imageEconomic Independence and Social Justice: Two Sides of Women’s Empowerment

In this post I explore how social justice and economic interdependence intertwine in creating a health ecosystem that empowers women. I propose that taken together they form a beneficent cycle, in which trust enables a growing freedom from fear, and freedom from want.

In my post, “Educating Girls and Empowering Women through Economic Self-Sufficiency,” I described the personal journey that led to my interest in gender issues, and the key role they play in development. Today, I am a private sector economic development practitioner – at least that’s the best label I can find to put on myself. I deeply hold the conviction that the private sector is essential for sustainable growth. I also believe in the power of technology and innovation to address the most critical needs of humanity in a sustainable manner (a win-win for companies as well).

The world over, development entities, governments at various levels, and educational institutions are attempting to grow a knowledge economy. The goal is to create wealth and raise the level of society like a rising tide lifts all the boats. In a nutshell, I do the same; it’s what I do for my “day job.” As such, I had the privilege of speaking with Victor Hwang, author of The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley.

During our conversation, Victor talked about how Silicon Valley used to focus on innovating products through technology, but how the emphasis has shifted over time to a focus on business model innovation. Victor argues that the next trend on the horizon is cultural innovation. Using the analogy of “soil,” Victor likens traditional product innovation to monocultural farming, which is planned and predictable. Conversely, a cultural innovation ecosystem, he says, is more like a rainforest, where the value lies in diversity and serendipity. This seeming chaos enables a plethora of experimentation to thrive, with successful solutions rising to the surface. Unconstrained by plans and existing perceptions of what is possible today, in this  “rainforest” setting the best innovative ideas flourish. Happenstance “meetings of the minds” of people from totally different backgrounds and worldviews creates a fertile place where creativity can spark.

What Victor is focusing on now, is the soil – the foundation of the rainforest: digging deeper into cultural innovation.

In another recent post, “Accelerating Female Entrepreneurial Success through A Sharper Focus on Women,” I explored how cross-fertilization has fueled cultural innovation, enabling new forms of human interactions that benefit women, entrepreneurship, and development. In this post and the next few posts, I will connect the dots between women’s empowerment and ecosystems, looking beyond entrepreneurship to the metaphorical “soil,” where social justice and economic independence come together.

A key message in Victor’s book is that the creative spark only occurs when trust and trustworthiness exists among the people who come together in these happenstance “meetings of the mind”. Trust is critical to the fertile soil, like good aeration. But what happens when basic human rights are not upheld because of entrenched cultural biases and injustices embedded in the legal system? Just as aeration of the soil is critical for plant growth, enabling water and critical nutrients to reach the roots; so, social justice is critical for healthy soil. Healthy plant growth and root systems contribute to fertility of the soil.

I fervently believe that the absence of social justice is a betrayal of trust. I am going to mix metaphors here. When I picture trust, I think of it as yeast, the leavening agent, in bread. It enables the whole loaf to rise. Trust is a societal leavening agent that raises us all up to achieve.

Metrics like women’s rights to own land and property, open bank accounts, and form companies are important indicators. But these indicators are merely symptoms of the underlying problem of women’s rights as human rights. When a whole segment of society is denied basic human rights, there is no social justice. And where there is no social justice, innovation and entrepreneurship asphyxiates in the rock-hard soil where few roots have the stamina to penetrate.

Economic independence and social justice go hand-in-hand, nourishing each other. Mahnaz Afkhami, a tremendous, life-long women’s rights activist, states it better than I ever could:

Legal reform to improve women’s rights is of course essential to women’s well-being. Empowering women is at the heart of the struggle to achieve justice, human rights and equality for women. Freedom from want is at the heart of that empowerment; so is achieving freedom from fear. Those of us who have been working to eliminate violence against women know that freedom from fear and freedom from want are closely intertwined. A woman who is economically independent is less likely to be systematically abused and more likely to walk away from a cycle of abuse. But systemic violence that results from a tradition of patriarchy cannot be eliminated unless women are empowered in a practical sense.

This “freedom from fear” is so essential to progress and a healthy society, and it also supports the aspiration of “freedom from want.” When I think about the commonalities between Silicon Valley’s fertile “soil” as Victor described it, and women’s empowerment, I can’t help but think about how the disenfranchised and abused have had their trust betrayed by their families and societies. Social justice aerates that soil.

With the increasing attention to women’s rights, we are hearing more and more stories of girls and women around the world who have resisted cultural norms and sought education, have fought forced marriage and have overcome the odds of success to empower themselves through successful ventures. As the word spreads of their courage and perseverance, their success inspires other women and empowers activists to achieve change in government and society. This positive pattern fuels the beneficent cycle, which Victor calls a “rainforest,” one in which trust enables a growing freedom from fear, and freedom from want.


Afkhami, Mahnaz, “Freedom leads to Empowerment” in International Museum of Women, Economica: Women and the Global Economy. Oct 15, 2009 http://www.mahnazafkhami.net/2009/freedom-leads-to-empowerment/

Hwang, V. W., & G. Horowitt. (2013). The Rainforest. Retrieved from www.innovationrainforest.com.

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