Ana María Choquehuanca is president of MISUR, the Association of Industrial, Entrepreneurial and Professional Women, a nonprofit organization in Peru that represents small companies in eight sectors: dressmaking, textiles, arts and crafts, agribusiness, bakeries, leather industries, metal industries and services.
MISUR, with more than 800 members, has become the most important trade union for women in Peru. Among its achievements, MISUR has trained Peruvians as textile sector executives. One of the country’s main export sectors, the textile business is centered on Arequipa. Alpaca fabrics are its main raw material. MISUR also brings entrepreneurs together to create companies more forceful than those that could be established by individuals.
MISUR is a member of numerous associations of female entrepreneurs, including Barcelona-based FIDEM, the International Foundation of Entrepreneurial Women; and FIDE, the Ibero-American Federation of Women, headquartered in Madrid. It has ties with AMFED Morocco, an organization of female entrepreneurs for development that is responsible for the women exports forum sponsored by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. Choquehuanca is convinced that the synergies between these associations will foster greater success among members.
In an interview with Universia Knowledge at Wharton, Choquehuanca stresses the importance of creating alliances between small businesses to compete in an increasingly globalized market.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Universia Knowledge at Wharton:What is the principal goal of MISUR, and what is your role as president?
Ana María Choquehuanca: The goal of this organization, which is unique in its sectors of activity, is to enable companies to achieve better results in areas related to business associations. My main role is to enable women who enter our association to create a company that can be independent in making decisions that ultimately enable it to promote the well-being of their children. We are not feminists, nor is this a non-governmental organization. We do not receive aid from the government nor do we collect assistance funds. We are, instead, a contingent of strong-willed women who are changing the idea that it is only with money that you can build a future. We think that it is only with will that we are achieving it.
UKnowledge at Wharton: What are some of the most successful initiatives that MISUR has developed recently?
Choquehuanca: Our greatest achievement has been to produce the Twentieth Ibero-American Congress of Business Women — CIME Peru — in November 2009. Its sponsor is FIDE, based in Madrid, Spain. It involved entering the “big leagues,” if I can say so myself, when we decided to accept the challenge of organizing the event. It was clear to us that the person who was working on this event in Spain was the very same Queen Sophia who presided over the Committee of Honor. We were a small organization that had little governmental support, but we did this at the same high level that CIME has maintained over its 21 years. This year, the site of the event is Lisbon.
We have never had a defeatist mentality. As a result, today we have the satisfaction of saying that not only are we capable of sharing our experiences with South American countries such as Chile and Colombia — countries in which we have strengthened the organizational power of businesswomen — but we are also training [women] in Arab countries such as Morocco, where we have close ties through a cooperative agreement with AMFED. We are also in Canada, trying to close sales of handicraft products from the high Andes region of Arequipa. We work not only with urban women but also with women who need us more in remote regions.
UKnowledge at Wharton: You are also executive director of the chamber of commerce and handicrafts for small and micro-enterprises of Arequipa, and manager of Metalsur, a metal furniture company. Can you summarize your professional career until you took on these positions?
Choquehuanca: I am also president of the Arequipa regional chapter of the National Society of Industries. Reaching those positions has not just been the result of my commitment to trade unions in my country’s small and midsize corporate sector. Because I am so committed, I have often had to set aside my business duties in order to stick up for the sector.
I have always tried to look deeper into the reality of small companies in my country. In addition, I realized that there are a lot of shortcomings in the way everyday work is done; that the laws are not favorable [to our companies], and that financial institutions treat us like the big companies that have already strengthened themselves in foreign markets. Costs are high; the government doesn’t pay much attention. So you need to present solutions, and the only way is through trade union institutions.
The small-business chamber has been 100% involved in the negotiation process of the free-trade agreement with the United States. It became the spokesman for Peru in the only Andean forum of small and midsize companies in this agreement. There, we went looking for protection rather than fighting for opportunities. That’s where we can make changes and we can review tariffs and taxes. It becomes clearer that the only way to change the economic situation of countries is by having a presence and participating, by “playing in the major leagues.”
