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Dispatch from The Hague: If the Trumps are serious about economic equity, ‘let women flourish’

For Philly startup founder Morgan Berman, a last-minute invite to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit seemed too good to be true. Then she heard Ivanka Trump speak about her new women-in-business initiative.

Ivanka Trump (center) during a fireside chat at GES 2019. (Photo courtesy of GES via public domain)
This is a guest post by MilkCrate founder Morgan Berman.
On May 14, I opened an email titled “An invitation to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit 2019 June 3-5th in The Hague” and my first thought was “How do I figure out if this is a scam?”

What made it initially so hard to believe was that I was getting invited just before the event without any prior knowledge of the event, let alone submitting an application. Then there was the fact that they were offering to cover my hotel, transport, food and conference ticket. All they wanted from me was to show up and meet with investors who focus on impact companies. Hardly a tough sell for someone like me, a startup founder in the beginning of raising a new round of funding.

I later learned that this was the 10th year of GES and that it was no small endeavor, as it’s co-hosted this year by the United States’ and the Netherlands’ governments and convenes some 2,000 entrepreneurs, investors, private sector partners and policymakers from around the world. The organizers had been reaching out to women founders to fix their (at the time) imbalanced attendee gender ratio, which is why I was invited.

I realize the invite to GES sounds like most entrepreneur’s dream come true. And in many ways, it is — I was being chosen without even having to apply — something I later realized thousands of people did as a way of getting into the conference — to embark on a trip filled with lunch at the American ambassador’s mansion, a beach party with lobster and Heineken (when in Rome), and conference networking sessions in lush meeting areas with orchids and velvet throw pillows scattered about. Plus, all the free lattes you can drink.

But there was something looming that did not sit right.

Morgan Berman at GES 2019. (Courtesy photo)

Before I get to that, it is important to understand the purpose of the GES. This conference was not just a general startup event, albeit on a grand international scale. It’s specific focus is to connect entrepreneurs and investors who are tackling four of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): water, energy, connectivity (this is the one my company, MilkCrate, fits into because of our work building mobile apps for nonprofit programs and government initiatives) and food/agriculture.

In addition to the SDGs, there were three overarching themes, one of which was “women empowerment.” Throughout the event, the organizers expressed a desire to show that the co-host countries of the U.S. and the Netherlands were aware of the inequities women face in entrepreneurship, and had an earnest desire to do something about it.

I was cautiously optimistic; they had reached out to me and wanted us to meet investors and provide a growth opportunity for our businesses. They had even asked me to do a press briefing about our MilkCrate’s new contract with the City of Philadelphia to build an app that pays people to pick up trash. Opportunity upon opportunity seemed to be given to me.

The big “but” that I felt — and I was not alone in my concern — was the speaker lineup and how it might contradict the pro-sustainability and pro-woman message. After all, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao was one of the opening headline speakers. In January 2015, she resigned from the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies because of its plans to significantly increase support for the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” initiative — not exactly the actions of someone in line with SDGs. Then there are her numerous ethically compromised activities around family finances and campaigning related to her father’s China-backed business and her husband’s election fundraising activities.

I’ve already written a bit about how I wish I wasn’t referred to as a “Female Entrepreneur.” I don’t mean I wish I was a man, or that I wish I had access to the other 98% of funding that men get, although I do want that number to change for myself and all the other women founders struggling to fundraise. What I do mean is I wish my gender wasn’t something worth talking about in the context of my job. But we humans keep creating a world where that matters. And thankfully, this conference is making a point of highlighting both countries’ efforts to correct these major imbalances that exist around the world — something I truly deeply applaud and appreciate.

Unfortunately, Ivanka Trump’s role and words at the event have stuck with me the most.

Morgan Berman (L) with other GES 2019 attendees. (Courtesy photo)

She was presented as the closing act, the representative of women entrepreneurs and our champion. She was there in part as the face of the new Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative, a cross-agency push to address women’s economic inequity worldwide in partnership with agencies like the U.S. Department of State and the Peace Corps. But it was whispered that this was a strategic swap to avoid having her father attend and cause even more criticism from the international delegates who by and large do not approve of our president or have confidence in his ability to lead the world’s most influential country.

In her opening remarks, Ivanka described the new initiative as the first effort by a U.S. administration to create a plan to support women entrepreneurs in the developing world, with goals to support 50 million women by 2025 with an initial $50 million of funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development. However, NPR reported that last year the Trump administration proposed a 35% cut for global gender-equality programs (which was thankfully blocked by Congress).

These are not consistent messages and bring into question the authenticity and intentions behind this initiative and something that challenges her suitability to represent women entrepreneurs or pro-women causes at all, let alone at such a high profile event. Then, of course, there’s her own business’ unethical practices — similar to Elaine Chao’s — of using her unelected political position to promote her own personal financial interests in her now-defunct business.

