Championing trade support for women entrepreneurs
Lucia-Loretta Desir is a successful business woman in the predominantly male shipping industry in Guyana. She is Managing Director of D & J Shipping Service, a thriving international business. In 2001, the company employed just three people. Today, it has a full-time workforce of 17, seven of whom are women, and hires extra staff during peak times.
Before running her own business, Desir worked as a freight forwarder for nine years and then ventured into partnership with a family member. She started as a clerk and worked her way up, while at the same time studying to strengthen her knowledge of the shipping business.
In 1988, she set up D & J Shipping Service with a partner. At this time there was little or no support for new enterprises in Guyana. She says that ‘starting out was very much a case of trial and error. Our experience was undoubtedly made more difficult because my partner and I were both women.’ Even though women can significantly contribute to the economy, spending more of their earned income than men on their family’s education and health, there’s still a great deal of discrimination against women in business. In 2001, when her partner left the company to set up a business on her own, Desir says that times were hard: ‘My greatest difficulty, when I took sole charge of the company, was getting financing. Financing companies wanted collateral and would often ask impertinent questions, such as “Will your husband give you support?” Eventually I received the financial backing I needed, but it didn’t come without a fight.’
It wasn’t until 2003 that she discovered the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s Empretec programme, which promotes the creation of sustainable, innovative and internationally competitive small and medium-sized enterprises through training, workshops and business forums. She says that the programme changed her life: ‘There is strength in numbers, and the investment I made in Empretec training still serves me well today, when business becomes overwhelming. At the time, the Empretec workshop was like throwing a life jacket to a drowning woman. I was recently divorced, was running the business by myself, and had three children to raise with very little money.’
Desir is now a keen advocate of business-support training, so much so that she has been instrumental in setting up a business-support organization for women in Guyana, which she hopes will make the transition from start-up entrepreneur to successful business woman a better experience.
Desir says: ‘It is very important, and I cannot stress this enough, to have associations which support women in business. Networking allows us to learn from each other and share experiences on how to do things differently. Sessions can be motivating and can sometimes give business owners the boost they need to stop them from closing their doors for good. I also believe that it helps to hear other people’s day-to-day experiences in business directly from them.’
Her involvement with Empretec led her to the Caribbean Women Entrepreneurship Forum, sponsored by the United States Department of State, in Washington, D.C., in March 2012. She was one of just two Guyanese women chosen to attend the three-day forum, along with 18 other women entrepreneurs from the Caribbean region, all of whom own and run small or medium-sized enterprises.
She says the forum was about supporting Caribbean women in business, as well as sharing experiences and learning how to run a business at the highest level. She and her fellow participants became committed to forming a Caribbean branch of the Women Entrepreneurs Network to share best practices for building and sustaining successful businesses in the region. Part of the plan was for a regional network to be set up, with chapters in each Caribbean country.
While plans were underway to set up the Guyana chapter, Desir attended the Women Vendors Exhibition and Forum in Mexico in November 2012. The event, organized by the International Trade Centre (ITC) in cooperation with Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ProMéxico and WEConnect International, sought to increase the share of corporate, government and institutional contracts awarded to women-owned businesses. Desir says that it is important for women entrepreneurs to position themselves in international markets, but that such events are difficult for many working women to attend due to a lack of funding: ‘Financial support, to cover air fares, hotels and other expenses, would mean that many more women would be able to participate.’
Desir and fellow Guyanese business woman Barbara Dublin-Peterkin, Chief Executive Officer of B’s Beauty & Naturopathic Center and Visions of Excellence Personal Development Center, launched the Guyana Chapter of the Women Entrepreneurs Network in March 2013. The network is still in its early stages but already has a steering committee of five women and two men and is awaiting funding before it becomes fully operational.
Desir says: ‘Our focus is to strengthen the voice, viability and visibility of women through training, networking, advocacy, and identifying and sharing best practices. I believe if these are in place then women can spend less time stumbling around in the dark and get direct assistance. We want women to share their experiences and knowledge to empower more Guyanese women entrepreneurs who are committed to growing their businesses at the small and medium level.’