Looking to the Future

March 11, 2011 By Carolyn Brehm and Nancy Ziuzin Schlegel

Carolyn Brehm and Nancy Ziuzin SchlegelAs leaders in the business community who also happen to be women, we take special note of International Women’s Day this week. This year marks the 100th anniversary of this important annual event, but for us, an essential part of honoring the past is looking toward the future.

As Americans and as businesspeople, we have a huge stake in what the world will look like for women in the next 100 years.  Investing in women and girls around the world is not only the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do, as it provides critical benefits to our national security and economic prosperity here at home.

Remarkable new studies have made clear that empowering women is essential to stabilizing some of the weakest and most fragile states in the world. Supporting educational and entrepreneurial opportunities for women is one of the most cost-effective ways to fight poverty and extremism and build a better, safer world for all of us.  This belief crosses party lines.  Former First Lady Laura Bush has said, “Women around the world serve as catalysts for change,” echoing another former First Lady and the current Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who said “Investing in the potential of the world’s women and girls is one of the surest ways to achieve global economic progress, political stability, and greater prosperity for women — and men — the world over.”

And it’s true. A small investment in the International Affairs Budget funds programs that break the cycle of poverty, preventing the kind of despair that allows violent extremism to take root in a community. The potential for economic growth is enormous, too. When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 percent into their families, more than twice the percentage of men. When a woman in the developing world has the seed money to start her own small business, her whole family benefits, as her income is reinvested into education for children, healthy food to eat and badly needed medical care.

For example, in Moldova, a beautiful young woman named Oxana was desperate to make enough money to support her family. She spent two years away from her children, working as a housekeeper overseas. With meager savings in hand, she came home and attended entrepreneurship training classes through the U.S. Agency for International Development. After receiving a small loan of just $5,000, she was able to open her own small business – a shoe store – in her own hometown, support and raise her children. Self-sufficient businesswomen like Oxana are an enormous force creating stability and economic growth in their own families, as well as across their villages, their countries and their world.

Today women around the world are still at risk: one woman every minute dies in childbirth, more than two thirds of the worlds’ refugees are women and children, and the threat of human trafficking and sexual violence is pervasive.  But women are not simply victims, and they do not want charity. They want the opportunity to stand on their own two feet, raise their families in safety, and build their own businesses.

Investing in women means turning around the frightening statistics and building a world full of women who are strong, informed and contributing to the global economy. When women succeed and prosper, the United States succeeds.  The developing world represents close to have of U.S. exports right now, and having a new generation of female entrepreneurs can only help our domestic economy and the global economy.  And as women support and nurture strong families, their children will have opportunities to thrive and not fall victim to extremism and violence that could reach our shores.

The International Affairs Budget is only one percent of our entire federal budget, but it does so much good, reaching one life at a time, just like Oxana.  As businesspeople – and as women – we see that this isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s a good investment for America.

Carolyn Brehm and Nancy Ziuzin Schlegel are both board members of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition.