Taking female-led businesses from local to global

International Women's Day discussion highlights the need for entrepreneurship and markets, and what comes next

The flashing images show women from across the world at work – in fields and offices, on boats and streets, at home and abroad.

The film, produced by the International Trade Centre (ITC) as part of its SheTrades initiative, pairs two sister fisherwomen in Alaska and a woman-led cooperative in Ghana that cultivates flowers, along with messages about female potential.

The featured stories are just two examples of small businesses that have gone global, with the women profiled sending their salmon catches to China and blossoms to the Netherlands.

ITC executive director Arancha Gonzalez speaking at the International Women's Day event. Photo by ITC/Flickr

ITC executive director Arancha Gonzalez said ahead of the screening that "Today's progress is yesterday's plan." The ambitious SheTrades plan is to connect one million women to market by 2020.

Doing so will require change on many fronts, and a discussion after the film delved into those details, with women from a variety of sectors describing their experiences with business and with markets.

Sefa Gohoho runs the Ghana cooperative featured in the film, and spoke of harnessing local culture and historical experience to empower herself and the women who work with her. She noted that her initial attempt to pay female employees a solid wage was rejected on the grounds that they couldn't make more than their husbands.

Sefa Gohoho speaking at the International Women's Day event. Photo by ITC/Flickr

In her opening remarks, Gonzalez said, "At the family level – economically empowered women invest most of their income in the education and welfare of their family. At the company level – greater participation of women in the workplace leads to higher revenues. At the macro level, closing the gender gap results in double digit increases in GDP."

For women in the world's poorest countries, income differences are deeply marked, as is access to education and work, and many during the evening discussion made a point of noting this. The Enhanced Integrated Framework works with ITC and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) to address women's economic empowerment in the Least Developed Countries, including targeted projects that link women in agriculture to markets.

At the opening of the event, UNCTAD deputy secretary general Isabelle Durant spoke to both the individual lives of women and the larger issue, saying that there are benefits to developing countries when women are better incorporated into the economy, after their daily experiences of struggling and striving. "Women can be important players in international trade at the service of development," she said.

UNCTAD deputy secretary general Isabelle Durant speaking at the International Women's Day event. Photo by ITC/Flickr

For small-scale woman traders the world over, progress on the ground amid assorted local conditions, bigger changes in attitude and improved policy-level conditions are all needed for female-led businesses to materialize and to thrive.

And so the short ITC film shows two different success stories that reflect what must be overcome and what individuals can accomplish.

"It's hard to be what you can't see," said Michael Moller, director general of the United Nations in Geneva, adding that the film is an example of the ways we all need to work to challenge and to change attitudes and deconstruct stereotypes through example.

Gonzalez closed her remarks with a science fiction reference that gestures to how distant victory may seem while inspiring with the possibility, by noting that this work "takes us boldly where no man has been before." 

For women in both developing and developed countries, that some already are is both a sign of progress and motivation.