This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is Be Bold For Change and I think it’s very fitting for 2017. Organizers are calling on us to help forge a better working world, one that is more gender inclusive. In fact, the World Economic Forum predicts the gender gap won’t close entirely until twenty-one, eighty-six (2186), which is why we need to act now.
This year, we’re being called on to commit to helping women and girls achieve their ambitions, challenge conscious and unconscious biases, demand gender-balanced leadership, value women and men’s contributions equally and create inclusive flexible cultures.
This year began with very visible signs of people being bold. We saw the staggering numbers of women – and men – marching in the streets of major and small cities across North America and around the globe to voice their support for these goals. Even a small group of people on a boat in the ice of Antarctica joined in. To see that global power, the uniting of people from different cultures, religions and backgrounds was truly breathtaking.
For almost the past two decades, I was the co-founder, creative director and designer of the brands Pure Handknit and Neon Buddha. But way back in 1998, when we were trying to get Pure Handknit off the ground, our singular focus was to find a location to knit my sweater designs. After touring several areas and countries, we settled on Chiang Mai, a beautiful, cultural city located in Thailand’s highest mountains, about 700 kilometres north of Bangkok.
It was interesting and sometimes eye-opening operating a company in Thailand, a country where women didn’t usually have bank accounts, for instance. There were two reasons for this. First of all, women were intimidated just to go into the bank. Secondly, it was a generally known fact that banks didn’t want uneducated Northern Thai women as their customers, to say the least.
My business partner and I, along with 14 young Thai women in tow, went to the bank and waited for an appointment. We convinced the bank manager that, in order for us to do business with them, we needed the women to have bank accounts. After some negotiating, we had the accounts. Since then, those 14 women have helped establish 14 hand-knitting co-ops, which operate out of home-based workshops in rural villages, all within a few hours of Chaing Mai.
Many people aren’t aware of this, but Thailand has a minimum wage. However, we were always more concerned with offering a fair wage versus the minimum wage and education.
Investing in people, especially women, is something I’ve always been extremely passionate about. As an employer in a third world country, this meant helping women achieve some of the basic rights that we, as Western women, take for granted. And investing in education has always been at the forefront of our business management philosophy.
Our factory employees had access to free English and Thai classes, some staff members also achieved higher educational degrees through our support. We’ve been lucky to see half a dozen staff members complete MBAs while working for us.
In our society, we celebrate famous women who inspire others and have helped change the world for the better. Women like Oprah, Mother Theresa, Hilary Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg. But I want to challenge you to think that being inspirational is not just reserved for the extraordinary. It’s something each and every one of us has within us, and it’s our responsibility to help other women discover the talents and abilities that lie within – not just on a global scale, but here in Niagara as well.
One aspect of being a business owner, and, in particular, a woman in business, is mentorship. The importance of having a mentor and being a mentor has become really apparent to me because I now receive nearly daily calls from young female entrepreneurs looking for someone to bounce ideas off of or to discuss the next steps they should be taking with their businesses. We have started to offer Friday afternoon mentorship sessions to a few businesswomen and not only do they want to discuss big picture issues, sometimes they’re just overwhelmed and want to know there’s another person who’s been in their shoes and who understands what they’re going through.
One of our initiatives is especially close to my heart. In 2013, I founded the Shannon Passero Annual Women in Business Grant after reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer for Facebook. The two annual grants, which total $25,000, are my way of leaning in and giving back. So far, I’ve had the honor to help eight women who are growing their own businesses.
There are a couple hundred women in this room today. What if each one of us reached out to one person to provide support or encouragement? Think of how much stronger our community could be.
Finally, I want to share some remarks, again from Hillary Clinton, that she made in a video message to the Makers Conference in California a few weeks ago. In the message, Clinton said that now, more than ever we need to stay focused on the theme of International Women’s Day and to be bold.
“We need strong women to step up and speak out,” she said. “We need you to dare greatly and lead boldly. So please, set an example for every woman and girl out there who’s worried about what the future holds and wonders whether our rights, opportunities and values will endure. And remember, you are the heroes and history makers, the glass ceiling breakers of the future.”