Ambassador Julie J. Chung’s Remarks at WeConnect Asia-Pacific Regional Conference 2023

August 2, 2023

Good afternoon, entrepreneurs!  What a great time to be addressing all of you here.  I’m not sure how many of you know, but I attended a WEConnect training workshop in Colombo in August 2022 to see how women business leaders were adapting to Sri Lanka’s unprecedented economic crisis.  You remember the foreign exchange crisis, power cuts, hyperinflation, and of course, the protests.  A year later, things look quite different, and we’re on a promising path towards recovery.  But let me bring you back to something I said at the workshop, during the height of the crisis: “Every day… Sri Lankans share that they are worried about the future and the wellbeing of the next generation.  Sri Lanka’s challenges are undoubtedly serious.  But they are not insurmountable.  [But] I see and hear examples about incredible ingenuity and inspirational efforts that are contributing to the wellbeing of everyday Sri Lankans.  There is one thing I am certain about and that is the resilience of the Sri Lankan people.”

Gentlemen, ladies – we have come a long way since the crisis.  There is still much to do, but the resilience that I spoke of last year, is fast becoming a bedrock of Sri Lanka’s economic future.  Just last week, I spoke with a group of female Sri Lankan entrepreneurs under the Hatch Works’ AccelerateHer, a project that the United States proudly supports through funding.  Each woman had an inspiring story to tell.  One entrepreneur started a food brand that sells mushroom-based products sourced from rural women farmers; one woman was able to design a STEM-based education program for kids, providing do-it-yourself kits and personal feedback from tutors to help kids develop STEM skills.

We’re also proud to support WEConnect International’s work in Sri Lanka to empower women entrepreneurs.  The U.S. Department of State funded WEConnect’s three-year project called “Women’s Empowerment through Economic Inclusion.”  During one networking event organized through this project, 77 Sri Lankan women-owned businesses were able to make hundreds of connections with large corporations; for many entrepreneurs, these connections turned into long-term partnerships, and their growing businesses now feature proudly as WEConnect’s success stories.

We all know that women still face an uphill battle when it comes to equality in the professional environment.  Globally, women earn only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, and they are underrepresented in leadership positions.  Overall, women’s labor participation rate is 47.2 percent.  For Sri Lanka, only 36.5 percent of women participate in the labor force according to one study, compared to 75.9 percent of men.  This gap is even more confounding when you consider the fact that more Sri Lankan women are enrolled in college education than men, by a ratio of 1.38 to 1.  If more women are enrolled in higher education, why are less women participating in the labor force in this country?

There are of course challenges on the regulatory side, where some women – especially in the informal sector – are discouraged by the lack of reasonable maternity benefits.  Meanwhile, regulations that restrict overtime work for women only add further challenges to women participation in the workforce.  In such an environment, women find it harder to access capital and networking support they need to succeed.

And this is not a problem unique to Sri Lanka.  Back home in the United States, we face similar issues.  Women are underrepresented and underpaid in professions across the field.  But I also want to share a few recent trends from the United States that I’m proud of: women-owned businesses, now nearly 13 million, represent roughly 42 percent of the total number of businesses in the United States, and the numbers are further improving; in 2020, more U.S. women started a business than men!  At the U.S. embassy where I work, over half of the section chiefs are women.

Gender equality in the workforce is not just about pursuing the principle of equality; it’s a way for a country to tap into an entirely new and vast pool of entrepreneurial talent that can bring enormous growth.  One study found that increasing women participation could add an additional $20 billion to Sri Lanka’s GDP by 2025.  That’s almost a quarter of the country’s GDP.  And more businesses in the market means stronger supply chain resilience.  When women have access to economic opportunities, they raise their families and communities with them.  Promoting and investing in women-owned enterprises is not only good for societies, but smart for businesses.  As key decision makers in their homes, families, and communities, women offer unique and invaluable perspectives about the types of goods and services that are beneficial and relevant for themselves and peers.  That’s the potential that we should be unlocking – more women in the labor force mean higher economic growth and a more resilient economy.

Which is why I find it meaningful to be here with all of you.  You are leading the way for female entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka by your example.  And the United States is proud to support this goal.  In the last year, the United States provided $270 million in assistance to Sri Lanka.  This included $120 million in financing for small and medium-sized enterprises, with money set aside specifically for women-owned companies.  I’m proud to be part of this partnership and glad to learn about the aspiring entrepreneurs we helped through programs such as WEConnect’s.

As we celebrate 75 years of bilateral relations between our two countries, the United States remains a steadfast partner for Sri Lanka’s prosperity.  Best of luck with the amazing work you are doing.  Everyone here today – those who undoubtedly put in hours of hard work, sweat, and tears to pursue your dreams – remind me of the incredible work that we have done together.  I look forward to learning about your future success stories.  Best of luck to you.  Thank you!