Musings on Davos

I don’t think it’s jealousy that I’ve never attended the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting held each year at this time in Davos, Switzerland (maybe just a teensy bit), but I do believe – this year especially – that this annual gathering of the world’s “big business” and “big politics” elite points out just how behind the times this assemblage has become.

There is a very interesting and insightful collection of articles on BusinessWeek.com pertaining to Davos (see especially “Davos 2009: Where Are the Women?”). It got me thinking about what the theme of this year’s forum meeting ought to be – perhaps “Wha’ Happened??” Gathered in snowy Davos at this very moment are some of the very folks who share the blame for getting the world into the financial mess we now find ourselves in. How are they suggesting we dig ourselves out of it? By “bailing out” the very same large institutions whose decisions led to the current crisis.

We’re now in the midst of significant changes in the balances of power around the world: political, economic and social. It’s human nature, I suppose, to want to put things back the way they were – it’s comfortable and familiar, if not always perfect. But I, for one, welcome and embrace this unsettling of the power structure, because it provides opportunity for new ideas and different solutions to present themselves. And where do I suggest that one powerful solution lies? In specifically and proactively fostering the economic empowerment of women, naturally.

In the United States, we have just celebrated the 20th anniversary of what I like to call the “Big Bang” of women’s entrepreneurship: the Women’s Business Ownership Act of 1988, which became Public Law 100-533 (and is also frequently referred to by its original bill number, HR 5050). It contained four key provisions that have become the pillars upon which the greater than average growth (in number and economic clout) of women-owned firms has been built:

  • Measurement: The law required that the Census Bureau count ALL women-owned businesses. Prior to that time, not all industries and not all types of businesses (“c” corporations particularly) were not counted. The result? After including those previously uncounted parts of the women-owned business population the number of firms increased by just 9%, but the employment contributed by women-owned firms more than doubled – up by 111%, and the revenues produced by those firms increased by nearly 1-1/2 times – up 145%.
  • Access to capital: Prior to the passage of the Act, women could not get business credit in their own names. Indeed, women in the US could not get personal credit in their own names until after the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in 1974. HR 5050 extended ECOA to include business credit.
  • Entrepreneurship education: Funding for four “demonstration sites” testing the idea of women-friendly and women-focused entrepreneurship education was also included in the bill. This program has blossomed into the US Small Business Administration’s Women’s Business Center program, which currently provides grants to over 100 non-profit organizations in nearly every state, that provide entrepreneurship classes, one-on-one counseling, mentoring and peer group support to over 145,000 clients per year.
  • Ensuring a seat at the policy table: The fourth pillar of the Act was the creation of a National Women’s Business Council – a bipartisan, Federally-funded public policy advisory body that provides a voice for women business owners through its annual report to the President, Congress, and the SBA.

Those who are seeking new ideas and a fresh approach to economic growth and stability could do no better than to not only reach beyond bailing out large corporations and financial institutions, but to strengthen the very foundation of the world economy – its small business community – AND to pay focused and proactive attention to a heretofore undervalued and underappreciated source of economic power: women business owners and their enterprises. Looking into legislative action such as a Women’s Business Ownership Act is a start. (And here are two other morsels of food for thought:

  • a thinkpiece I wrote a few years back on what it takes to build a framework of support for women’s enterprise development, and
  • a comment letter written to the US Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship sharing my thoughts on how best to move forward in a US policy context as we commemorated the 20th anniversary of the WBO Act of 1988.)

So, you captains of industry and political power in Davos, look past the ends of your collective noses and do more than pay lip service to being inclusive of developing nations, the bottom of the economic pyramid, and gender diversity. Rethink and restructure your model for economic growth and development, and work to close the chasms that exist between the haves and have-nots, the developed and developing world, the multinational corporations and the self-employed. We’ll all be better for it.

And to all of you womenablers out there – the time has come for all of us to step up the volume and add our voices to those seeking a way forward – not only to get past the current financial crisis, but to lay a more practical, realistic, and inclusive framework for peace and prosperity the world over. Let’s start a dialogue on all of the many aspects of this important issue here on The Womenabler Blog. I look forward to our conversations.

Your humble servant for women’s enterprise,

Julie Weeks

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