Women face enough challenges running their own businesses — fighting bias, juggling family and struggling for financing — that the added complexity of selling across borders can seem too tough to take on.
But with the right knowledge, resources and connections, women can participate more fully in the global economy and build the health of their local communities in the process, according to the organizers of the annual Women’s Export University program.
With backing from United Parcel Service Inc., the City of Atlanta Mayor’s Office of International and Immigrant Affairs brought the back mentorship and knowledge-sharing forum Wednesday to showcase what they called the “power of partnerships.”
“When we increase the number of women engaged in international trade, we will see an increase in economic mobility, financial freedom, job creation and sustainable businesses,” said Mayor Andre Dickens, who kicked off the session at the Russell Innovation Center for Entrepreneurs, or RICE, where mostly women of color gathered to glean insight and inspiration from experts in trade, finance and business during the all-day program, also streamed online.
UPS launched its women export program globally in 2018 in response to the inequity that Executive Vice President and Chief Corporate Affairs and Sustainability Officer Laura Lane was seeing in places like Southeast Asia as well as at home in the Southeast U.S.
“I was traveling around the world too much, seeing too many women two steps behind, having to raise families, do everything that they do in their communities and not getting any help and support or the economic opportunity that they deserve for some of their amazing ideas,” Ms. Lane said during a fireside chat that helped kick off the event.
The problem often stemmed from societal expectations and cultural norms, but in many cases, bias against women entrepreneurs was baked into laws that prohibited them from owning property or opening bank accounts without men’s approval.
“I’m thinking, hell no — we’ve got to figure out ways to change that legal and regulatory framework to make it so that women are able to compete on the same level playing field,” she said.
UPS has approached the problem from both angles, using its corporate heft to lobby bodies like the World Trade Organization and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation for rules that make customs compliance easier and more transparent, even as it uses its institutional knowledge from working across 220 countries and territories to train women to navigate the world’s complexities.
Ms. Lane was in India last week helping kick off a women’s exporter initiative that saw 500 women selected from more than 2,000 applicants to receive ongoing support from UPS. She said similar care will be taken with participants in Atlanta, in whose success the company will be invested for the long haul.
“None of you are just a package, so to speak, to be shipped. You guys are important to us as partners, and we want to make sure that we have that individual relationship with you,” she added.
Kevin Warren, UPS’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, said that the company backs this initiative not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s good business to ensure that women-owned enterprises are included.
“We have found that you don’t really have to trade off doing what’s right for the community and doing what’s right for the shareholders,” Mr. Warren said. “We found that doing good and moving goods go hand in hand, and that’s why we’re doing this.”
The initial Atlanta cohort was launched in 2021, when about 25 women went through a week-by-week virtual curriculum facilitated by UPS. The program was pared back to one day in 2022 with a forum held at the UPS headquarters.
Evana Oli was one of the inaugural participants. She had started her company, Beautiful Curly Me, with her daughter to counteract negative messaging and built-in stereotypes about Black and brown girls’ natural hair.
Ms. Oli hadn’t thought much about the toys her daughter was playing with and the latent messaging she was encountering until then-6-year-old Zoe came home and asked why her hair wasn’t beautiful.
“My heart was broken,” Ms. Oli said.
On her search to provide affirmative messaging for her daughter, Ms. Oli’s sister suggested buying Zoe a Black doll, but even most of those, she found, had long silky hair. Ms. Oli even wore her own hair that way — a product of her time embracing the expectations of corporate America until her daughter called her out.
Zoe, now the 10-year-old CEO of the company, was the one with the idea to create dolls that would help fix the problem.
“She kept persisting, she kept pestering, and I decided you know what, I am going to take her seriously. There is something here.”
Ms. Oli started thinking about how the problem they were working on might resonate with others, she told this year’s participants during a branding and storytelling session.
“Along the journey I realized, Okay, this is bigger than Zoe — this is bigger than me just trying to help my daughter feel better about herself. This is about millions of girls around the world who feel less-than because of what society has told them, in many ways.”
Ms. Oli, now the company’s “mom-in-chief,” told Global Atlanta that only now is she starting to think more strategically about markets around the world where the dolls, books and other items they sell online might fit.
Women’s Export U two years ago encouraged her to internationalize her website, and while she already ships around the world, scaling up global sales will require a new level of understanding of local laws and regulations, as well as logistics and warehousing.
Along with Ms. Oli, TED-talk-style presentations were given by Retaaza CEO and founder Kashi Sehgal, who urged the women to live their purpose as their brand, and IPCOMM President and CEO Monica Maldonado, who described weathering the ups and downs of a 40-year career and how she has kept family first.
UPS, which operates a huge fulfillment center on the west side of Atlanta, is no stranger to RICE, having launched the Logistics Launchpad at the center in October. The outpost includes a UPS store and on-demand warehousing space offered by UPS subsidiary Ware2Go, all for use by RICE stakeholders.
Other entrepreneurs in the audience were wondering how services like management consulting would fit into the framework of the export program, a question that prior participants in the program have had to overcome.
Not all will engage in global business immediately, but the event was designed to show them that myriad resources exist and that they are not alone in their pursuit of opportunity and excellence.
During the event, participants were able to interact with representatives from the Small Business Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, Export-Import Bank of the United States and the Georgia Department of Economic Development.
Roundtables were held with the above organizations along with Invest Atlanta and the Atlanta Beltline.
They also heard about grant programs like Visa’s She’s Next program and the Metro Atlanta Export Challenge Grant, which provides awardees with $5,000 in reimbursable grant funding for Atlanta companies pursuing international growth.
Anna Claudia Zaleski Mori from the International Trade Centre in Geneva, a joint initiative between the WTO and the United Nations to promote inclusive trade, gave a keynote speech introducing SheTrades, a global network in which more than 40,000 vetted women-owned businesses can connect with capital, showcase their products and assist each other.