Vice Governor Talia Cabrera (front row, fifth from left) shouts “Hui puhahi” with women from the Shuar community in Ecuador during the province’s first Academy for Women Entrepreneurs program launch, February 2020. Photo courtesy of Quito Chamber of Commerce
By Amelia Shaw
Spanish entrepreneur Diana Ballart was studying innovation as a graduate student in 2017 when she came up with the design for a medical device to take saliva samples from a toddler. Her invention, The Smart Lollipop, was a novel non-invasive way to help detect diseases in children. In 2018, she launched her biomedical business and the next year was selected to join 30 women as part of the Department of State’s third cohort of the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) in Spain.
During AWE-Spain’s three-month business training, Ballart learned to better strategize financing for her business. AWE’s focus on strategic planning and business pitching helped her to win multiple competitions for young startups across Europe. She says her experience with AWE’s community of women entrepreneurs helped her in her quest to create ‘a paradigm shift’ in pediatric medical testing.
“Participating in AWE gave us the opportunity to learn about new tools,” Ballart said, “and to gain visibility, share experiences with women leaders who have already been through similar processes, and to be part of a community of entrepreneurs that actually want to help each other”—which for Ballart has been the greatest value of the AWE experience.
AWE launched in 2019 under the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to empower women with the knowledge, network, and access they need to launch and scale their businesses. The program uses the online learning platform DreamBuilder, designed by Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University in partnership with the Freeport-McMoRan Foundation, and classroom learning with local mentors to teach business basics like marketing, finance, and accounting. AWE reinforces peer-to-peer learning and strengthens cohesion among the graduating class of women entrepreneurs, who become U.S. exchange alumni upon completion of the program.
AWE currently works in more than 80 countries, and has helped 16,000 women worldwide grow their businesses, promoting prosperity and women’s empowerment at a local level—even in some of the world’s most remote locations.
Deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon, Vice Governor Talia Cabrera was presiding over the launch of her province’s first AWE cohort in February 2020, which she believes may help change some traditional beliefs that hold women back. She stood shoulder-to-shoulder with more than 100 women in the remote province of Morona Santiago. Their hands were raised in solidarity as they shouted “Hui puhahi,” which in the local indigenous Shuar language means “here we stand.”
“This is a program that can break paradigms,” Cabrera said, explaining that some cultural traditions among indigenous communities—like getting married at 13 years of age—have kept girls from completing school, limiting their options later in life. “With AWE, women in this community have a new chance,” said Cabrera. “They can learn basic skills to launch a small business, provide for their families, and contribute to the local economy.”
After learning how AWE trained indigenous women in a neighboring province, Cabrera devoted public sector funding to support the academy. Within a year, many more provincial governments followed suit, and Embassy Quito raised nearly $200,000 to support its local AWE program. Cabrera is using the program to promote economic development in Morona Santiago, while raising health and education outcomes for women and children in her remote province. “This initiative is so important for our province, for its economic development and to improve the quality of life,” said Cabrera.
By promoting women’s economic opportunities and ensuring women have the skills, capabilities, and resources needed to participate and excel in the economy, the AWE program directly supports the president’s National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality. At U.S. missions worldwide, AWE is a highly cost-effective program that supports common U.S. foreign policy goals such as promoting prosperity, strengthening civil society, and empowering women. And it appears to be gaining ground.
Research has shown that AWE generates income and creates jobs in women-led businesses around the world. According to a 2021 survey of 1,000 AWE alumni in 26 countries, 74% of women who complete the program earn more money in their business, and nearly one third hire more people. On top of this, more than 90% of AWE alumni reported increased confidence and higher self-esteem, citing improvements in specific skill sets like strategic planning and public speaking skills after the training.
Generating income and creating jobs are clear metrics for economic growth. Few people understand this better than Taiwanese AWE alumna Mina Wu, co-founder of the customized clothing business Legere. The AWE program helped her to streamline her business, better expand customer needs, and deepen customer relationships in a tight knit world of high-end consumers—which helped her to grow her business and raise her ambitions.
“We have powerful networks of salaried customers, and we are driven by strong customer needs,” said Wu. “The market size is really large, around $108 billion dollars. We would like to get 1% of it, which is $1 billion dollars.”
Taiwan’s AWE program is also working with Meta (previously Facebook) to coach AWE alumni in Taiwan on business pitching and digital marketing strategies. The collaboration includes a pitch competition featured as part of Meta’s #SheMeansBusiness campaign, where the winner receives advertising credits and a professional marketing video produced by Meta for distribution on its massive social media platforms. The collaboration is also a great example of how U.S. tech companies can leverage America’s private-sector expertise and corporate social responsibility to advance AWE women’s business acumen to help them better penetrate U.S. and international markets.
AWE is also helping women entrepreneurs in Africa become more tech savvy and take advantage of a rapidly expanding digital environment in ways that benefit their businesses, and the community at large.
Rwandan medical student and entrepreneur Umunyana Marie Chantal is leveraging her AWE experience to launch an online tele-health portal for expectant mothers. “As a young girl, I noticed that my mother was sickly whenever she was expectant with my siblings,” said Umunyana. “I longed for someone to hold her hand and walk her through the nine-month journey…I did not know then how this experience would later shape my outlook on maternal health, but it is the major reason I dreamed [of] becoming a doctor.”
AWE helped Chantal to design her business plan, and her digital platform Umubyeyi Elevate is helping women get access to much needed information on maternal and child health at the touch of their phones.
Tanzanian Catherine Shembilu credits AWE with teaching her new skills like digital marketing, product pricing, and calculating direct and indirect costs—skills which helped her expand her business internationally and export to 16 countries. Today her community-based basket-weaving business has created jobs for almost 300 women weavers from the community, and she is able to distribute her hand-made baskets in the United States through online marketplaces like The Little Market.
All around the world, from megacities to remote regions of the jungle, AWE is investing in women in ways that shift gender paradigms and power up local economies—one community at a time.
Amelia Shaw is a public diplomacy officer serving as team lead for the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ Office of Alumni Affairs.