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Empowerment Through Entrepreneurship

Jennifer Iannolo, founder of The Concordia Project, provides young girls in India and other parts of the world the tools to turn their entrepreneurship dreams to reality.

Young women aged 18 to 25 face a significant gap in leadership development. While there are several organizations working to mitigate this gap, one stands out for its endeavor to “disrupt the conversation about empowerment.” The Concordia Project employs new ways to help young women, and the people around them. The U.S.-based organization fosters global cooperation and conversations at tables both real and virtual through a global think tank of young women, international salon dinners for men and women of varied ages and backgrounds, and a global study comprising the data and insights from both activities to paint a more accurate picture of what is happening with young women around the world.

In 2017, Jennifer Iannolo, founder and chief executive director of the project, visited Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Ranchi and New Delhi to meet entrepreneurs and lead workshops on leadership, empowerment and innovation.

Excerpts from an interview.


How important is a business degree for a woman to succeed in the business world? What role did your degree from New York University Stern School of Business play in your life?
Technically speaking, you don’t need a business degree to be anything. And we have seen women who have thriving businesses without business degrees. For me, I think, what was helpful is that Stern provided me with a very strong foundation of business, from accounting and marketing to business basics and business law.

I think, a lot of entrepreneurship is about resilience—who are you when things go wrong.


What was the idea behind launching The Concordia Project in 2015?
I had just ended a 20-year food and wine career, and was looking at what project I wanted to create that would be my legacy. The Concordia Project is for women aged 18 to 25—those years in life when a young woman, especially in this part of the world, has to choose between marriage and university. Sometimes, she isn’t given a choice. We have to empower her to make that choice for herself.

We now have a global think tank—we are up to seven countries. The goal is that by 2020, we will have all 195 countries participating. If a young woman wants to participate, she can go to concordiaproject.org and apply for the think tank.


What prevents women from starting a business—lack of resources, confidence or social support?
Well, I think, the challenges are all of those. What I have seen throughout India is that young women are primed and ready for entrepreneurship, they want it and are excited about it. But, what they are missing are the tools for the conversation that they need to have with their families and communities so that they can actually have the freedom to pursue these activities.


What kind of entrepreneurship spirit did you see in women during your travel to Indian cities? What were their biggest concerns?
I have seen a mixture—some are building apps, some are in the world of tech, others are working in textiles and quite a few who are working with women in villages to create jewelry and other things, and to remove the middleman so that women can make more money.

Their biggest concern was how they could have conversations with their families to have the freedom to pursue entrepreneurship. It has come up in every single city I have been to. But, it’s not so much about them not being allowed; it is that lot of parents wonder why they would want to do that and take that risk. So, it is up to us to give them conversational tools for that.


What is your assessment of the start-up culture here in India? Did you see anything significant beyond information technology (IT)?
I was at a IT hub in Hyderabad and they have a social impact incubator right in the hub. So, there is a variety; it’s not all tech. It is really about textiles, artisans, craftsmanship, tech and other things like food. Food start-ups have been great. I met with food bloggers in Kolkata and we talked about what’s changing around Kolkata. I feel India is on the verge of an explosion of entrepreneurship; it’s really exciting.


The theme of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit 2017, held in Hyderabad, was “Woman First, Prosperity for All.” What’s your message to Indian women in regard to this?
Two things: one, you can have it all and it’s up to you to define what “all” is and, two, no one is coming to give you permission, to tell you how to do it, to say you can or cannot. So, you just have to take it on and go for it. Be unapologetic and be awesome!


Would you like to say anything about your collaborations with the U.S. Department of State?
My job here as a citizen is to promote the things that are great about our entrepreneurship culture, our spirit of creating anything we think possible and really sharing the vision of dreaming big. And, then, actually creating a plan to achieve these dreams. I think that’s really what the American entrepreneur spirit is about. I am proud to be able to share that here; it really means a lot to me. My parents were immigrants to the United States and I was raised with a very can-do entrepreneurial spirit of “go dream and build, and create your life.” And now, I get to do this [for others]; it’s pretty extraordinary.