Connecting hard-working women around the world

  • 2004-09-09
  • By Gary Peach, Julia Balandina
RIGA - Probably no one who attended the Riga Women Business Leaders Summit last week realized that the unique event, which brought together over 100 businesswomen from North America and Eastern Europe, started because Bonnie McElveen-Hunter got angry early one morning a few years ago.

In 1999, while managing her company, Pace Communications, the largest private custom publishing house in the United States, she came across a chart in The Wall Street Journal comparing presidential candidates by the campaign war-chests they wielded. Way down the list was Elizabeth Dole, and this 's an amiable candidate being ignored by the world of predominantly male political boosters 's in the words of McElveen-Hunter, "made me mad."
"How are women ever going to have a seat at the table? How are they ever going to have a voice?" she remembers thinking to herself that morning. If having a voice in American politics means raising money, then there's no chance women will be heard, she concluded.
Energized by her indignation, the Columbus, South Carolina-born daughter of a U.S. Air Force officer approached Dole's team and volunteered her help in raising campaign finance. The beleaguered Dole, a Republican, readily accepted, and what followed was nothing less than a revolution 's on the gender level anyway 's in U.S. campaign finance.
McElveen-Hunter managed to raise a record amount of funds from women and raise eyebrows of campaign-finance wizards throughout the Republican Party. Dole, of course, stood no chance of beating then Governor George W. Bush for the nomination, but the point 's thanks to the indefatigable businesswomen from Greensboro, North Carolina 's was made: women in America have clout.
"We accomplished something that had never been accomplished in American history 's and that is 52 percent of the money that was raised for this [Dole's] campaign was from women," McElveen-Hunter says.
From there the ride from business to politics was headlong, as not long after taking his oath, President Bush caught her off guard at a White House meeting on tax policy and asked if she was ready to server her country. A businesswoman at heart, she had little interest in entering politics, but as a lover of challenges, she accepted the president's offer on two conditions 's "that I could do heavy lifting, and make a difference," she says. This landed her the ambassadorship to Finland, and it was there that the idea of a summit for businesswomen first appeared.
"It was quite extraordinary that so many women were part of government in these [Nordic and East European] nations. America has a lot to learn from this region on opportunities in the political process," says McElveen-Hunter. "But what I did see is that there were many more women in America who were starting to do businesses. In fact, almost 60 percent of the new businesses in America in the last few years have been started by women," she stresses, adding that America's small and medium businesses employ more than do the country's Fortune 500.
And from this realization arose the summit.
The concept was simple, yet so organizationally complex as to be daunting: Pair up two businesswomen 's one from North America and one from Eastern Europe 's working in the same industry, and then let them exchange experiences and impressions, first on one continent and then the other. Businesswomen from Finland, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states were invited to participate in the first summit, held in Helsinki, which was followed by a trip to the United States. President Bush and State Secretary Colin Powell even spent some time with participants on their trip through Washington.
In fact, the event so impressed Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, guest speaker at the Helsinki summit, that she suggested to McElveen-Hunter that the next one be held in Riga.
The list of pairs is remarkable. Rita Cuddihy of Marriot with Nadezhda Novickeine of Narutis Hotel in Lithuania; Barbara Jeremiah of Alcoa with Tatyana Afanasenko of Belarus' Synergy; Denise Morrison of Campbell Soups with Pille Pokk of Estonia's UAB-Masterfoods. Brewers, consultants, high-tech manufacturers, construction specialists 's all networking in a transnational conference in what McElveen-Hunter likes to refer to as a "sisterhood."
The three-day summit itself consisted of panel discussions, workshops and lectures 's Failing Forward 's Surviving My Biggest Mistake, How I Found Capital When There Was None, Ten Critical Steps to Growing Your Business Globally 's and concluded with a gala dinner at the resplendent Rundale Palace hosted by President Vike-Freiberga on Sept. 4.
Importantly, the summit's brainchild is emphatic about any preconceived bias on the part of the summit's North American participants, who pay all their own costs.
"This is not about teaching, preaching. This is not about American women coming to tell women from this region how to do things," says McElveen-Hunter. "This is about learning for women. This is about encouraging women from this region, because when we hear stories from women here, our glass ceiling sounds silly. What many of the women here have accomplished and what they have overcome to be successful 's I mean, they could be successful anywhere!"
Vike-Freiberga, citing the Baltics' strong history of encouraging gender development (several of the first European countries to legalize women's suffrage in the interwar period), referred to the impediments women in often sexist post-Soviet culture face in business and politics.
"Studies show that a lack of mentoring and prejudice play a role in blocking women from entering business," she said in her opening speech at the summit.
But as the president, who Forbes magazine ranked as the 70th most influential woman in the world, was quick to point out, "Women have shown that they can handle whatever comes their way."
And for McElveen-Hunter, this first and foremost means engaging women in the world of business. "I'm totally biased," she says, "because I think business is the most important economic, social force in the world. It is what has liberated millions of people from poverty 's men, women and children."