At GES 2019. (Courtesy photo)

In the interest of not coming off as incapable of seeing the good that people can do alongside doing very bad things, I will give credit where it is due.

At the summit, there was an invite-only “Power Lunch” for some of the women entrepreneurs. At my table, we were asked to share a barrier we are facing, and I shared that my fiancé and I want to start a family soon after our wedding. This prospect has me filled with excitement and anxiety about how as a startup founder marrying another startup person — where will we find the time, money, and emotional space to take on this new venture of a baby? I also feared what my current and future investors would think or do if I shared my intention to start a family soon.

Thankfully, at least one investor (our largest, actually) broached the subject with me a few weeks ago at lunch. I asked him what he thought about it and he warmly replied  “Do what you want!” and then offered his summer home for our honeymoon.

I am so lucky. I know this. And I still worry about how we are going to do this with all the support we do have. It’s terrifying and deeply frustrating to be at this moment in my life and not feel safe to take the leap. So I can only imagine how women with fewer resources must feel in this moment of pre-baby planning. And on the flip side, if I were a woman with an unplanned pregnancy, what would my chances be of wanting to start or continue both a company and the pregnancy? I’ve never met a female founder in the early stages of her company who was also building a family, planned or otherwise. Not one.

So when Ivanka said, “In the developed world, we have challenges” and mentioned child care and paid family leave as solutions, I was surprised and grateful. These are truly important changes we need to make in our society and I’m really am glad she is giving these important issues attention.

However, as she continued, Ivanka also talked about how her new initiative’s third pillar is focused on fighting “laws or norms where women don’t get the same chances” as men. Hearing her remarks, all I could think about was how this same administration, the one her father is running, has done it’s hardest to elect judges and support policy that curtail women’s choices when it comes to reproductive health and abortion, creating a barrier that harms and impedes millions of women’s economic growth worldwide.

If you are not a women’s policy buff, you might not know that the United States has not only been curtailing abortion rights at home, we’ve been exporting this dangerous policy abroad by way of what is called The Mexico City Policy, also better known as “the global gag rule.” Basically, if an organization is even counseling women on the existence of abortion, they will no longer be eligible for any U.S. funding. This applies to groups providing HIV care and other reproductive health services. The consequences of this gag rule to women and their families are very real, medically and economically.

This policy has been turned on and off, depending on the administration in charge with all too predictable consequences. Bush reinstated it, Obama removed it. Guess who reinstated it again? Trump. It was one of his very first acts in office.

My government is directly contributing to the reduction of health care services women receive because we don’t want health care providers to even talk about abortion. While I appreciate Ivanka’s championing of childcare and the new program to extend more debt financing options, it is an incomplete picture of what is needed to make sure the unequal barriers that exist for women are completely eliminated. And since they weren’t taking questions from the audience, I did what anyone with a Twitter account would do:

Last time I checked there were almost 56,000 impressions on my tweet. I hope she was one of them.

Toward the end of Ivanka’s talk, MasterCard CEO Ajay Banga joined her onstage to announce a new corporate partnership to bridge the credit gap that prevents women from getting loans to secure or grow their businesses. Ivanka spoke about how many countries keep women down both through policy and cultural norms and about what is right or wrong for women to do in society, to which Ajay said, “That’s stuff that needs to go out with the last century.”

I couldn’t agree more, but I don’t think either of them realize that while they are doing some much needed good in the world they are also both contributing to a pinkwashed representation of an administration that is also creating major barriers for girls and women all over the world.

We need to repeal the global gag rule. Stop attacking reproductive rights at home. Move our policies into the 21st century. Stop placing restrictions on women’s economic growth by constricting our control of our bodies. Let women flourish so we can all become the fullest versions of ourselves.

I want my government to know I am grateful for the opportunity given to me by having been selected to attend, and for having the confidence in me and in my ability to represent my country at such an important gathering. I could have chosen to write only positive things from GES. But I knew if I didn’t speak up, that really, I’d just be listening to that little voice in my head — the one that says “Shut up and be grateful! Don’t bite the hand that pays for your ticket to Europe to eat lobster on the beach and incalculable mini lemon tarts.”

But then I’d be giving into the same sort of self-serving ethical gymnastics Elaine and Ivanka and Donald are all too well known for — the ones that serve their own interests above the collective good. So maybe I won’t be invited back. Or maybe they will ask me for a list of more women to invite next time. Or maybe Ivanka will wake up and realize her father gives every impression that he hates women and that she should stop working as administrative camouflage, and step up and actually do something brave. Or absolutely nothing will change.

Either way, I hope those investor leads work out. I certainly met a lot of them. So, thank you, GES. What you do, what you represent, is what we need more of in this world to help entrepreneurs grow through connections, investment and promotion.

Also, universal healthcare would help. And affordable higher education. Oh, and reproductive rights too.

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