On September 29, 2011, I, along with Annemarie Mitchell and Jill Yard, two other members of Professional Women in Building of Northeastern New York, had an opportunity to participate in an extraordinary event. After our local association’s executive officer, Pam Krison, had spoken with a representative from the International Visitor Leadership Program, we were invited to speak with a delegation of 7 women from various countries in Africa to discuss women entrepreneurs in the building industry. Although we had been provided information on each woman’s background, we really had no idea what to expect from this meeting. We were curious about how well we would be able to communicate with them, as they were from French speaking countries obviously with a completely different culture than our own.
When the group arrived, we did our best to welcome them with big smiles and handshakes and invited them to eat our local favorite cuisine…Italian! The local ambassador drew us aside to ask that we do our best to engage them in conversation, as the trip so far had not had much “human interaction.” They had been watching movies and visiting museums to learn about our lifestyle. As everyone settled in, we were wired with earpieces so we could each clearly hear the interpreters as they relayed our conversations from French to English; English to French. At first, we weren’t sure how the conversation should start, so we each introduced ourselves and our companies. Once they realized that we were all in the building industry, the questions began to fly across the table! They asked, “Will you come to Africa and build homes? Do you understand the opportunity for growth in Africa? Will you come and train our people on building techniques?” At one point, there was so much conversation that the interpreters had to stand to get everyone’s attention and ask for us to have ONE conversation at a time. It was truly amazing to see how quickly the language/culture barriers fell.
It was incredible to learn that not only were their countries flourishing, but they are in the midst of great economic growth and opportunity. They shared with us that their lifestyles are not that different than ours. Each morning they got up, woke their children and readied them to go to school or day care, went to work, and picked up the children in early evening to have dinner as a family. Just as when people say they are “from New York” it does not always mean New York City….when people are “from Africa,” it does not mean they are from small villages with hungry children who have little hope to succeed. Many of these women were from large cities with huge skyscrapers and luxury homes. They were very well educated, traveled and successful businesswomen. They were entrepreneurs in the restaurant, cleaning, clothing, textile, tourism and import/export industries. They made us want to travel to Africa, and many of them invited us to be their guests.
We discussed banking systems, government, education…and, of course, what is it like to be a woman in business in Africa. Surprisingly enough, it is “tres chic” to be a woman in charge of a business there. The delegation shared that to have a strong woman in a management or ownership position was something for a business to be quite proud of. We shared with them, that in our experience in the building industry, that although it may be a bit harder for women to gain the respect that men traditionally receive, once we’ve proven our knowledge and value, that we are often able to accomplish things that men may find challenging. Because women in building are still considered an anomaly, many people and businesses will give us an opportunity to meet with them so they can “see for themselves” that we are knowledgeable and competent.
I never dreamed that my affiliation with PWB of NENY would open the door to an opportunity to interact on an international platform. This experience was energizing, inspirational and empowering and one that I will NEVER forget. In my opinion, this was the perfect ending to the inaugural year of our charter. I can not wait to see what we accomplish in 2012!