Sunday, August 19, 2007

Can Our Clients Compete in a Global Market?

Heather_haxo_phillipssm One of my on-going worries about the women we serve is who their markets are. Who will our new entrepreneurs sell to?

Some of the women Women’s Initiative helps are going to do great – they already have buyers ready for purchasing, they may have spent years in the field, they have an education. But by watching graduation after graduation, I can see that most will really struggle. Many don’t have great reading and writing skills. Many don’t live in a community that is already ready to purchase what they have to offer. What will their business futures be like? How best can Women’s Initiative help them?

I have been honestly losing sleep over these questions, wanting to understand the situation a bit better. Then last night it came to me. I just finished City of Joy, an expose on the slums of Calcutta, and began The World is Flat, an explanation of where global economics is headed. Calcutta--the City of Joy--is the perfect place for microenterprise. People live together in very close quarters. Their needs are not complex – they want to buy things like a cup of tea, a pot, a chair, a blanket. One small investment of capital in the City of Joy – a sewing machine, an extra shipment of supplies – can help someone go from eating one meal a day to two meals a day, which means the difference between starvation and survival.

After reading this, I realized how different poverty is in America. Poverty crosses boundaries of education and race. Unlike in India, in America poor people don't always all live together. In the US, often educated people are not poor, but sometimes they are. There isn’t a one size fits most approach that can be used. American microenteprise has to be quite dynamic if it is to be effective.

Likewise, Thomas Friedman offers some interesting ideas in the first chapters of The World is Flat. Friedman’s thesis is that the difference between the haves and the have-nots is lessening thanks to technology. Friedman uses India as his case in point, describing how outsourcing has given talented Indians good paying jobs, allowing them to retain their identity as Indians, while giving Americans relief from the un-creative day-to-day and thus helping them to focus more on their already very strong creative talents. He gives many examples of how companies that sourced specific job functions overseas ended up bringing more money to the US by hiring new employees, selling more products in the country where the work was being done, etc.

Friedman describes college graduates who have no place to put their talent. The new world of outsourcing and genuine Indian creativity is giving the Indian people a whole new opportunity to compete in the global market. And Friedman warns that if Americans don’t watch out, even the most low-paying educated jobs--such as after-school tutoring--could get outsourced.

And this realization gets to the heart of my night sweats – can our clients develop the ability to compete? Can they compete, can they stand on their own? If you had a ready market like the City of Joy, there would have to be a lot of sellers like you before the market would be too tight. But our clients are trying to run their businesses in an atmosphere of extreme competition. They aren’t just competing with people in their community. Often the nature of their businesses is competing with folks around the entire globe.

Perhaps our clients who are hairdressers and child care providers are not competing, but those who are jewelers, seamstresses, web designers--even after-school tutors--are competing in a global market. And how much do they know about the way the global market affects them both positively and negatively? How much of a dent can Women’s Initiative make in preparing them?

It isn’t just Women’s Initiative that has a responsibility to prepare. As citizens, we have a responsibility to make sure that children are properly educated. And we have an opportunity to create a world that is not focused solely on acquiring more and more material goods, but on acquiring more and more real happiness.

Even so, our clients face so many barriers, even after entering our doors. Barriers that go well beyond self esteem and directly into market economics. And still they will nearly double their income within a year of graduating from our basic program. Its an amazing thing, and there is a lot to digest….

1 comment:

Adriana Dakin said...

I read City of Joy just before visiting Calcutta, and yes, close quarters! Microenterprise everywhere to meet the most immediate needs. It's interesting to read your comparison to what US small business people need to address in contrast. Even labeling needs to be graphically sharp and tight, much less the product. Anyway, good post.

Original Post: August 28, 2007 at 02:45 PM