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Celebrating Women’s Entrepreneurship Day: 7 Female-led Businesses Empowering Women Around the World

November 19, 2015 9 minute Read by Natalie Gonnella-Platts and Betsy Martin

Investments in women are investments that pay off for communities and countries.  Research shows that when women are able to earn an income, they reinvest 90 percent of their earnings in their families (more than twice the investments made by their male counterparts).   As a result, their children are more likely to attend school, their households are less susceptible to disease and malnutrition, and their communities are stronger and more prosperous. 

Yet despite this reality, there remains a great deal of work to be done to ensure all women and girls have the opportunity to fulfill their potential.   But there is hope, thanks in many instances to the innovative efforts of female entrepreneurs stepping up to advance not just their local economies, but economic opportunities for women globally. 

According to American Express, in the United States, over the last 18 years there have been an “average of 608 new women-owned firms launched each and every day—and the rate just over the past year stands at 887 per day”, accounting for an estimated $1.5 trillion in revenue.  Data from the International Finance Corporation and McKinsey estimates that in emerging markets, businesses “with full or partial female ownership” represent over a third of SMEs in these regions, totaling between eight and ten million businesses.  And in Afghanistan, over 3,000 women own and run their own businesses. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor notes that women-led enterprises have narrowed the worldwide gender gap by 6% since 2012. 

In celebrating Women’s Entrepreneurship Day (#WED2015) today and the tremendous value of women-led businesses, the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women has launched #WhoInspiresYou, a social media campaign highlighting inspirational entrepreneurs breaking down gender barriers and empowering fellow women around the world.

In support of #WhoInspiresYou and the integral value of female business leaders, the Bush Institute’s Global Women’s Initiatives are spotlighting eight change-makers that inspire us through their entrepreneurial efforts to empower others:

Asma Ahmadi, founder of Kokola

It can be a dog eat dog world for entrepreneurs, but Asma Ahmadi has made a name for her Tunisian pet care and accessories company, Kokola.  Asma designed Kokola to solely employ women, affording them a more stable living by working independently of large manufacturers.  Kokola is based on a fair trade model and aims to help its purely female work force improve their income and eventually become entrepreneurs themselves.  Asma’s dream is for her employees to leave Kokola and launch their own businesses with earnings saved from Kokola. Purchasing Kokola products ensures that Tunisian dogs are immaculately attired but most importantly, provides hope for the dreams of future Tunisian entrepreneurs through access to fair wages.

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, founder and managing director, soleRebels

Leveraging the concept that creating great footwear is also a means of creating hope, Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu is using local materials and her entrepreneurial drive to empower villages in Ethiopia. soleRebels began in 2004 as an idea to create a better life for those with few existing economic opportunities “by harnessing [the] incredible artisan skills” of local communities and “channeling them into a sustainable, global, fair trade footwear business.” Reimaging traditional “selate and “barabasso” shoes, the brand utilizes indigenous design and recycled tires to create unique and eco-friendly footwear.  

Available in over 30 countries worldwide, Bethlehem’s social enterprise efforts have been recognized by the World Economic Forum, Forbes, and Fast Company, among other honors, and she currently serves as an Ambassador to Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon, a global partnership fighting women’s cancers.

Bethlehem Berhane, owner and general manager of Entoto Beth Artisan

Bethlehem Berhane first learned about the Mount Entoto community during a visit in 2008.  Situated on the highest peak above Addis Ababa, the community is home to 500 people, about half of whom are affected by HIV/AIDS.

After her experience in meeting a local program, Bezo Entoto Outreach, Bethlehem “began seeking opportunities to use [her] God-given talent and passion for things greater than [herself].”   Helping to shift its focus to social enterprise, Bethlehem acquired the BTO program in 2012 and reestablished the program as a business under the name Entoto Beth Artisan (EBA).

