Ngai Yuen Low had barely slept in days. As president and founder of the Malaysian nonprofit WOMENgirls Association, which empowers women and children, she had spent the week waking up in the middle of the night to take conference calls and answer emails from her employees while she was halfway around the world.
Yet despite her fatigue, Low was enthusiastic as she walked down the main commercial strip of the Adams Morgan neighborhood in Washington, D.C., on a recent October afternoon. With her group of a couple dozen women from countries like Sri Lanka, Belize, and Slovenia, she passed a barbecue restaurant, a sidewalk fruit vendor, and a small public park. She wasn’t there as a tourist, but to study how enterprise works in American communities.
Adams Morgan, Low marveled, was pursuing a different kind of business development than she was used to seeing. Rather than papering over its history as a neighborhood of immigrants, Adams Morgan Business Improvement District executive director Kristen Barden told the group that the neighborhood embraced its multicultural heritage to drive development. “This inspires me to see how problems are solved at a macro level,” Low says.
Low and her cohorts were part of a larger group of 47 women from 47 different countries who came to D.C. under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). World Learning, which manages the program, designed a three-week itinerary to help these entrepreneurs, academics, and government officials explore how private enterprise works in the United States. The Women in Entrepreneurship program kicked off in D.C. with small group visits to various neighborhoods, meeting with local officials, grassroots organizations, and business owners.
“This is just amazing to be here in the USA for the first time,” says Zolzaya Chuluunbaatar, CEO of the Mompreneur Union of Mongolia, which supports women in business. She spent the morning touring the revitalizing H Street neighborhood with local leaders Derrick Woody and Anwar Saleem, who fielded questions about the challenges they faced in redevelopment, like bringing long-time residents and new arrivals together across racial divides. “I feel like it’s the very same in our country,” Chuluunbaatar says. “We have this kind of street. We can try to follow their ways of creating a community.”
Throughout the day, the women also met with female business owners to discuss everything from marketing to partnerships to franchising. Restaurateur Hatice Rosato and event planner Tracy Leaman spoke about their collaboration in creating a co-working space at Rosato’s restaurant Sospeso that offers daycare for working parents. “It’s not just business, it’s benefitting the woman or community,” Rosato advised the women. “Something like this you need to see it not just for profit but for marketing.”
In Adams Morgan, Amsterdam Falafel co-owner Arianne Bennett advised another group that knowing what customers want is more important than location because, ultimately, if you’re offering a service that people want they will come to you. “I think all the good [business] ideas are, ‘Oh my god, I wish I had this,’” she says. She also offered insight into how her restaurant expanded from one location to eight by maintaining its efficiency, fostering inclusiveness among staff, and training, monitoring, and rewarding them.
All the advice proved valuable for the women in the IVLP group. Henrietta Onwuegbuzie, MBA director of the Lagos Business School at the Pan-Atlantic University in Nigeria, said she had taken away some ideas from her meetings that she would bring to the executives who attend her lectures. Chuluunbaatar planned to pass on some of the advice to working mothers back home. “Everything I learned about today will inspire my Mompreneur Mongolia NGO,” she says. “I have so many ideas that I can build in my community or my country.”
The businesswomen learned from each other as well. Budoor Kamal, a manager at the Bahrain Development Bank, says that she appreciates the diversity of the Women in Entrepreneurship group for the opportunity “to look at the challenges we all have and look at how [these women] overcome them.” She saw it as a critical opportunity to share perspectives and build networks with these women — who all clicked easily thanks to their mutual interest in business.
The IVLP group’s visit was a boon to the American businesswomen too. “Anything I can do to empower or inspire other women, I’m here for it,” says Ayanna Smith, co-owner of The Escape Lounge, a popular iteration of the escape room puzzle adventure game, located on H Street. Rosato agrees. “It’s just a great exchange of experiences, ideas, and connecting with other women and seeing that some things aren’t just based on location,” she says. “Some things we have as women are common wherever you go.”
Though the women were only in the nation’s capital for a handful of days, the Women in Entrepreneurship program continued in another nine cities, including Helena, Montana; Birmingham, Alabama; and Portland, Oregon. It culminated at the National Women’s Business Conference on October 15–17 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Kamal encourages other women to take advantage of opportunities like this exchange. “It opens your sight to a lot of things you wouldn’t see in your own community,” she says. “Each one of us, this program could be a life-changing opportunity.”
Written by World Learning Writer/Editor Amy McKeever