Businesswise | Powerful lessons from women entrepreneurs
On October 3, I travelled to Mexico City to spend a week doing intensive business training with 20 female entrepreneurs from across Latin America and the Caribbean.
These were women leading dynamic small and medium-size businesses in Argentina, The Bahamas, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Uruguay, Mexico, Jamaica, Haiti, Peru, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Panama, who had being selected from a pool of hundreds of applicants to participate in the region's premier business-growth fellowship, the VVGrow Program.
It was one of the most rich, emotional, inspirational and gratifying experiences of my life. How did I get there? I was hired as a trainer to deliver business planning for growth and strategic networking training to the entrepreneurs by Vital Voices Global Partnership, a US-based non-profit organisation that grew out of the 1997 Vital Voices Democracy Initiative pioneered by then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton after the UN 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing.
This is my third year participating in the fellowship, and every year, the personal and professional rewards have mushroomed beyond the depths of my imagination and expectations.
This year, for example, I met Marie Gabrielle Aurel, the driving force behind SAPENSA, a Haitian poultry production company producing eggs, day-old chicks and poultry meat. When she was only five years old, her mother set out in a refugee boat headed for the United States with the hope of reuniting with her husband, who had survived the treacherous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to Florida some months earlier.
Her mother's dream of surprising her beloved husband turned into tragedy as she drowned at sea, leaving her family broken and despondent.
It was several years before Aurel was reunited with her father in the United States, where she spent her teenage and early adult years trying to overcome the heartbreak of losing her mom so tragically. Yet the allure of the American dream was not enough to keep her from her intense desire to improve the lives of her fellow countrymen in the hope that she could save even one family from the fate she had endured.
She took a bold step that many would think unimaginable and returned to Haiti to operate a business that could play a role in feeding her nation and putting people to work.
She shared her powerful experience during my lesson on how to tell your business story. The irony is that I was teaching her how to tell her story with strong visuals and emotives, to bring it to life and really connect with her audience.
As she belted out the words, waves of emotion washed over me, my tears overflowed and my knees buckled. She schooled me in the potency of storytelling as I had not expected hers to be so emotional and agonising. I felt sorrow, despair, appreciation and admiration in a moment that seemed to last forever.
I couldn't help but feel gratitude for having being spared such a painful life, though we grew up a mere 300 miles away from each other. At the same time, I felt unusually small and frail beside her towering strength and rock-solid patriotism.
In that session, other female entrepreneurs shared similar stories of gallantry and triumph - for example, how they were putting thousands of families to work by giving them the training and tools to make hammocks, knitwear and bags, and buying everything they could produce, or establishing peace centres to advance mediation for the poor, and offering cutting-edge innovations to transform the educational and social outcomes in their countries. All this while having babies, raising families, studying, caring for the household, their husbands and elderly family members, and amazingly eking out the time to mentor and support other entrepreneurs and at-risk youth in their communities.
I learnt that despite differences in where we come from - our culture, our language, heritage, our country dynamics - we all had strikingly similar hopes, dreams, fears and challenges.
Many were fighting similar battles in business to have a fair seat at the table, to be heard, to realise our potential and to make a meaningful contribution to the development of our families, communities and countries.
We are desperate to make an impact, and to be the change we want to see in our region - to expand opportunities for the masses and reduce income-inequality and the imbalances of social injustice. Profitability is one of the goals but never the mission.
These women from Latin America and the Caribbean are instead driven by a deeper sense of purpose and service to mankind. They reminded me of one of the best lessons an entrepreneur can ever learn a business that makes only money is a very poor excuse for a business.
Yaneek Page is an entrepreneur and trainer, and creator/executive producer of The Innovators TV series.