Our second plenary session, Women as an Economic Force in Asia: Entrepreneurship, Trade and Business Leadership in a Global Economy, featured expert panelists from Hong Kong, India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and the United States. Moderator Zain Verjee framed the discussion around reconciling women’s perceived benefit from economic growth, and the reality of women’s experience as drivers of economic development – she asked, “are women really benefiting from the economic growth they are creating for the world?”
Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Usha Thorat, asserted that women’s influence as entrepreneurs “in the unorganized sector has been significant.” It’s not possible, said Usha, to separate women’s contribution from the tremendous growth of the Indian economy in recent years, they are one and the same.
Expanding women’s access to credit was the overriding theme of the session, which included several questions and commentaries from the gathered delegates.
Panelist Rezani Aziz of Sri Lanka, chief operating officer of the Sir Lankan branch of Burson-Marteller, responded to a question on securing viable opportunities for entrepreneurship in her post-conflict home country: “we started a women’s wing in the chamber of commerce of one of the conflict-ridden counties,” which provided women with access to more stable, neighboring markets.
Pacita Juan of the Philippines echoed Rezani’s suggestion, offering an example from her nation, where violence in Mindanao subsided after communities “dropped their arms for farms,” when they were given the opportunity to take part in sustainable, income generating employment through the establishment of a banana plantation – today, the plantation is one of the largest international exporters of bananas.
Noa Meyer, vice president of corporate engagement representing Goldman Sachs / 10,000 Women, urged that we address the needs of a more “nascent SME sector,” when compared with the microfinance sector:
“How do we build a movement for women in this sector? I think we need to use the power of stories of success.”
Vice President for commercial beverages and strategic planning for Coca-Cola in India, Sangeeta Pendurkar, said that more corporations need to acknowledge the proven advantage of women’s participation at their highest levels of corporate governance.
“Companies must view women as change agents, not only people who need help, but catalysts who can bring about social and economic transformation.”
Jaspal Bindra, CEO of Standard Chartered Bank in Asia, said that fewer and fewer companies regard investments in women as cursory nods to corporate social responsibility schemes. Banking is experiencing “a huge evolution,” said Jaspal, who referenced customizing products and credit lending scenarios for women entrepreneurs who are just starting out and traditionally have little access to credit.
“The biggest thing we are trying to do is to create a mindset which is far more favorable for women, a mindset which sees women’s future potential, not a lack of track record.”