UKnowledge at Wharton: How would you evaluate the role of the woman in the development of small and midsize industries in Peru?
Choquehuanca: It’s very important. The participation of women is very valuable. We pay the best wages among financial institutions; we even achieved that despite the legislation of my country, where loans were only authorized when they were signed by the husband. Now we are in a credit institution that can make us beneficiaries of a loan with only one signature. We are more disciplined not only when making payments, but also when pursuing the progress of the business itself.
UKnowledge at Wharton: The political and economic stabilization of some Latin American democracies has led to the arrival of numerous global companies in the region. How does their arrival affect local businesses?
Choquehuanca: Clearly, in my city of Arequipa in southern Peru, foreign investors are now constructing four shopping centers. Clearly, these mega-malls are going to compete with the small shopping centers that exist up until now. For me, the word “competitiveness” is the right word for such situations as this.
I believe that companies and businesses, regardless of size, must be competitive. In addition, another tool that must be used in these cases is cooperating together. If we had not worked on this concept, it wouldn’t have been at all hard for our small companies to go out of business. Nowadays, there are no borders; it is a globalized world. The only person who survives in the economic space of every country is the strong-willed warrior who has knowledge.
UKnowledge at Wharton: The international economic crisis came at a time when women were gradually reaching positions of business leadership. Do you believe that the crisis has been a setback along this road?
Choquehuanca: I don’t believe that at all. For me, whether or not there is a crisis, this [current situation] enables women to develop their skills beyond specific laws and situations. In addition, it is clear that the crisis helps strengthen the road toward progress. Bringing women into positions of business leadership will be a major challenge that tests these skills.
UKnowledge at Wharton: Despite progress and the incorporation of women into positions of leadership, there are still differentials in salaries and educational levels between women and men in many parts of the world. What initiatives must be developed, and what remains to be eradicated in order to level the playing field for men and women?
Choquehuanca: I am convinced that if we women want to achieve change, then we must make commitments, and make reality change in our countries. All these changes are produced only if there are governmental policies that achieve it; especially in the realm of education, which depends more on one’s own will than on that of outsiders. As for the subject of salary, it is a question of applying the regulatory norms of the International Labor Organization, which is advanced in this regard, but which people do not apply because we are indifferent to it.
UKnowledge at Wharton: Your association promotes agreements with other groups of female entrepreneurs around the world. In your view, what has this kind of integration contributed, and what can it contribute in the future?
Choquehuanca: The exchange of experiences is, without doubt, essential and valuable. It means that other groups of women do not make the same mistakes, and they save time when achieving results. Experience has left me with the certainty that reality is the same in every country around the world. And because the reality of Latin America is the same, we are moving together. We hope that we will soon be able to make our Latin American network of businesswomen a reality.
UKnowledge at Wharton: In MISUR, you consider it important to bring business and the environment together. How can you combine business development with environmentalism in Peru?
Choquehuanca: If there is a single business initiative that must be at the forefront, it is to discard the idea that it is only big companies that must work on environmental issues. For us, these have been essential conditions since the creation of the micro-enterprise.
UKnowledge at Wharton: Finally, what is your greatest desire on the professional level?
Choquehuanca: My greatest desire is to go around the world, letting people know that our experience is very valuable because it has enabled us to bring the exporting sector of my country within the grasp of women who started from zero, as mere housekeepers. Today, they are entrepreneurs, thanks to their own strength, their iron will, and the collective work that we have always made at MISUR.
I hope that my knowledge of business, more than my professional knowledge, can be used by many women all over the world. People say that I am quite motivational, and I believe — I know — that I am a successful woman because I have managed to fulfill the mission that God gives to each of us: to share with other people what you have and what you know.