AGOA Ten Years On; How are Women Faring?

Ten years ago the US Congress passed the Africa Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), designed to provide economic development assistance to lesser developed economies in sub-Saharan Africa and open up trade opportunities.

While the act has been criticized by some as not in keeping with WTO provisions, it has benefited trade between the US and Africa, and has helped with export and product quality standards, and SME development.

An AGOA forum has been held annually, rotating between an African and a US location. This year’s forum is being held August 2-3 in Washington DC, and is expected to attract trade leaders and experts from 38 African nations.

The Brookings Institution has published a report reviewing the state of AGOA in advance of this meeting, which is available at this site. However, a review of the report shows that women rate only one sentence in the 25-page document: “In addition, AGOA has also helped tackle inequality in African countries by creating more employment opportunities, especially for women.”

Hmm, chances are that AGOA has done more than that for women’s economic empowerment. But, as we well know, what does not get measured does not get managed – nor discussed at fora. C’mon folks! Here’s hoping that women’s economic empowerment will rate more than one sentence at this upcoming discussion.

There’s a good change that it will, though, thanks to the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program, which is bringing women business leaders from Africa to Washington, to attend the AGOA Forum and to meet with government and business leaders in Washington, DC and in Kansas City. Three cheers to the State Department and USAID for making this happen.

Whither Women-Owned Firms in the US? New Census Data Shed Some Light

It’s the news we womenablers have been waiting for anxiously for some time now – the release of the most recent statistics (albeit from 2007) on the number, economic clout, and growth of women-owned enterprises. The latest facts were released today by the US Census Bureau, and this is what they show:

  • As of 2007, there were 7.8 million majority-owned, privately held women-owned firms in the US, a 20.1% increase over the previous census (in 2002);
  • These firms generated $1.2 trillion in revenues, a 27.5% increase from 2002 levels; and
  • Women-owned firms employed 7.6 million workers, up 7% from 2002.

So, overall, the trends we’ve witnessed over the past decade or more remain the same: increasing numbers, and increased economic clout. These numbers also indicate a slowing in employment growth – among women-owned firms and overall, as the economy slowed down in advance of our most recent recession.

OK, it’s great to have these new numbers, but how about a little context? First of all, let’s take a look at the relative growth of women-owned firms compared to their male-owned counterparts. During the 2002 to 2007 Census period, the number of women-owned firms grew by 20.1%, compared to a 5.5% increase among majority-owned, privately held men-owned firms. As a result, the share of women-owned firms in the business population has been steadily increasing, from 26% in 1997 to 28% in 2002 to 29% as of 2007.

Secondly, the economic contributions of women-owned firms has been increasing as well, at a rate greater than that of their increase in numbers – at least in terms of revenues generated. While the growth in the number of women-owned firms is up 20% over the past five years, revenues generated by those firms is up 28% over the same time period.

There’s a downside, though, and that is that women-owned firms, on average, continue to employ fewer people and generate lower revenues compared to their male counterparts. To wit:

  • The vast majority (88%) of women-owned firms do not employ anyone other than the owner of the firm. While the same is the case for men-owned firms, a lower share of them (77%) are non-employer firms. The average revenues of non-employer women-owned firms are $26,490 – half that of the $53,329 seen among non-employer men-owned firms;
  • Among employer firms (12% of women-owned firms and 23% of men-owned firms), the story is much the same: average revenues of women-owned employer firms are half those generated by their male counterparts – $1.1 million compared to $2.5 million.

There’s more to be learned by perusing these latest statistics, even though the more detailed publication will not be released until December of this year. womenable will be taking a deeper dive and will be reporting out additional insights. In the meantime, our advice is to use these “most recent” statistics in place of whatever other estimates you may currently be using. While the data date is 2007 (as opposed to more recent estimates as of 2008), these are rock solid and actually higher than the 2008 estimates:

  • Number of Firms: 2007 actual 7.8 million; 2008 estimate, 7.2 million
  • Sales: 2007 actual, $1.2 trillion; 2008 estimate, $1.1 trillion
  • Employment: 2007 actual, 7.6 million; 2008 estimate, 7.3 million

To learn more about this impactful new womenabling information, click on the following links for the Census Bureau’s news release, links to all of the newly-released data, or the page with a summary of the women-owned firm findings.

