It is the last day of my work on this island of Hispaniola and I am a speaker at a celebrated conference for Women in Trade Leadership. A bevy of dignitaries, ambassadors and ministers circle the event with television camerawomen documenting the festivities. A diverse group of strong women business leaders engaged in cacao, pineapple, and avocado and greenhouse vegetable production are in attendance. They have taken time from their busy day to listen and learn about sustainable business practices, international marketing and trade as well as the benefits of organic.
I am the first and last speaker of the day and words flow out of me easily radiating instantaneous effects. The women perk up in their seats when I describe what sustainability can mean for them here in the DR. Which metrics are relative to their businesses? How they can establish a baseline, measure progress and celebrate success. I offer up the possibility of forming a sustainability support group or association much like the Sustainable Food Trade Association that we participate in. There is strength in union.
This strong, intelligent group of women, leaders in their business and country, want to build a resilient future. They seek to invigorate their businesses while nurturing the welfare of their nation, their society and their environment.
My organic comrade Ram from Florida Organic Growers takes the stage next, and he speaks eloquently about the benefits of organic certification, why Fair Trade matters and what cumbersome ministrations the new food safety protocols will soon thrust upon producers. It’s a detailed description of how to add value to products intended for export markets and it creates a hearty and vigorous round of discussion.
After I speak again on international trade and marketing, lunch is served and once again I fall into a culinary reverie of insatiable hunger. The chicken lays voluptuously on a sumptuous bed of tender mushrooms, great pillows of empanadas pout and pucker with meat and sauce. I savor the golden discs of fried platanos, the trembling fried cheese. A saucy stew of goat is served with local rice flecked with Lilliputian lentils.
The DR grows all its rice consumption, and I must take a moment and opine on its unique flavor. This rice is small, firm and slightly sticky with aromatic overtones of an Asian vestibule mixed with hints of a diabolically warm moist jungle. You can taste the very essence of the Dominican Republic with each bite. Rice accompanies most meals whether it be served straight up with no ablutions or lavishly dressed with a rich plantain and guava sauce.
I suddenly realize this is my last creole meal—I must savor and prolong the experience. Thus I dig in with tenderness to make it last… not too fast, almost deeply, hold on; keep your fork steady and your mind clear of superfluous thoughts. Concentrate on the exquisite flavors, not the final culmination of the act. Don’t finish this final sup too quickly. Thus I indulge with delicious prolonged lassitude.
Despite my culinary musings, the conference too must culminate with one final act. Last up is a panel of professional businesswomen who speak from the heart and mind on the challenges and opportunities women face here in the DR. Much of what they profess rings true to what I have experienced as a businesswoman.
Women business leaders are thrust into a myriad of complex roles: we are mothers, wives, sisters, homemakers, on top of business leaders. Women have much less time than a man. Yet when we feel passion for something, we have no hesitation to do many things, we do not dawdle vacillate or waver from our chosen path.
One statuesque professional went into agriculture 10 years ago and completely fell in love with it. She describes her stair-step journey, first in production, then marketing, organizing, supervising trading and exporting. As her experience built this tower of knowledge, it produced even more passion which fueled her work. Now as a business owner, she works from 6 am – 9 pm and feels no torpor and suffers no weariness. Every day she learns something and with that knowledge she innovates and creates something.New value-added products exfoliate from her like a creative shedding of bright ideas.
What are the barriers for women in business? They say that they could make a huge list.The first barrier is an internal attitude. Do I want a job or do I want to WORK? Well work it is!
But the onslaught of barricades that rear their heads in this macho-centric business and country are many. Wholesalers don’t take women seriously. Women aren’t really trusted to set prices or negotiate terms. How is someone beautiful and young able to sell a container of chocolate?
Body images are assumed and often commented on upon first meeting. Or else women are completely ignored. What does body have to do with brains?
In the end, women have to employ their unique feminine skills of intuition, strategic thought, rigorous multitasking along with poise to get the work done and rise to the top. It is the same story whether it be here in the DR or back in the US. Women must work harder and longer with much tenacity and passion.
The conference ends, and the women disperse with a sense of union and increased power and potential. I have a feeling these women will help bring the agricultural sector of the DR into a new era of prosperity. Perhaps I have added a few pearls of knowledge to their garland of success.
Upon my impending departure from this green-island nation, I reflect on the opulent smiles of these hardworking women. The work I have done, the work still to be done, the many friends I have made. I have received neither injury nor molestation here. Only welcoming laughs, a thimble full of rum, a trusting nod, a glint of things to come.
My time here has been valuable and rewarding. I think I shall one day return.