The need to improve the status of women and the promotion of women’s roles in development are no longer seen as issues of human rights or social justice. Today, investing in women is widely recognized as crucial to achieving sustainable development.
Economic analyses have professed that low levels of education, training and limited access to resources, amongst other factors, not only curb women’s quality of life but limit productivity and hinder economic efficiency and growth.
It can be said that the development of opportunities for women is imperative for a number of reasons, including the establishment of good development practices.
Mirror Business recently met with Samira Cook Gaines, who serves as Chief Economic Empowerment for the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC).
Gaines was Founding Director of the Washington, DC Women’s Business Centre (DC WBC), which supports women entrepreneurs through training, individual consultation, mentoring and business growth through government procurement opportunities
Under her direction, the DC WBC assisted over 1000 women in achieving their business goals. In honour of her work with small businesses, Samira was selected as a White House Champion for Change in the area of entrepreneurship mentoring.
Throughout her public service career, Gaines has leveraged her knowledge and experience to support policies and initiatives that insure fair and equitable access to wealth creation and community economic development
through homeownership and business development across the country.
During her recent visit to
Sri Lanka, Gaines in an interview with Mirror Business shared her observations in the area of empowering women and what can be done to make use of “two heads instead of one”.
Following are the excerpts of the interview:
What brings you to Sri Lanka?
I was an invited speaker for the US Embassy speaker programme; I am specifically here for entrepreneurship with special focus on women.
How are you spending your stay?
Through contacts and arrangements with Women In Management (WIM) I have spoken to women in Jaffna, Kandy and will be speaking to students from the University of Moratuwa.
Can you walk us through your area of work? What are you engaged in?
My area of work is really about women economic empowerment and it is all about financial freedom to chart your future. So for me it really is about giving women every opportunity to be able to make choices in their lives. And that starts when they can make their own financial choices. So entrepreneurship is a pathway out of poverty and it is a way to success. It also leads to wealth and wealth creation, which is a legacy for a women and her family. So I am very passionate about those areas.
What inspired you to get into this area of work?
I grew up in an area where a lot of my friends come from two parent households and have wonderful families. And as I started leaving my neighbourhood I started to see more need. And for myself, I started dabbled in entrepreneurship in my early 20s. A few short years later I noticed that my ability to create wealth and to really determine what was next for me came from being an entrepreneur and being a creative person that way. I believe that the core of an entrepreneur is that they are problem solvers.
They are creative problem solvers. They are not just sales persons. They find a problem and provide a solution and there is a business opportunity between there. For me that is how it worked.
So do you have a venture of your own?
Yes. I have Global Empowerment Solutions, which is a consulting firm for community economic empowerment. So we have a focus on women and very local communities. I also have a background in community planning and development so it stems from there. I also established the Washington DC Business Centre, which is now almost six years old. We have new talent there and it is amazing to see that what you started flourish. Not just flourish but help so many women. I believe the client list is close to almost 3000 right now.
In your journey in helping other women achieve financial freedom, what are the challenges faced?
I have always been women centred. I have very strong women in my family; my mother is one of my greatest role models. My aunts have been very supportive. So from there I even went to a women’s college. It is not usually the choice young women make in America. Where I want was really a place where I would give words to my voice. Felt like I always had the voice and not the description of what I saw as a challenge in the world. Through my time there I really started to focus on the other challenges women had. Through several courses and my mission trip to Africa, Ghana and others it really started to feel like this is something that was made for me.
How important is it to support women entrepreneurs and do you think they are given enough attention?
It is not important but is critical to support women entrepreneurs. Women are half of the world. If you simply ignore half of the human potential, you can never have a perfect world, period. That’s half of your creative mind, half of your artists, half of your engineers and problem solvers, so they say two heads are better than one; so why leave out that other head, even if it is a woman’s head. So I think it is not just important but critical. These world problems will not be solved without women and I do think this is overlooked and some of it is cultural.
It is not just in Sri Lanka, but women have had to fight for rights in very single country in this world. So I don’t think the idea of a women entrepreneur is new. But I do think that entrepreneurship and the business world are created by men; it’s just time to make a little more room.
