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A New Dell Initiative Asks Women Entrepreneurs to Give Back The 'Pay it Forward' campaign aims to support one million aspiring women entrepreneurs by 2015.

By Sarah J. Robbins

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Downtown Project
Progress and Potential

Want to know how a society -- in the developing world especially -- really ticks? Ask the women.

From Nairobi to New Guinea, women have long served as the family's primary caretaker -- cooking, cleaning and supplies gathering. They're also increasingly the family's breadwinner. It's a sad fact that in war-torn or impoverished parts of the world, men are often forced to either pick up arms or earn money in remote locations, away from their families -- leaving women to look after children and the household.

Last year, entrepreneurship activity among men and women was almost equal in most sub-Saharan Africa economies, according to the latest Global Entrepreneurship Monitor survey. In Ecuador, Panama, Ghana, Nigeria and Thailand, the rate of entrepreneurship among females was higher than that for males.

Women entrepreneurs have benefited, in part, by the rise of microfinance. That access to capital -- even at high rates of interest -- is credited with helping women either start or expand a microenterprise and, by extension, more sustainably provide for their families.

In time, these businesses may grow beyond their "micro" label. They may scale up and create thousands, if not millions, of jobs. The potential is thrilling.

Dell kicked off a new initiative to foster the careers of one million aspiring women entrepreneurs by mobilizing thousands of successful businesswomen to provide their time or financial support to other women.

Dell announced its initiative, called "Pay it Forward," at its annual gathering of female business leaders from around the globe at a hotel outside Istanbul, Turkey. The ongoing civil unrest in Turkey served as a poignant backdrop for discussions of the rapidly expanding economy's growing pains and obstacles to gender parity there, despite its up-and-coming startup market. Women account for just nine percent of Turkey's entrepreneurs, according to Melek Pulatkonak, the founder of the Turkish Women's International Network.

Karen Quintos, Dell's chief marketing officer, spoke to a crowd of about 160 women representing 13 countries and emphasized that every woman in the audience could amplify her own experience and success by helping at least 10 women over the next two years. If the 10,000 members of Dell's wider women's networks were to help 10 women, who then turned around and supported 10 more women, then "we can collectively impact the future of other economies," Quintos said.

The campaign aims to improve women's access to information, technology, capital and networks that would help them reach their business goals. It is the latest example of a multinational stepping up to foster entrepreneurship in emerging markets. To facilitate an ongoing dialogue, a new website and mobile app will provide participants with suggestions for outreach and opportunities to track their commitments.

The UN Foundation's Girl Up campaign and the Girl Scouts of the USA are supporting the initiative. "It will create this movement of women, saying, 'How can I help you? Let's do this together,' " said Elizabeth Gore, a resident entrepreneur at the United Nations Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group working to build support for U.N. causes.

The immediate result of the initiative, Gore said, would be telling "very personal and very inspiring stories that are individually and geographically based." The long-term goal is to create a ripple effect of women helping other women. Today we are still debating whether women can "have it all" and if women are helping each other or slamming each other, she said. "That we're still asking these questions shows how much we need this movement."

Sarah J. Robbins is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor and the co-author of Keeping Hope Alive: One Woman -- 90,000 Lives Changed (Grand Central, 2013).

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