Vaira Vike-Freiberga

Consolidating the Gains of a Decade of Transition - Sept. 3, 2004

Vaira Vike-Freiberga
September 03, 2004— Riga, Latvia
Riga Women Business Leaders Summit
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Ambassador Carlson,

Ambassador McElveen-Hunter,

Ambassador Wos,

Honoured guests,

As President of the Republic, as well as a woman, I am delighted and honoured to welcome all participants and guests to this Riga Women Business Leaders Summit. What an impressive array of successful and talented businesswomen have gathered here from eight different countries and two continents! I should like to extend an especial welcome to the participants from the United States of America, who probably have had the longest way to travel to get here. I would also like to express my appreciation for the fact that they have given up the opportunity of spending the Labour Day holiday with their families in favour of this event.

I take this opportunity to express my special debt of gratitude and my deep admiration to Ambassador Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, the initiator and leader of the Women Business Leaders Summit, whose passionate commitment has been the guiding and organizing force in making this Riga Summit a reality, just as it did at the first such summit in Helsinki in 2002. Her vision of partnering businesses, people and governments for the construction of a more prosperous and stable global community is an admirable one and bound to bring long-lasting benefits. I would also like to extend my special thanks to the US Embassy in Latvia and to Ambassador Brian Carlson, without whose wholehearted support and enthusiasm this Riga Women Business Leaders Summit could not have become a reality.

Two years after the groundbreaking Women Business Leaders Summit in Helsinki, which I had the pleasure of addressing, women from Northeast Europe and the United States are once again coming together. According to Forbes magazine, more than half, or 56 of the world’s 100 most influential women, are from America. Even allowing for the fact that Forbes is an American magazine, these are achievements that provide inspiration to us all.

This year's participants are building on the success in Helsinki to share new ideas, fresh experiences, and timely insights. I am especially proud to be hosting all of you in Riga, my native city. I invite you to discover the dynamism and appeal of this beautiful Baltic capital, which is growing into an important regional centre of finance, trade and transportation, and which has reaped great benefit from its advantageous location on the Baltic Sea at the mouth of the Daugava River.

This gathering of women business leaders is taking place in a Latvia that has become newly invigorated by its recent membership in NATO and the European Union. Since May of this year, Latvia, together with neighboring Estonia and Lithuania, has become part of an expanded EU market of more than 450 million consumers, which accounts for nearly a fifth of world trade and contributes to more than a quarter of the world's GDP. Latvia currently enjoys one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, which has made it an especially attractive base for investors and international businesses.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain more than a decade ago, women from the formerly captive nations of Central and Eastern Europe have been embracing the opportunities that freedom and democracy have opened up for them. They have been steadily shrugging off the remnants of a political and economic system that discouraged individuals from taking initiatives and did everything to quash the entrepreneurial spirit. Worse still, the right to private property was seriously curtailed, and the very concept of gain and profit was condemned as immoral and prosecuted as criminal.

The transition from a centralized, planned economy to a market economy and free trade has been a tremendous challenge, and not all post-communist countries have been able to rise to it as fast and as successfully as the three Baltic countries. The scope and the depth of the reforms executed in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia has required tremendous will and a fair amount of sacrifice from our people. But there is no doubt whatsoever that it was the right thing to do. The positive changes in our countries are plain to see at every step, and our economic growth continues unabated from year to year. Within this general context, more and more women of the region are actively bettering themselves as well as their communities by starting small and midsize businesses, some of which have already expanded into larger operations. These recent developments are living proof of the resilience of talented women in the region, whose creativity and initiative have only been waiting for an opportunity to burst forth, like spring flowers after a long, hard winter.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The businesswomen of America are fortunate in belonging to a society in which the value of the entrepreneurial spirit has been acknowledged and recognized as part of a long historical tradition. Finland too has been fortunate in remaining part of the free world. In post-communist countries, however, the historical experiences of the past century have discouraged individuals from thinking of starting their own business as a likely means to ensure their livelihood.

Recent studies in Latvia, for instance, have shown a tendency among young people to favour well-paid, socially guaranteed jobs with low risk, over the riskier venture of starting a business. This attitude is especially pervasive among young women and they are the ones who could benefit the most from mentoring and increased exposure to positive business role models. Furthermore, too many people in this region are still convinced that the only way to become wealthy is by being dishonest. This means that those who do become prosperous risk receiving at best rather ambiguous feelings from other members of society, if not outright hostility and condemnation.

Historically, the earliest women role models in Latvia tended to take up social and cultural causes, which certainly helped to break those bourgeois stereotypes that limited a woman's role to life at home. In 1869, Riga's Latvian Charitable Society was formed, whose impact was most felt under the direction of Ms. Katrina Dombrovska. This organization assisted orphans, invalids, the elderly and the destitute, providing them with access to medical facilities and free food and shelter. Between the two World Wars, Latvian women became active in all professions, much more so than in North America, for example. Yet in business, newspaper millionairess Emilija Benjamina (who died from starvation in a Stalinist death camp) stood out as practically alone in her class.

In recent decades and in democratic societies everywhere, women leaders are becoming increasingly active in nearly every aspect of public life: business, politics, science, and the arts. Women have even traveled into space! Women need no longer be limited to either a professional life without children or a family life without a career. Whether head of a household, head of a company, or even Head of State, we women have shown that we can handle whatever comes our way!