Whither Women’s Enterprise in the US? A New Roadmap Points the Way

Just a few days ago, a multi-year labor of love was born – when The Roadmap to 2020: Fueling the Growth of the Women’s Enterprise Development was published. While the venue was the annual conference of the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC), the participation of many women’s business organizations helped make this event happen: from the early support of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) and the contributions from women’s business association leaders throughout the report, to financial contributions from individual women business owners as well as associations. Corporate support from IBM also helped propel the project from the idea/discussion stage to writing and publication. And, of course, the stalwart stewardship of Quantum Leaps’ CEO Virginia Littlejohn, who conceived the project and kept it moving toward fruition, was integral to its completion.

Womenable, I’m proud to say, played an important role in writing, editing, and helping to structure the project report. But, while I am blogging here to make sure that womenablers everywhere are aware of this effort and will take the time to download and read the Roadmap report news release and the full report, I’m not going to encapsulate or summarize the report’s conclusions and recommendations here; I will let you do that for yourselves (the executive summary of the 76-page report is found on pages 2-5).

No, what I’d like to do here is reflect on the development of the Roadmap, and the process we took toward its completion. It was a long, sometimes arduous and Sisyphean journey, but ultimately a very rewarding one, because – as we women know – the journey matters as much as the destination. Here’s what I’ve taken away from our multi-year, collaborative effort to bring this project to fruition:

  • Diversity and inclusion is hard, but absolutely essential: Let’s face it, we humans naturally gravitate toward people who look, talk and think like ourselves. However, diversity of thought, of backgrounds and experiences, and of vision is the only thing that gets us to move forward out of our comfort zones. In building a movement as well as charting a path into unknown territory, it is only by triangulating from several different points of view that we can reach a new destination. And we womenablers know, as we work toward leveling the playing field in the arenas in which we work, that inclusion matters;
  • Thinking ‘out of the box’ can also be difficult: It is also very hard, but likewise essential, that we try to stretch ourselves outward from incremental change to thinking more ‘out of the box’ – and to applying lessons learned in other fields to our own endeavors. While we may not have always succeeded in every topic covered in this report, we all realize that evolutionary change takes too long, and we need to be more revolutionary in our policies, programs and actions;
  • Timing is everything: While it seemed at times as though the Roadmap would never see the light of day, Virginia and I knew that – when the time was right and the stars aligned – it would all come together. In a collaborative process such as this one was, things can frequently take much longer than one might like, but for the recommendations contained in this report to be taken up by stakeholders in the public and private sectors, it was important to take the time to get everyone and everything in alignment. I think that most leaders of the women’s enterprise movement would agree that publishing a report with this level of mutual cooperation and ownership would not have been possible even five years ago; and
  • Margaret Mead was right: As the noted anthropologist once said (in one of my favorite quotes of all time), “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” In this case, it means that – in addition to the involvement of many writers, thinkers, and supporters – it was only a small, hardy, and persistent band of womenablers that was able to push this ball all the way up and over the proverbial hill.

Those of us who have labored to bring this report to life urge you to take the time to read the report – in pieces or in its entirety – and share it with your womenabling friends. We hope that you will not only recognize its inclusivity, but come away with a sense of pride and satisfaction that the women’s enterprise movement in the US has progressed to a point that such a collection of combined, collaborative wisdom and vision is possible. This endeavor is also unique in that it is led by the women’s business community itself, separate and apart from public sector policies and programs. Indeed, a central philosophical core of this effort is one of shared ownership and responsibility, as opposed to pointing out gaps and expecting others to come to the rescue.

What’s next? Ownership and action, of course – but also the cultivation of “roadmap processes” in other countries as well. Stay tuned for news on that front!