You have assisted over 1000 women achieve their business goals. In doing so, what did you observe as the day-to-day issues faced in realising their ambitions?
Most of the challenges faced have been the same here. They often undervalue their service and their product, just because it is easy to make, whatever it is that they are doing. They undervalue themselves.
Because I can bake a cake, it is easy and I like it, I am just going to charge you for the ingredients, when the truth is a lot goes into the actual labour, work and creativity. They just look at the core product.
They undervalue themselves and underprice their products and I have seen this in Sri Lanka, and also the USA. Additionally in the undervaluing of their product and service, I think women have the fear of not being successful. Entrepreneurship is about risk taking so success is not guaranteed. Women are afraid to take a risk and being afraid to step into this world really put them back, simply because they are afraid of failure.
So I have been trying to let folks know that failure is a very good thing. And some of our biggest failures are some of our biggest stars. You fail one time; you learn from it and move forward. Don’t be afraid to fail or take a risk.
Another that I have seen is that the basic knowledge of business start-up and basic principles on marketing and client analysis, customer feedback, just those basic principles, there is a lack of it. A lot of the feedback I get is that they don’t realise that some of these steps were already done; they just didn’t know the formal arrangement of it.
So the challenges faced in the East are no different from those in the West?
I would absolutely say so. There definitely is the culture piece. Risk taking and fear of failure is more intense to some women as opposed to others. Women often have the same priorities, their family and loved ones. The difference I see would be more between rural areas versus city centres. Women in city centres are more educated and sophisticated. Some of the more advanced tools and techniques they can grasp quicker. In the more rural areas there is less Internet presence so they are behind when it comes to doing business and expanding businesses. But when it comes to the core bases of start-up steps, where it is about identifying customers and product line, they are pretty much at the same level.
Based on your understanding, do you think the work or programmes carried out by our government to boost entrepreneurship are executed in a productive manner?
Based on my understanding there is definitely a need for more programmes. I am on the board of the Association of Women Business Centres. We have over a hundred business centres in the US. I would say 15 of them here would be a huge improvement.
If you can have a place where women can actually come and have regular business coaching and advice, it would be of great help. I know WIM does arrange some of those classes and workshops. Something like that which could be more spread and routine, something that women could count on, would help. It should not be a special event, but a regular one where they can always talk to about their challenges.
There is a need for continuous support. These women are very smart and sharp, what they need is for someone to walk them through the steps.
What more could be done?
There could be financing and microfinancing programs from the local government. I am not too aware on the financial status of the government, but for women entrepreneurs just the smallest amount of start-up capital can be helpful. Even in the form of a grant where they don’t have to payback. Not just a one-page application, but where you can see that they have done financial projections.
Since you mentioned microfinance, do you think women have lesser access to funds compared to their male counterparts?
There were at least 200 women I met this time and only one had got a bank loan. It is a very small sample size but that speaks volumes. Some of these are just business start-ups; they don’t know what the bank is looking for.
In the US we do four workshops on preparing your business for its first loan and that can be five session of workshops. We bring in bankers as speakers and to be partners with our organisations. You may not be ready now, but we always talk working on a pathway to yes.
Who should do what to ensure greater access to finance?
We have a great partnership collaborative of non-profits, government, local government, state government and then the private sector. The NGO would get in touch with private banks and work with them on putting together a workshop. They would lead the workshops. The government would provide a percentage guarantee to bank loans to allow them to take a risk with smaller entrepreneurs. If the loan is defaulted, the government will cover it. It is an incentive to connect the private industry of the banks with the needs of the small businesses. It takes everyone. There is a need for collaborative effort.
In Sri Lanka’s context I think the government can incentivise. It cannot do everything. There also needs to be more collaboration of the NGOs that are working. That would at least extend the network. There is also need for networking; women entrepreneurs need to meet one another and support one another.
A message that you wouldlike to give?
The women in Sri Lanka are intelligent, creative and have a lot of promise. Sri Lanka as a country should invest in their women entrepreneurs. In the end, two heads are better than one to solve these problems.