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Expanding the reach of women-owned businesses

Madison’s Amber Swenor was the first American to participate in VV Grow, an international accelerator for women business owners.

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Global exchange

“As people, we are members of our own communities, but we are also members of a global community, whether we see it or not,” says Swenor. “Things that happen in the next city, state, or country can affect each of us. While some people are fulfilled to engage solely in their local community, I have always felt a part of a wider worldwide network.”

For business leaders like her who see the power in human connection across the globe, Swenor says VV Grow has been essential. “I am now a part of a global network, having made connections for other fellows among my networks, and they for me. SPM has now worked with businesses based in Costa Rica and Ethiopia, and I’m in regular weekly communication with women based in over 20 different countries where we share advice, resources, and business leads with each other.”

According to Swenor, many of the women in the Vital Voices program are the first in their communities or countries to create a business such as theirs. For example, one participant from Kuwait created the country’s first school for autistic children. “She has an amazing story about how she could never tell anyone her child was autistic or he wouldn’t be allowed into public school,” explains Swenor. “No schools existed for kids like him — it’s very taboo. She created a solution. Another woman in South America created one of the first hearing aid companies.

“In my case, I have a deep personal mission that drives my work, but I hadn’t ever been exposed to a business framework that not only celebrates but supports that deep mission, which Vital Voices calls the Driving Force, as the foundational starting point to strategic growth,” Swenor continues. “Being a part of this program has been transformational, as it’s helped me to unlock and lead with my driving force, to empower others to be successful.”

Research indicates that there is a difference in a more masculine vs. feminine approach to business. It’s said that a masculine approach involves hierarchy, command, and a focus on competition, where the feminine approach is based on networking, persuasion, and collaboration, explains Swenor. It’s beneficial to have equal representation of leadership styles in business; however, in most places in the world, a woman leading a business is doing so within a framework that is dominated by a masculine approach to business.

“With more and more women contributing to the global economy, going into the workforce, and growing businesses, it’s essential to have programs that provide connection and support among women business leaders to share ideas, and be supported in their own leadership styles, even if it’s completely different from everything around them,” says Swenor.

In addition, women in business around the world experience challenges that are different from men in business. Solutions to these challenges must be navigated differently for each woman depending on the unique familial, societal, and cultural context, adds Swenor. For example, in some places in the world, women have to get permission from their husbands in order to work, and some require a male to hold guardianship of a female run business.

“Programs like Vital Voices are essential, as they unite women in a global peer mentorship network where we can discuss our business challenges, which sometimes involve familial, societal, and cultural factors that impact business problems, solutions, and decisions,” Swenor says. “In some places, women leaders do not have a network to confide in, or navigate solutions with, and Vital Voices provides this essential network for women to navigate challenges that are unique only to women in business.”

Editor's note: A condensed version of this article originally appeared in the January 2019 print issue of In Business magazine.

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