A close friend of mine is temporarily confined to a wheelchair as a result of tripping over a wooden plank left by workmen at her holiday home (can only begin to imagine the lawsuit in America, but alas this was in Turkish Cyprus) thereby tearing the ligaments in her shoulder when she tried to break her fall which instead resulted in her breaking her foot. Confinement to her home and wheelchair has made her the best of pen-pals and a reminder to me of how a great sense of humor gets you through most of what life throws at you. It has also reminded me of the power of women when rallied around an indisposed friend, a business crisis, an emotional crisis or a common cause.
Throughout my own life, I have marveled at how women and women friends have even unknowingly been a source of support not just to me but to my friends and colleagues. I recall a time in the early 1990's when we all felt like we were trailblazers (in some ways yes, in others not really!) and everything we did we were doing on our own. A group of us came together to form what became the Women Entrepreneurs of Canada. It all started so casually and innocently -- a time to get together, share a laugh, a glass of wine and swap stories: Who did the bank call today? Who was struggling with a supplier? Who was dealing with personnel issues? Who was trying to understand technology? And who was dancing as fast as she could to keep herself above water? What we realized was that none of us were alone! There was nothing that any one of us was going through that some other woman somewhere had not gone through and not only survived, but thrived. Such gatherings gave us confidence and our own sense of strength to face the next day. Knowing that you are not alone gives you power.
So we did what we thought was right and forged on. It was an exciting time to be a woman entrepreneur in Canada. There was so much opportunity and we were keen to cash in. Stars aligned with the private sector and public sector and due to a substantial amount of 'educating', major Fortune 500 companies and banks and the government, started to change the way that we were viewed as small corporate and in particular women entrepreneurs. We went on to launch a foundation, produce television documentaries, organize the first and largest all women's trade missions between Canada and the United States. We made the news. And we did it all because it just made sense. Investing in women and their companies was and still is sound economic policy and good business. Pure and simple. We went on to work with international fora such as the OECD and launched the Women Leaders Network of APEC in 1996. We held roundtables with major banks and at that time we didn't even talk about empowerment. We just did what we did and fought our own battles and recruited powerful men along the way. At the same time women in the United States were leading the way and women in England were setting examples. We learned from each other and copied each other's successes. Year after year several hundreds of us continued to meet through the Women Leaders Network and countless other international conferences that were springing up such as the TIAW Global Summits and the FCEM. In Canada we launched the Prime Minister's Task Force on Women Entrepreneurs which continues to have an impact not just in Canada but in other countries.
There is no going back. Economies would collapse without women entrepreneurs and women in the workforce. Research has proven that those economies where women are full participants as business owners and business leaders are more successful, less corrupt and have higher standard of education and living. And now, we have dialogues about women's empowerment. But what does women's empowerment mean? And what kind of empowerment for women? Economic? Educational? Political? Legal? Personal Safety? Home life? Basic decisions? For me a fascinating conundrum and one that I plan to explore with my conversations with my brilliant friends in the coming weeks. I hope you will join me on this journey.
Andrina Lever is a featured speaker at the APEC Women Leadership Forum 2014, 20-22 August 2014 in Beijing. For more information, please visit here.