Women business owners in the U.S. are under exporting, according to data collected by the Bureau of the Census. Women own 36% of all small and medium size enterprises, but only 12% of these almost 10 million businesses export. Worldwide 20% of women-owned businesses export. Why the difference?
One reason is that U.S. businesses in general are not big exporters with less than 2% selling cross border. So, in this respect the export performance of women-owned companies isn’t too bad. U.S. businesses have historically not depended on foreign markets because their domestic market is large and rich. Another reason may be the type of company owned by women, which tends to be service providers rather than more readily exportable consumer or heavy industrial goods. Lastly, the data reflect direct rather than indirect goods and services exporters, not indirect exporters such as those who sell products to domestic intermediaries who then sell them to foreign buyers.
Regardless of the different factors in play, it’s accurate to say that far more women-owned businesses could export. Why don’t they? There’s no consensus any more than there is on why more smaller companies in general don’t export. Many reasons have been posited including fear of financial losses; a belief that the process is too complex; lack of information on markets and potential buyers; insufficient time to devote to building the international side of the business.
The reasons in support of exporting often get drowned out by the reasons not to but are worth reflecting on and include: 95% of all consumers live outside the U.S. (the number is larger for countries with populations smaller than that of the U.S.); selling cross border, especially via e-commerce, can be as easy as selling domestically; risks are very manageable and are not greater than the domestic market if the customers are in Canada, the UK, Australia and other English-speaking places; there is considerable help and mentoring available for women business owners interested in going global.
A primary mentoring organization is the Organization of Women in International Trade (OWIT). Before the formation of OWIT in 1989, groups of women in several locations formed local groups with similar goals to advance the careers and opportunities for women involved in international trade. The first group to form was in Chicago in 1985, followed by Los Angeles and Orange Country in late 1985, Washington D.C. and New York in 1986, Boston in 1987, and Northern California, Detroit and Texas in 1989. Most of these chapters were founded independently and without knowledge of each other, according to the OWIT website.
About this time several of the chapters became aware that there were other similar groups in existence and began talking about joining together in some way and a decision was made create a national organization. In 1989, the first formal board meeting was held in Los Angeles. The name of the organization was chosen, officers and directors were elected, and other important decisions were made concerning the goals and mission of the organization.
Nairobi here we come
In 1990, OWIT held its first national conference in Washington, D.C. and also published its first membership directory. There were 12 chapters represented in OWIT in 1990: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Northern California, Orange County, San Diego, Seattle, Texas and Washington, D. C. Fast forward to 2018, and there are chapters in 20 countries. Not surprisingly, membership has created business opportunities. An annual conference is held, and the next one is in Nairobi, Kenya in late October. http://owit.org/programs/nairobiconference
OWIT has numerous chapters including one in Washington, DC. Memberships are transferable to other chapters. The DC chapter has numerous networking events throughout the year and publishes a newsletter which includes updates on trade policy and other topics.
Building professional networks, including that of Webport Global, is a key strategy for women business owners looking to start or increase their international sales or sourcing. https://wiit.org/membership/
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