Let us not forget, however, that less than a century ago, women everywhere were denied the elementary right to vote and the right to stand for election. Latvia and Estonia, upon declaring their independence from tsarist Russia in 1918, were among the first nations in Europe to accord women these rights. Only four other nations — Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland — preceded them. The United States implemented universal suffrage soon after.

During the years under communism, Europe's former captive nations heard a great deal of ideological rhetoric about the equality of the sexes, but it was not until the return of democracy that women were able to gain positions of true influence. Latvia became the first country in Central and Eastern Europe to elect a woman president. Soon after, Finland elected its first woman president. I hope this trend will continue elsewhere in the world, and that in due time the United States will be no exception.

Dear participants,

We have among us today women business leaders from the United States of America, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Just as each country represented has its own unique culture, customs, and characteristics, each woman here is a unique personality, possessing her own style, which consists of a dynamic blend of intuition, skills, and drive that shapes the way she conducts her business and herself. Together, you make up a very diverse group. Yet even in your variety, you speak a common language: You speak the language of leadership, and you speak it in a woman’s voice.

A leader is an active player, not a passive observer. While others may idle at the sidelines, second-guessing themselves and their abilities, each of you here today has followed your ambition. Each of you has demonstrated that high profits alone do not define your success. Each of you can help narrow the gap of opportunities between different sectors of society in her own country as well as that between lesser and more developed countries. As successful women, you can cast your network of knowledge and resources to women everywhere who lack the means or education to stand up for themselves and pursue their dreams. Education and mentoring support are vital for ensuring success in today's global economy.

Research studies conducted in 2002 revealed that nearly two-thirds of the European women surveyed by Catalyst and Conference Board Europe named prevailing gender stereotypes and prejudices as the greatest barriers to starting their own businesses. Just about as many claimed to lack positive women leader role models, and 61 percent claimed to lack the educational benefit that mentoring provides. Studies conducted last year in Latvia indicate a similar desire to meet with other businesswomen for the exchange of knowledge and business contacts.

We have all heard the expression that life is lonely at the top. But why should it be? I look around and see a room full of energized participants who are eager to network with one another. Many beneficial relationships grew out of the 2002 Helsinki summit. Thanks to previous participants who expanded this network by sharing what they learned with other women in their communities, new business relationships continue to blossom.

Dear participants,

Business cannot exist without risk-taking, and neither can the generation of ideas. In addition to the usual risks involved in running a business, we now must contend with the added uncertainty that global terrorism has introduced to the world economy. By promoting cooperation between countries through democratic channels such as the Women Business Leaders Summit, we can help foster better relations and build alliances dedicated to preserving peace.

Globalization has opened the door of opportunity. It has enabled the growth of new business relationships and has made available an abundance of goods and services to eager consumers. But through this door of opportunity, negative developments have also crept in. As the disparity between the rich and poor continues to increase in even the most developed countries, more people are falling prey to fraudulent labour schemes that deny them their most basic human rights.

Human trafficking as well, particularly that of women and children, has become an insidious, worldwide problem. This modern-day slavery takes place not only under the control of organized crime, but is sometimes aided or abetted by otherwise upstanding citizens, diplomats, and peacekeepers. In addition to cross-border trafficking, millions of people are trafficked each year within their own country. Within national borders, people from poor or underemployed rural areas are being trafficked into larger cities and suburbs to work as black-market nannies, domestic servants, or sweatshop labourers. The recent spike in sex tourism has been an especially disturbing development, and unless the demand subsides, the supply of victims will continue to grow.

Dear summit participants,

As role models for women everywhere, you are also educators. By sharing your knowledge and resources, you can help promote positive employment opportunities for society's marginalized groups and inspire humane economic alternatives to trafficking or exploitation. The support network that you build at this summit will provide a new template of information exchange for other regional networks that are just beginning to bud.

Through opportunities such as those offered by this Riga Women Business Leaders Summit, the business women of the Baltic region are being inspired to seek mentors for themselves and become mentors in turn to others. This room is full of enthusiastic mentors, each of whom has valuable insights to offer. American mentors can help attract trade and foreign investment by sharing business strategies with the women of this region. In turn, mentors from this side of the globe, who speak the local languages and understand the regional tendencies, can help their American counterparts expand their businesses to the Eastern and Western European markets, as well as Russia and the CIS. Your success did not come without challenges, and sharing these challenges with others will help embolden newcomers to take that first step.

As we look to the future and continue the work begun in Helsinki by Bonnie McElveen-Hunter and all the other wonderful women like you, I have no doubt that the Riga Women Business Leaders Summit will generate new and beneficial partnerships between businesses in the United States, the countries of Northeast Europe and beyond. I am certain that this network will become even stronger with the passing of time, bringing prosperity and fulfillment to its participants.

I hope that you will feel invigorated and inspired by this summit in Riga. I have no doubt that through this network you will build your businesses, inspire other women, stimulate trade, and help our economies grow. And as our economies become more prosperous, you will create not only a better future for women, but for all the inhabitants of our countries.

I wish every single one of you continued excitement and success in your business undertakings as well as love, contentment and happiness in your personal life.

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