top of page

The Oxford Forum for Women in the World Economy

Many places, a sewing machine is capital equipment for women entrepreneurs.

Power Shift:  Women Changing the Game.  May 20-21, 2013.  In Oxford. Announcing the first of an annual symposium on women as economic actors in the global marketplace.


We chose “Power Shift” for the name of our first Oxford Forum for Women in the World Economy because we wanted to signal a progressive, active attitude–as well as to assert that, like it or not, the game is already changing.

We chose entrepreneurship as the focus of our inaugural meeting–rather than employment or investment or consumption–because it’s what we know best.  The team planning this event has taught on the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women program, studied Avon in Africa, worked as entrepreneurs, led SME training programs, coached business owners, and sat on high level committees designed to integrate women’s businesses into the global supply chain.  In other words, we are all over this space, all over the world.

Here is one thing we have learned:  a lot of the institutions involved are not talking to each other.

So that led us to a strategy for the event.  We are trying to foster an informed conversation among a group of people who, in one way or another, can affect the growing global action plan for how women can be supported in building businesses.  We have identified speakers who will inspire, as well as those who will critique.  Panelists with strong opinions, as well as some with strong data. And we are assembling a group of participants who have experience doing the training, financing, analyzing, investing, and organizing around women’s entrepreneurship.

And, of course, we have some entrepreneurs joining us, too!

Wu Ching was recognized by the Schwab Foundation for outstanding social entrepreneurship in 2003.

Our keynotes are intended to give a sense of attitude and breadth. Dame Stephanie Shirley is an iconic entrepreneur in Britain.  She started one of the first software companies here–and proceeded to get crossways with the government for hiring too many women!  (We love her for that.)  We asked Cherie Blair because her foundation is doing the most clear-eyed, far-reaching, and no-nonsense work on training entrepreneurs in developing countries that we know about.  Wu Qing founded the Beijing Cultural Development Center for Rural Women–she is a tireless activist for women’s rights.  Muna AbuSulayman was the first Saudi UN Goodwill Ambassador for the UNDP, the first Saudi woman to become a regional television celebrity, a Young Global Leader for the World Economic Forum, the first female head of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation–and now she is an entrepreneur with her own fashion line.

We will open the event with an overview, which Karen Hughes and I will present, that attempts to bridge the very different (and yet often eerily similar) conditions for entrepreneurs in the developed and developing world.  Karen’s book, Female Enterprise in the New Economy, is one I admire a great deal.  And, in fact, there will be several authors in attendance, some with new books, such as Steve Shirley’s Let It Go and Alyse Nelson’s Vital Voices, so we will have a book signing event over a lunch.  (I love book signings; they seem so literary.)

This entrepreneur has a hair salon in a South African village--and sells Avon on the side.

We have structured a series of interactive sessions designed to foreground issues that differentiate among women as entrepreneurs, as well as between programmes designed to engage them. So, for instance, we will have three simultaneous panels I’ve been calling “Top Down,” “Bottom Up,” and “All Around.” In the Top Down session, we will hear from people who have designed systems that distribute what we might call “global goods” on the ground in developing countries through “networks” of poor female entrepreneurs:  Jita, Living Goods, and Avon, for instance.  In the Bottom Up session, we will listen to a group of people leading an initiative to register women who own medium-to-large sized businesses and connect them up with big buyers and big contracts:  Full Circle Exchange, WEConnect International, and the International Trade Centre.  In the All Around session, we will hear how Coca-Cola has designed a 360 degree effort to bring women into the sphere of their business:  5 million of them by 2020.

Somervile College opened the Indira Gandhi Centre for Sustainable Development last month.

We know from long experience that people who come to Oxford want to see and do certain things.  So we have planned to include that special Oxonian twist.  There will be a debate at the Oxford Union:  one side will argue “pro” and another “con” on a question about women as entrepreneurs, then the audience can air their own opinions, and, after closing arguments, we will vote for one side by streaming out one or the other door on our way to the bar, as has been done for decades (or maybe centuries?).  There will be one of the fabled Oxford College dinners, held at Somerville College (from which both Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi graduated).

We are collaborating with the International Women’s Coffee Alliance to write a business-school case about how they have worked to organize an international collaboration among farmers, roasters, exporters, importers, buyers, and branders–and have engaged with everything from prejudice to warfare along the way.  This case will be distributed in advance, then taught, just as it would be in the Said School, by senior Oxford faculty.

We will have sessions and panels on all the key topics that affect women as entrepreneurs or our ability to support them:  family, law, measurement, collective action, and skills. We will not turn away from the difficult issues:  including the fact that some 90% of entrepreneurs, regardless of gender, fail.  All through the event, we will be collecting feedback so that, at the end, we will have some ideas, questions, and recommendations to report out to the world community.

We intend to make a difference. (Indeed, I can’t emphasize enough:  this is not going to be just another of those tedious high-heels-and-padded-shoulders women’s networking things.)

The event is invitation-only.  If you think you are the sort of person who would enjoy this challenge, would make a meaningful contribution, and would like an invitation, please write to  The official website is now live!


Recent Posts
bottom of page