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Organization Recognizes Successful International Businesswomen

Women have been striving for equality in the workplace for years. From VOA's New York Bureau, correspondent Barbara Schoetzau has the story by VOA intern Noelle Esquire, of an organization that promotes women entrepreneurs around the world.

Cheryl Womack never intended to start her own business. What made her an entrepreneur was anger and frustration with her administrative job at a company insuring independent truck drivers.

Womack says she helped her boss expand the company's earnings from $50,000 a month to $300,000 a month by 1981. She was eager to join the sales force, but the insurance industry at that time was a man's world, and the company would not allow it. Instead, they brought in a man and told Womack to train him to be her boss.

"I never would have gone out on my own, would never have gotten the courage to do it, but I was so mad that they could bring in a guy, who didn't know the business -- just because he was a guy," she recalled.

With that, Womack decided to start her own business, an association that not only provided insurance to independent truck drivers, but also taught them valuable business skills.

In 2002, Womack sold her business, and that same year became the recipient of the Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World award.

The non-profit organization is dedicated to recognizing and encouraging the achievements of successful businesswomen throughout the world.

"The woman who founded it was very visionary to see that women needed to be brought together from all over the world," she added.

In 2003, Womack took over the U.S.-based organization.

Leading Women has honored more than 300 women since its creation in 1997. Womack says these women represent more than 50 different countries, have collectively generated more than $162 billion in business, and employ more than 500,000 people worldwide. She says women entrepreneurs are creating opportunities in every corner of the world.

"In South Africa, and in Thailand, and in China, women are kicking butt and taking names," she noted. "They're just coming out of the woodwork for ingenious ideas for service."

The success stories of these women are as diverse as their backgrounds.

For example, Pranee Phaoenchoke chairs the Thai Rung Union Car Public Company, which earns one billion dollars a year and has 33,000 employees. The company started out as a small family business, which Phaoenchoke has been building up for the last thirty years.

Khunying Natthika has been a Leading Women member since the year 2000. Natthika is the chief executive officer of Thailand's Eastern Sugar and Cane Company, which produces 80 percent of all the sugar that Asia exports. She is the only female CEO in Thailand's sugar industry.

In Sri Lanka, Sicille Kotelawala is the deputy chairperson for Ceylinko Consolidated, and owns 400 different businesses. She is currently working with another Sri Lankan honoree to teach women the necessary skills to start their own businesses.

Success, Cheryl Womack says, does not mean running a large company.

"I think there is more opportunity than there has ever been before for a woman, if a woman can get past the block that she has to be a big corporation," she explained. "If a woman realizes that, inexpensively, out of her home she can start a business, which frankly is what I did, and build on that base and build it to where it becomes something bigger. There are so many choices."

Every year, the organization honors a group of successful women at its annual meeting, scheduled to take place this year in mid-March in Bangkok, Thailand. This will be the first Leading Women event held in Asia, home to 65 Leading Women honorees so far. Thailand is currently home to ten honorees.

"The reason we come together is to find support amongst each other, but, there needs to be a real paradigm shift in the universe, everywhere in the world, including America, for women to support women," she added.

The meeting will recognize the successes of extraordinary women in the business world today, and serve as a testament to the triumphs of women in the past and give them incentive to achieve greater success in the future.