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International Women’s Day by Her Excellency Mrs. Sharon Johnston

March 8, 2014

In celebration of International Women’s Day, I would like to share experiences from the recent State visit to India that my husband, the Governor General, and I led, along with members of Parliament, and leaders from business, education, research and civil society. A key theme of the visit was entrepreneurship, with a special focus on the contributions of women and girls.

What is an entrepreneur? One of our delegates, the successful Canadian businessman of Indian origin, Bob Dhillon, said an entrepreneur is someone who swims upstream and doesn’t take no for an answer. This certainly applies to the women entrepreneurs we met during the State visit. Whether for financial or social return on investment, these women are having an incredible impact on their communities and showing the way for the development of their society through entrepreneurship. The values of entrepreneurship are universal and bind countries—like India and Canada—together through mutual collaboration.

We met some amazing women entrepreneurs in India. For example, Priyanka Gupta is a senior executive in a steel company, in Mumbai. When she arrived, there was only one other woman working in the entire company and the benefits were lacking. Now, almost half the workforce is women and their children receive free medical care. Another woman we met, Meera Sanyal, was the CEO of an Indian subsidiary of a major bank and is now running for political office on an anti-corruption platform. Yet another, Shradha Sharma, is the founder and CEO of India’s leading online platform for first generation businesspeople, including 3 400 women entrepreneurs. Women are helping women to succeed.

But one of the most inspiring examples of women social entrepreneurs was Manju, who leads APNE, a non-profit organization that works with the children of sex workers to break the inter-generational cycle of the sex trade. When the children first come to the program, they don’t smile and when asked what they want to be when they grow up, they say they want to be a madam. After having access to education, proper nutrition and housing, they sing and play and want to be teachers, doctors and nurses. Three of the women who have gone through the program have now completed university studies and one has begun her PhD. To me, this illustrates the worth of every human life. Manju certainly doesn’t take no for an answer!

These Indian women entrepreneurs remind me of many women who are working to make our society in Canada better. I cite three women who have recently received the Order of Canada as examples of successful entrepreneurs who used the success of their businesses to advance social conditions for women and girls. Lise Watier, with her remarkable cosmetics empire of luxury products used worldwide, supports women and girls through her philanthropy. Heather Reisman uses her book-selling empire to develop youth literary programs. And Monique Leroux, CEO of Caisse Desjardins, provides micro-financing to women in the developing world.

David and I have five daughters, and they certainly illustrate the point as well. They work both professionally and as volunteers to improve the administration of criminal justice and human rights law in Latin America, to advance women into senior executive positions, to encourage physical fitness in women after giving birth, to improve health consciousness in girls, and to develop a learning curriculum that is inclusive of all children with challenges.

Both in Canada and India, and elsewhere in the world, whether for social or economic returns or both, women entrepreneurs are making our world better. I salute them on this International Women’s Day!