Manisha Singh wants to level the playing field so American businesses—especially women-owned businesses—can compete and succeed globally, and a new initiative called POWER is helping to lead the way. Here, this first woman to serve in the role of Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of State, Bureau and Economic Business Affairs, talks about POWER as well as other ways she and her team are furthering their important mission.
Q: What’s it been like being the first woman appointed to the role of advancing American prosperity, entrepreneurship and innovation worldwide?
A: It’s been an honor and a privilege for me to be confirmed in this position. My goal is to make sure that the benefits of American economic prosperity are shared by everyone—men, women and every worker at every end of the economic spectrum.
Q: How do you describe the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs to business owners so they understand the value it brings?
A: The Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs is comprised of about 200 men and women here in Washington, DC, and we have enormous capabilities. We handle trade policy, investment, sanctions, cyber security and aviation—basically everything that falls under the commercial portfolio at the State Department comes within the Bureau. In addition, we have a network of almost 2,000 economic officers who are posted at our embassies and consulates around the world. I like to say these economic officers are your support system overseas. Our goal in the Bureau in Washington and in our posts overseas is to help American businesses succeed. We want to create the right policy environment so that you are able to grow your business, prosper and hire more workers. As the first woman appointed to this role, I thought it was important that I especially focus on the gaps that exist for women entrepreneurs. I want to make sure women entrepreneurs have the same platforms available to them to advance, succeed and prosper.
Q: Tell us more about POWER. What do you hope to achieve with this new initiative?
A: We are very excited about this new initiative. POWER stands for Providing Opportunities for Women’s Economic Rise. The genesis for POWER was the conversations I have been having all over the world with women entrepreneurs and business owners. Every time I had a conversation with a group of women, they expressed a similar thought—they’ve been able to do business locally, perhaps in their national market, but wanted to expand globally and didn’t always have the resources, the platform and perhaps the same access to financing or mentorship that their male counterparts have had. Many of them have great ideas and successful small businesses, but how can they grow them?
I heard this same sentiment when I spoke with the women of NAWBO. A lot of NAWBO members have been hugely successful nationally, but said they wanted to grow and expand to become global and multi-national companies. And with that expansion comes the ability to hire more people here in the U.S. and create more American jobs. My thought was, ‘Let’s think about a program or initiative that will encompass all of these needs. Perhaps we can connect American women entrepreneurs with women entrepreneurs overseas to create a network of women around the world with access to the mentoring and partnerships men have naturally had over the years.’ It’s a way to provide a platform and fill some of those gaps.
For instance, in our POWER launch meeting with the private sector, we met a woman who worked for a European venture capital firm. She said to me that they looked to fund women’s enterprises, but didn’t have very many women even coming to the pitch competitions. Part of the POWER initiative is to inform women who are looking to have their companies funded about venture capital firms like this actively looking to fund all sorts of creative enterprises, particularly women’s enterprises.
One of the things I also want to stress about POWER is the State Department has many programs that help women overseas—microfinance initiatives in developing countries, for instance. But the unique thing about POWER is we made sure there is a U.S. nexus to it. Any of the proposals that come to us have to tie women entrepreneurs in the U.S. private sector to these overseas opportunities. It’s joining U.S. women with global opportunities.
Q: What can you share about the program in coming months that women entrepreneur can look forward to?
A: We are just now receiving the proposals, so the events and programs that will be funded by POWER are coming forward. I hope everyone will check back with us to see what’s happening. We’re going to report on the results of the programs and hopefully, we’ll be able to demonstrate that we have had successful stories coming out of this. One of the things we’re not looking to do is create a networking organization. Like the example I gave, we want to get women business owners actually funded or provide women with contracting opportunities overseas that they might not be aware of. We want to see concrete success stories.
Q: What do you think is the greatest challenge American businesses, and in particular women-owned businesses, face today in the global economy and what can we be doing to better meet this challenge?
A: One of the biggest challenges for U.S. companies is there’s often not a level playing field. The Trump Administration has focused a lot on China and what China does to distort the global marketplace. More than 20 years ago, we supported China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. We granted China permanent normal trade relations status and thought China would eventually become a market-based player and follow the rules of global trade. They haven’t done that. President Trump has made a serious effort to level the playing field for American companies because we think that when the rules of the road are fair for everyone, American companies can compete and succeed—especially American women-owned businesses. American women have some of the most creative ideas out there. They just need a level playing field on which they can compete and I can guarantee you they will be able to succeed.
Q: How can NAWBO’s women business owners support the Bureau’s mission of creating U.S. jobs, boosting economic opportunities overseas and making America more secure?
A: I would say the reverse: My question for NAWBO is, “How can we help you?” Provide us with the information. Tell us what you need, what’s missing in the policy environment or what’s not working. Are there policies and regulations that are not needed, that might be hindering your ability to grow your business? Inform us of how you can grow and prosper. We want to take action and create the most enabling environment for women to be able to grow their businesses. I know NAWBO has a history of championing women’s abilities to not just start their businesses, but to grow and scale them, and we want to support that. We want you to not only be a business owner, but a hugely successful business owner where the greatest problem is you have to hire more and more people.
Also, when I say, “Tell us what you need,” I mean the Economic Bureau at the State Department and also the U.S. government in general. There are the Commerce Department and Small Business Administration that are actively involved in helping businesses. There are so many arms of the U.S. government and it can be difficult to navigate, but one of the things I always say about the Economic Bureau is we are the home contact point for U.S. companies. If you are having difficulty navigating, come talk to us and we will help you. It’s our job to help you succeed.
Q: Since you stepped into this role, what progress have you seen that gives you the most hope for what’s to come in the future?
A: What makes me most hopeful is that I see the Trump Administration’s policies working such as the tax laws and rollback of regulations that maybe impede a woman’s ability to start or grow her own business. We have the best economy we have seen in quite some time now. We have great employment numbers across the spectrum, for women and for minority groups. The stock market has also been doing well. We don’t want to take this for granted—we want to continue policies that enable our economy to grow—but I’m so pleased that the policies put into place have created this successful economy in which we are hoping every worker will be able to take part. This isn’t just a great economy for the top end of the economic spectrum. We want workers at all levels, in all parts of the economy, to be successful, and we want every woman to be able to start her own business. We have that right now and that makes me very hopeful because I know women have some of the most creative ideas out there.
Q: Is there anything we haven’t spoke about that you want women business owners to know?
A: I want to remind women business owners that the tools and resources are out there for them. I don’t ever want a woman business owner to think, “How can I get the funding and financing and build the connections I need?” and come up with an answer that is negative. I want them to feel positive and hopeful about their ability to succeed. We want to create an atmosphere where women know where to find the resources. That’s what I am hoping the POWER initiative does. It’s also what I am hoping to do with my leadership at the State Department’s Economic Bureau—to make sure everyone knows where they can find the resources, advice and guidance they need. As government, we create the enabling environment and provide the atmosphere so that American companies can create jobs and prosperity. We are part of the foundation.
Assistant Secretary Manisha Singh will speak to attendees of the National Women’s Business conference hosted by NAWBO on Monday, October 14th. There’s still time to register for this must-attend event in Jacksonville, Florida!