September 26, 2023
Thank you to Chairperson De Silva and the governing body of the Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce for inviting me to your 38th Annual General Meeting to talk about “Empowering Women to Re-Build Sri Lanka”! I am delighted to address Sri Lanka’s first chamber dedicated to women entrepreneurs. As Sri Lanka marks 75 years of independence this year, and as we celebrate 75 years of U.S.-Sri Lanka partnership, it is a good opportunity to take a look back at our shared history.
When WCIC was founded by 20 courageous women in 1985, USAID came alongside and invested in your vision. Back in 1985, we had different hairstyles and fashion sense, and listened to a lot of Madonna music. We probably couldn’t have imagined that over the next 38 years, that vision has given birth to so many empowering and life-giving initiatives! From creating training courses for women migrant workers to running the Women’s Entrepreneurship Awards, from teaching financial literacy courses to empowering war widows through chicken farming, the Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce has improved the lives of thousands of women and their communities, lifting them from poverty and highlighting their inherent dignity.
A big thank you to WCIC’s Chairperson, Anoji de Silva, who not only leads this organization but is a a partner at Ernst & Young, a company founded by American and British men, Alwyn Ernst and Arthur Young in 1989, a few years after WCIC was established. I’m not sure how many men back then thought women could be partners too.
I’ve seen from your presentation tonight that one of your core values is a “can-do attitude.” Now how many women in this room have been told you can’t do something in your life? You can’t do something because you’re a woman, because you’re Asian, or even because you’re too short? I sure have!
Now an even greater challenge lies before us: Empowering Women to Rebuild Sri Lanka. Some people say that if women had been in charge, Sri Lanka would’ve never been in such an economic crisis. You face a particularly challenging time, but as economic recovery continues, we have cause for optimism, particularly with the seeds you’ve planted through your women’s empowerment work to date. One of the best parts of my job is engaging with the many Sri Lankans who are rising to the challenges of transforming this country. Your innovative new ideas, especially on female empowerment, will fuel this economy, and as a result you will improve the lives of families and communities across this nation. You are also providing real-life examples of female leadership that will inspire the next generation of women entrepreneurs.
I recently met seven female entrepreneurs and innovators from the Hatch Accelerator program, which was funded by the State Department. It was amazing to hear their stories and their visions for the future. The United States provided $284,000 to support this accelerator, which is teaching young people to build businesses. There is an entrepreneuer in Sri Lanka today who has in her head the idea for Sri Lanka’s first billion-dollar company. We must ensure that her business can be built.
But Sri Lanka’s business and investment environment need to improve to realize this dream. The United States stands with you as you seek to reduce red tape and make it easier for the next generation of women entrepreneurs to launch companies. To truly prosper, Sri Lanka must create a more inclusive and sustainable economy. For Sri Lanka to sustainably rebuild following the economic crisis, it will need more than just one-half of its population to drive the economy. It is vital to have a workforce with gender parity, with women literally at the table and in leadership roles. The “Board Ready Women” initiative by The Chartered Accountants Institute & Institute of Directors, which you have supported, is a tangible step in this direction. But I encourage you not to stop there – women should be leading in all aspects of the public and private sectors.
In Sri Lanka, only 36.5 percent of Sri Lankan women participate in the labor force, compared to 75.9 percent of men, according to the World Bank. By increasing women’s economic participation, Sri Lanka could potentially increase GDP by 25 percent or more according to some estimates. The ripple effects of that kind of change would echo across the region and down into history, changing the lives of our children and grandchildren; especially our daughters and granddaughters.
The hotel sector is one example of an industry that suffers from lack of female participation. I’ve recently learned that fewer than 3 percent of hotel industry employees are female. This industry is far too important to miss out on the contributions of women. And not just in hotel housekeeping – let’s find, recruit, inspire, and HIRE the next generation of women hotel marketing executives, operations directors, and “tourpreneurs.”
I understand the challenges that the absence of gender parity and inclusion have on the workplace. When women comprise the majority of a population, the inequality of representation at all levels of private and public sectors creates knowledge gaps and ignores entire populations of employees and markets. Studies demonstrate over and over again that inclusion of women in the workforce and policy planning increases peace, economic stability, and security for our world.
We face similar issues back in the United States. Women are underrepresented and underpaid across industries. We have begun to change these statistics.
A few recent trends from the United States that I’m proud to share with you: there are nearly 13 million women-owned businesses in the United States, roughly 42 percent of all businesses, generating $1.8 trillion annually. And guess what – in 2020, more women than men started a business in the United States!
I know many Sri Lankan women have a similar entrepreneurial spirit, andas you continue harnessing the remarkable human resources of just over half your population, the United States stands with you. The United States remains Sri Lanka’s largest single country export market, making us a key and unparalleled element of Sri Lankan prosperity. Our bilateral trade amounts to about 3 percent of Sri Lanka’s GDP and supports at least 180,000 Sri Lankan jobs. We’ve provided financing for women-owned businesses, trained women entrepreneurs, and connected women across Sri Lanka.
I mentioned at the beginning of my speech that 2023 is the 75th anniversary of U.S.-Sri Lanka bilateral relations. We’ve been talking throughout the year about the theme of People, Progress, and Partnership. This organization is a stellar example of exactly those ties: innovative people who share a vision for a more gender-inclusive economy, who found partnership with the United States through USAID funding, and who are empowering women in the business sector. I’m so proud to be here to celebrate your successes, and to encourage your continued endeavors, as a representative of the United States, and particularly as a woman leader.
Turning from the past 75 years and looking to our shared future, I wonder what the next generation of Sri Lankan women entrepreneurs might achieve. They’ll probably create things that we haven’t even dreamed of yet. You can play a pivotal role in making this country ready for them. You have a crucial role in this, not just in your ongoing efforts to support women in business, but in advocating for the types of changes which will bring lasting benefits to your organization, the broader business climate, and the well-being of Sri Lankan women. To forge a business environment free from corruption, one that encourages innovation. To create a system free from red tape, where women can dream, build, and scale without undue regulatory overhead. The next generation of women entrepreneurs needs access to capital and to be able to recruit talent to grow the future. But you’ve already given them something very valuable: the example of what courageous women can do when they stand together and look past the horizon. Let’s find that next generation of courageous women. The United States remains a friend and partner for Sri Lanka’s prosperity, and I look forward to watching Sri Lanka thrive, becoming stronger and better as your country continues to enact vital economic and political reforms that will lead to a more prosperous, inclusive society. Thank you.