The company is providing fair-wage employment to local women by creating uniquely hand-crafted jewelry pieces using local materials such as recycled tire thread, reused artillery shells in metal beads and even coated Ethiopian coffee beans.  Today, more than 100 women’s stories have changed through Bethlehem's efforts.

Connie Duckworth, founder of ARZU Inc.

Throughout her career, Connie Duckworth has worked tirelessly to forge a path for female business leaders.  A retired Partner and Managing Director of Goldman, Sachs, & Co, Connie was named the first woman sales and trading partner in the firm’s history during her 20 year career. Building on her passion and longstanding dedication to mentoring and supporting other women in business, in 2004 Connie founded ARZU.

ARZU, meaning “hope”, transforms lives by empowering Afghan women to lift themselves and their families out of poverty through ethical, artisan-based employment, education, and access to healthcare, thereby changing the way they see the world and their place in it.  ARZU is an innovative model of social entrepreneurship with a mission to create economic stability for communities in need.  Through the sale of Afghan-made rugs and Peace Cord® bracelets, ARZU supports a holistic approach to sustainable poverty alleviation through artisan-based employment that empowers Afghan women. Women, earning fair labor wages, weave exquisite hand-knotted rugs and paracord bracelets. Innovative social benefit practices drive transformational change by providing grassroots access to vital education, healthcare, clean water, and sustainable community development programs.

Sandy Halim, founder and owner of Life Creations

Sandy Halim strongly believes in the power of beauty and the future of Egypt, two passions she combines through her handicraft business, Life Creations. 

Traveling across the US with the Bush Center’s Women’s Initiative Fellowship program in 2013, Sandy developed an expansive network and was eager to expand her business to the US market.  Leveraging the power of the Women’s Initiative network, Sandy met a young Dallas entrepreneur, Brittany Underwood, who runs the Akola Project and served as a 2014 Women’s Initiative Fellowship Mentor. Their meeting turned into a scoping trip by the Akola team to Egypt which led to a partnership between the businesses and ultimately an Akola Project collection of jewelry featuring Sandy’s fairly sourced precious Egyptian agate.  The collection launched last week while Sandy was in Dallas, TX for business with her company, Life Creations. 

Natasha Rufus Isaacs and Lavinia Brennan, co-founders of Beulah London

Leveraging their life changing experience of volunteering in an aftercare home in the Delhi slums, British designers Natasha Rufus Isaacs and Lavinia Brennan created Beulah London “to design and produce beautiful clothes that empower and inspire the women who wear them, whilst being committed to raising awareness of the plight of women trapped by human slavery.” Through the Beulah brand, Natasha and Lavinia are working to provide economic opportunities for survivors of trafficking, while also amplifying the widespread need for supply chain transparency and accountability. 

Demonstrating the value of partnerships to address important gender challenges, Beulah London has collaborated with other notable anti-trafficking efforts including the UNODC, ECPAT-UK, Freeset and the Dalit Freedom Network to provide assistance and support to women impacted by exploitation.

Brittany Merrill Underwood, president and founder of Akola Project

Named the "Best Person in the World” by Yahoo in 2014, Brittany Merrill Underwood has dedicated her entrepreneurial efforts to transforming the lives of impoverished women and children.

Akola Project is a nonprofit social enterprise that provides vocational training, global employment, holistic care, and financial literacy for women in extreme poverty. Akola's handmade jewelry and handbags provide dependable employment to over 400 women in Uganda and Dallas. The women use their monthly income to meet the needs of 4,000 children and to start local businesses in their communities, creating lasting sustainability for generations to come. Akola Project's long-term goal is to create a global fashion brand that is fully made by but also fully benefits marginalized women.

*In addition to inspiring us on Women’s Entrepreneurship Day, the work of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, the Akola Project, ARZU, and Entoto Beth Artisan was also featured at the 2015 Global Women’s Network, a Summit of Ideas, Innovation, and Partnerships.

Natalie Gonnella-Platts is the Manager of the First Ladies Initiative.

Betsy Martin is the Deputy Director of the Global Women’s Initiatives.