Thursday, March 5, 2009

Greetings from Jakarta, Indonesia


I had the honor of participating in the Businesswomen’s Forum of the 5th Annual World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF) on March 1 in Jakarta, Indonesia. There were women participating from many Asian countries, as well as Uganda, Kenya, UK, Pakistan, Egypt and Holland. I was the only attendee from the United States. The title of the day event was “Women Entrepreneurs: The Driving Force Towards a Stronger Future.”

We have set up a forum at http://www.connected-women.com/ to continue our discussions, and anyone that wants to join in is most welcome. The goal of the WIEF Businesswomen’s Forum was “not to talk too much about challenges but move forward in working together” said Dato’ Dr. Norraesah Mohamad, Chair of the WIEF Businesswomen Network. “We want to look beyond national borders and create serious and workable ventures together.”

I was quite excited about attending the event, and in talking about it with friends and colleagues in the U.S., most people would say, “Islamic women and economics? Isn’t that an oxymoron?”

Unfortunately, we are buying into the stereotypes we see in the media. Not only are terrorists a fringe group of Muslims, but so are Muslims that constrain women and their role in the family and the economy. The women I met at this conference are dynamic, educated, driven, strong, powerful, committed and about every other positive adjective you can think of to describe business women.

I met a woman from Malaysia whose company had revenues last year of $3.9 billion. I verified that with her, because it was hard to believe—of any woman or company! Her company builds and maintains highways in Malaysia, which recently privatized its road system.

I had a terrific talk with another public relations consultant from Indonesia. Mercedes Benz is one of her clients. We plan to stay in touch and continue to share stories.

We are all hoping to find ways for the associations to which we belong—such as the NAWBO and WIPP; the Indonesian, Egypt, Pakistan and Malaysian women business associations; and the Islamic and Ugandan Chambers of Commerces—to fully work together and stand united by sharing resources and ideas. And maybe, most importantly as a first step, to help break down barriers and stereotypes.

When I pursued this a bit further with Attiya Nawazish Ali, Assistant Secretary General for Coordination of the Islamic Chamber of Commerce and Industry, she said their biggest need now (from US women business owners) is the sharing of resources and knowledge. “There is not a lot of interest or need now in doing business in the United States. We have such a big network that we can do business amongst ourselves first, while we learn.”

Ayesha Zaheer, Director of Zaheer Ahiekh Architects and Engineers in Pakistan, implored that women and the associations work together for another reason. “It is the women who will find peace in the world.”

Each conference speaker had a “liaison officer” that we dubbed “our shadow.” Citra Harshari was my liaison. She just graduated from a University in Australia in business and finance and is looking for her first professional job. I will write more about the great experience of working with her in a later post.

To illustrate that the stereotypes go both ways, Citra said she was very nervous about meeting me. I am the first American that she has met and she thought I would be arrogant, because that is how we are portrayed in the media.

But we departed almost tearfully after our three days together, we have already connected on Facebook, and I look forward to mentoring her in the future and continuing this new relationship. I am glad I was able to break through another stereotype.

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