well as their male counterparts.
In addition to the multitude of other problems such as the responsibility which women bear for bringing up the kids, these are the unwoman-friendly nature of the workplace, some still outmoded and clearly discriminatory laws in Caribbean countries and the generally chauvinistic nature of their male counterparts. Interestingly, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in the Clinton administration in her biography Madame Secretary published last week, spoke of similar problems in operating in what she describes as “a predominantly man’s world.”
Ms Albright noted that as she began to achieve success, the level of the challenge she faced in this man’s world became particularly intense, more among her own male colleagues than foreign officials who often saw her disembarking from a plane with United States of America emblazoned on its side which gave its passengers whether male or female immediate respect.
She recalls having “to cope with the different vocabularies to describe similar qualities in men (confident, take charge, committed), and women (bossy, aggressive and emotional),” something with which Ms Lopez would not be unfamiliar.

Entrepreneurship and economic growth

Referring to a 2001 study which added to the growing body of evidence of the “significant relationship between entrepreneurship, economic growth and poverty reduction,” Ms Lopez expressed the view that “the time has long passed for our universities to accept that entrepreneurial activity is an important and integral component of development,” ignoring the fact that the university environment is probably the most un-entrepreneurial environment one can ever find. In this region, we have learnt little from the mushrooming of the ubiquitous business schools in the developed economies offering the highly practical MBAs which have been a significant factor in the ballooning of entrepreneurial businesses providing millions of new jobs in both new and traditional sectors.
Calling for better collaboration between the private sector and the universities, Ms Lopez noted that universities have the opportunity to give key advantages in the development of new entrepreneurs and managers, as well as in promoting a culture of research and development. Such a culture is sorely lacking in the region and she suggested that the universities and the private sector should be aiming to partner each other to stimulate economic growth. Specifically Ms Lopez identified work on the commercial exploitation of research in the areas of patents and royalties as “an idea whose time has come.”
While expressing optimism about the private sector’s ability to achieve extraordinary results given its nature to be innovative and resourceful, Ms Lopez told her audience of some of the schemes to encourage entrepreneurship in her country including the Job Creation Award Scheme between the PSOJ and Cable and Wireless Limited, to recognize the enterprises whose investment over a six-month period had resulted in the creation of twenty-five jobs; and the Small Business Award to companies that had employed a minimum of five persons over a six-month period. The scheme has handed out forty Job Creation Awards and eighteen Small Business Awards since its establishment in February 2002, which is commendable given the state of that country’s economy.

Migration

On the negative side, Ms Lopez referred to a problem with which Guyanese are all too familiar - that many of our best minds are migrating, often never to return and share their knowledge and expertise with the country that would have subsidized much of their education. She expressed the view, however, that there is much more that countries can do to entice their high-energy youths to stay at home and become part of their family businesses “applying new knowledge to see them grow and expand.”
Ms Lopez noted that becoming a successful entrepreneur is no mean feat, and requires hard work and good sense. Several things need to be done to survive, compete and prosper in the globalised world. Among these imperatives are: improved efficiency, reduced consumption and increased savings and investments, embracing new technology; understanding the customer and empowering the employees, noting that when the employer hires a pair of hands, a head comes with it for free. To succeed, both a business and a country would need to identify their competitive advantage and demonstrate superiority in their market. Leaner operations with fewer layers of management provide the nimbleness of action required to adapt to the rapid changes to which businesses are exposed.

Conclusion

The full text of Ms Lopez’s speech will shortly be available at no cost on the web at ramandmcrae.com and readers are invited to access it. Meanwhile, however, we in Guyana need to reflect on how little are the opportunities we afford our womenfolk who are no less resourceful than their male counterparts. There seem to be no national policies to exploit this major resource while our business community is rife with chauvinism bordering on backwardness. Very little study has been done to determine the needs of this sector and decisions are often made purely on anecdotal evidence.
As Ms Lopez said, it is time that women step out and assert their rights in the interest of Guyana. They are grossly under-represented in business and there is much more that they can and should do. It is regrettable that Sunday Stabroek no longer carries Women’s-eye view, and that perhaps our only woman director on the board of an insurance company is better known for her views on cricket that for her views on insurance or business. Meanwhile the law is only now being amended to allow the election of women on the board of one of the country’s leading insurance companies.
Women need to have role models outside of the limited confines of partisan politics and the traditional vocations of teaching and nursing, which incidentally are not known for their high salaries. The future of Guyana lies not only in its youths but in its unrecognised and under- utilised womenfolk. (Back to top)