Women, visible minority & diaspora owned businesses: It’s time to rally your troops!

While many would share Justin Trudeau’s belief that gender balance in Cabinet is just common-sense, “because it’s 2016”, there are many who are happy to remain rooted to beliefs held decades, If not centuries past. Yet despite such public commitments, key trade, finance, and investment mechanism are stacked against women, visible minority and diaspora-owned businesses.

It has been a troubling week for those of us who are committed to building a more equitable, prosperous and just world.  The Wall Street Journal featured an editorial page op-ed column by John Greathouse who sought to offer some words of wisdom to women and visible minorities. Mr. Greathouse is a regular expert contributor, and as a partner with mid-sized venture capital firm Rincon Venture Partners regularly meets with a wide-variety of emerging businesses. As a University of California Faculty member is also teaching the next generation on entrepreneurship. So what were his “expert advice” to women and visible minority entrepreneurs?

I would suggest that if you are a woman raising capital, you might consider not including photos of your team in your pitch deck. If you identify your team via their initials (men and women), you effectively strip out all preconceptions related to race, ethnicity and gender. In your LinkedIn profile, Twitter account, email address and online correspondence use your initials (or a unisex name) and eliminate photos.”

The suggestion that women and visible minorities are required to erase their persona to access investment opportunities not surprisingly caused a deluge of Twitterverse outrage, and he issued an apology retracting his so-called “advice”- in record time. But tellingly nowhere in his apology was a commitment to take real steps to address the root causes, like putting in place a strategy to have greater levels of diversity working at a senior level in his firm or to make a specific commitment to target women and minority-owned businesses.

Less we think that this was simply the case of a poorly worded article, the Guardian picked up on a story featured on Motherboard which revealed that while Elon Musk of Tesla has over 5 million followers, he follows only 54 accounts, none of which were women. Other tech leaders did not fare much better.

  • Apple CEO Tim Cook follows 51 accounts: 20 men, four women, and the rest brands
  • Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky follows 92 accounts, including 58 men and 12 women
  • Netflix CEO Reed Hastings follows 60 accounts, including 44 men and 10 women
  • Microsoft founder Bill Gates follows 169 accounts, including 57 men and 12 women
  • Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt follows 235 accounts, including 153 men and 25 women
  • Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla follows 257 accounts, including 175 men and 25 women

Against this backdrop the annual business development conference for women entrepreneurs, known as “Go for the Greens”, recently wrapped up in Orlando, Florida.  Since 2008, the conference has produced a unique event that offers exclusive access to companies, government agencies, and non-profits that can help women-owned businesses connect and up-scale their businesses. The event theme this year was very aptly themed “Rally your Troops” featuring an array of women business leaders from start-up entrepreneurs to Fortune 500 executives who meet to discuss ways to support women-owned businesses with industry leaders.

In recent years the Government of Canada, through its Canadian Trade Commissioner Business Women in Trade Initiative has become a major supporter encouraging women entrepreneurs across Canada to take part in this annual event.

Aside from the obvious domestic economic benefits of supporting the growing number of women-owned businesses, governments are increasingly looking to integrate specific policy measures into international agreements. Given the troubling rise in protectionism being witnessed in many countries, creating specific initiatives that are seen to deliver real benefits to their citizens is an obvious way of demonstrating tangible benefits brought about by international trade.

 

Last June 2016 in Ottawa, Canada, Mexico and the United States signed a trilateral memorandum of understanding promoting women’s entrepreneurship and the growth of women-owned enterprises in North America. Activities include: facilitating women’s access to global value chains and participation in international trade; promoting partnerships; bolstering mentoring relationships; and facilitating networking and information sharing. This is an important first step.

The task before us is of course much larger and extends far beyond our own backyard. While many of us often turn to European examples to highlight the efforts made by its Nordic nations in advancing equity issues, the same cannot be said for trade. Take for instance the recently concluded 600+ page agreement drafted between the East African Community and the European Union. Women are mentioned a meager 4 times, once in reference to their role as market-traders for the fish industry along Lake Victoria, and the three remaining references are the applicable tax for the importation of women’s undergarments and related apparel! Yet, countries around the world have signed up to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which calls for specific efforts to increase women’s access to markets, leadership opportunities, gender equality, access to good jobs and economic growth.

Recognizing the vital role women-owned businesses play in our collective prosperity, creating specific policy responses to provide greater opportunity for women is an important achievement. For too long, such trade agreements have been the preserve of industry titans and their well-heeled lobbyists. We can hope that with our collective efforts, trade, finance, and investment mechanisms can be made more enlightened to recognize the role played by women, visible minority and diaspora-owned businesses in today’s economy, thereby delivering real benefits to the economy as a whole- not just to a few. It’s not just a question fairness, it’s about delivering real economic benefits for us all. Should John Greathouse and his firm ever decide to diversify its leadership and prospect base- they will be surprised to find out how much more profitable they can be. Here are two quick takes aways:

  • Over the past 2 decades, the growth in the number of women-owned businesses in the US is up 68 percent, employment is up 11 percent, and revenues topped 72 percent, far exceeding growth rates of all but the largest publicly-traded businesses, and tops growth rates among privately-held businesses.
  • Although there are still fewer large companies that are run by women than by men named John, in a study of women CEOs which tracked the performance of the 80 women CEO they were found to have produced equity returns 226% better than the S&P 500.

The times have changed, but clearly perceptions and tools have not.

The next generation of wealth is being built by those individuals and nations sufficiently astute to recognize this quiet transformation.

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