When the U.S. Department of State announced the up-coming launch of a WECREATE Center in the Lower Mekong sub-region this past weekend, it underscored the State Department’s enduring commitment to empowering women entrepreneurs everywhere, particularly in developing countries. The development of WECREATE Centers is one of the many ways the Department is supporting the goals of the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), a regional forum committed to addressing cross-border development and policy challenges facing the five Lower Mekong partner countries, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam.
On a personal level, this announcement confirmed for me that a little bit of entrepreneurship, a dash of innovation, and a collection of dedicated partners working towards a common goal can go a long way towards fulfilling our foreign policy goals. Joining the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs (EB) as a Franklin Fellow enabled me to gain firsthand experience on how entrepreneurship can have a role in government. Due to my experience working with women-owned businesses and being an entrepreneur myself, I was charged with finding new ways to enhance the existing work that the Department does across its many bureaus, offices, and embassies to support women entrepreneurs around the world.
Those opportunities presented themselves in conversations I had with State Department and interagency colleagues, donors, corporations, and emerging businesswomen from all over the world, including women in the United States participating in our International Visitor Leadership Programs (IVLPs). One poignant experience was the opportunity I had to talk with women entrepreneurs in Cambodia. These women inspired me with their stories and determination to create a better life and their ability to overcome overwhelming adversity. They spoke about the many challenges they face — whether it be getting moral support at home, gaining access to markets finding mentors, or identifying more resources.
Working with our dedicated partner, StartUp Cup, we created the Women’s Entrepreneurial Centers of Resources, Education, Access, and Training for Economic Empowerment — or WECREATE project. Through partnerships with bureaus, donors, governments, corporations, and local organizations, this flagship program at EB will work to create and sustain entrepreneurial centers around the world, including the one in Cambodia.
As we lay the groundwork for the signing of the MOU with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs of Cambodia, the WECREATE team is moving forward as the real work begins. We are currently working with local Cambodian organizations to start the challenging work of building a strong mentor network that will underpin the project. Partnering and enhancing programming already being provided through the local community is a critical piece of the WECREATE project. This network will enable local organizations to build capacity and provide a stable platform for women to continue meeting successful entrepreneurs in their sectors who can support their growth and development.
As with other centers that we hope to establish around the world, the WECREATE Center in Cambodia will make it easier for women to access mentors trained to support their business development, as well as to access tailored educational programming focused on creating sustainable businesses for economic growth and a safe environment to shape the path of their business growth. Additionally, the center will work to engage men and boys as “Agents of Change,” helping them to understand that supporting women and girls as entrepreneurs will reap benefits for their families and communities.
As studies have demonstrated over and over again, economically empowered women are a powerful key to economic growth and prosperity. So as I prepare for another trip to Cambodia, I am not only excited and honored to support the aspirations of the women I met — but to work with the many dedicated people within government and outside it to continue to support the realization of those outcomes everywhere.
By Tanya L. Hiple, a Franklin Fellow in the State Department's Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.