Allison Dembeck Allison Dembeck
Vice President of Education and Labor Advocacy, Government Affairs, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Published

October 31, 2022

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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Women Taking the Lead (WTTL) program is focused on showcasing top executive women, connecting them with a network of allies who will champion their work, and providing these leaders with professional growth opportunities to drive change in C-Suites, boardrooms, and congressional and corner offices in DC and throughout the country.

Each month Women Taking the Lead highlights a female leader within the U.S. Chamber membership to showcase how women are currently leading in all areas of the business community. This month, we are highlighting National Women’s Small Business Month in a conversation with Rosa Whitaker, President, and CEO of the Whitaker Group and a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Board Member. Read more about Rosa in her own words below.

Tell me about The Whitaker Group and what inspired you as the founder to focus on business investment in Africa.

The Whitaker Group (TWG), established in 2003, was a natural extension of my service in senior leadership roles in the US government where I primarily focused on expanding trade and investment with Africa. I notably served as America’s first-ever Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Africa in the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.   A focal point of my work there was securing Congressional passage and subsequently implementing the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which I was honored to co-draft while working as a senior trade policy advisor to then-Congressman Charlie Rangel of New York.AGOA, now spanning the administrations of five U.S. presidents, continues to serve as the cornerstone of U.S. economic policy towards Africa. It is the U.S.’s first comprehensive Africa trade policy and truly embodies the power of trade and business to transform lives even in vulnerable economies.   I also pioneered other groundbreaking trade initiatives with African countries while leading the U.S. government’s interagency trade policy committee. We achieved unprecedented harmonization of U.S.-Africa positions in the WTO on issues such as intellectual property rights, trade facilitation, and capacity building.  We also resolved a number of consequential trade disputes.  Having lived and worked extensively in Africa for decades, I recognized, early on, the region’s promise as an emerging economic hub for global aggregate demand and growth. I established The Whitaker Group to advance enterprise solutions to promote prosperity across Africa.   We quickly became the partner of choice for global brands as the leading investment, corporate strategy, and project development firm specializing in Africa.  My TWG colleagues and I surpassed our own expectations helping to secure billions of dollars in private-sector investments across Africa in ways that advanced sustainable economic development and environmental stewardship.                                                                                              

None of the most pressing challenges the world now faces are surmountable unless Africa is a full and willing part of the solution -- not climate change and the destruction of the biosphere, not the threat of ongoing pandemics, not destabilizing mass migrations, not the cancer of terrorism that feeds on corruption and failing states, not the potential for economic stagnation as the populations of the industrialized North age out of the workforce, not the new and potentially disastrous antagonism between the U.S. and China.

What type of work does The Whitaker Group do, particularly when it comes to direct investments, corporate strategy, and project development that will impact women entrepreneurs?

Our commitment to women first and foremost starts internally.  TWG is a multilingual multidisciplinary team comprised of 100% of talented women.  We incorporate the empowerment of women into all of the market entry and business growth strategies provided to our clients. Our roster of clients has comprised household names in the business that many people would recognize as leaders in fast-moving consumer goods, agriculture, finance, and health.  They typically engage TWG to achieve not only commercial growth in Africa but also growth in their socio-economic impact.

Over the past few years, TWG expanded from transaction advisory and project development for large firms to focus on our own direct investments in Africa.   Notably, we own and lead a pan-African television and media company, Dominion Television, that broadcast on Africa’s largest satellite platform DStv across 47 countries 24/7 in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Merging our passion with our profession, Dominion Television is now known as Africa’s most-viewed Christian Lifestyle channel on satellite tv in Africa.  We have positioned ourselves as the gateway to Africa’s huge market of more than 640 million people who identify as Christians—the region’s largest affinity group.  Beyond television, we are a multimedia production company and will soon expand into e-commerce customized for our growing audience.   Our support for women at Dominion also starts internally with our leadership dominated by women.  Our programming also focuses on women’s empowerment, health, finance, gender equity, and entrepreneurship.  We are breaking barriers with thought-provoking conversations bringing the voices and experiences of global women such as WTO DG Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala; Former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton; and, Former Malawian President Joyce Banda to our audiences across Africa.  The Media Training Institute and Internship Program that we have launched are also dominated by next-generation women as are the enterprises that we engage in our supply chain of services.

Our largest contribution in support of women entrepreneurs will soon be announced in early 2023.  We are so excited about an innovative impact fund that will largely support women-owned enterprises in Africa with capital infusions which will help to close what the World Economic Forum (WEF) projected as a $42 billion funding gap for women entrepreneurs in Africa. It is projected, by WEF, that Africa could gain $316 billion in GDP by 2025 if this gender gap is bridged.  Access to capital is the most critical constraint for women entrepreneurs in Africa.  This is where and why I am joining other women of color in investment banking and impact to make our most substantial contribution to women.

In December, President Biden will convene the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit and a business forum, marking the first time a U.S. President has done so since 2014. As a business owner with operations in the U.S. and Ghana, what should U.S. small business owners know about why commercial engagement with Africa is important?

It’s important to note that in the US context, small businesses account for 99.9% of all US companies. Growth is the goal of nearly all businesses. Africa represents the greatest growth opportunity for US firms.  Africa, the world’s youngest continent, has the global workforce of the future; the largest free trade area in the world (1.3 billion consumers and a combined GDP of $2.6 trillion); the fastest consumer growth market with $2.5 trillion in household spending projected by 2030; and, retail spending that now tops $1.4 trillion. Africa’smiddle class of close to 350 million people is beginning to rival that of China and India. In short, growth opportunities for US SMEs in Africa’s diverse markets are simply too vast to ignore – especially given that demand across Africa, in nearly every sector, continues to outpace available supply.

I fear, however, that the enormous potential for US and African business engagement may never materialize unless two important trends take place.  First, the US simply must move from a paternalistic aid-based policy approach towards Africa to a more trade and investment-centered approach wherein US firms are incentivized by US policy to expand and invest in Africa. Relatively weak US policies that haven’t fully recognized Africa’s potential as trade and investment partners are among the main reasons why China replaced the US in 2009 as Africa’s largest trading partner.  China continues to operate in this important region, which holds the majority of the world’s human capital and strategic mineral resources, with unfettered and unchallenged economic dominance. The second trend that has to happen is for African countries to address their serious governance challenges. Particular corruption, which operates like a parasite on both the poor and free enterprise, must be tackled.  In most African countries, navigating often opaque regulatory regimes continues to be an obstacle for US investments.

I hope that the US-Africa Economic Summit and its aftermath will birth revolutionary US economic and investment policy innovations and US business partnerships across Africa. I have been championing budget-neutral US-based tax incentives for US firms to invest in strategic sectors in Africa, such as the Green Economy. I pray that America doesn’t wake up on the wrong side of history in Africa and am still not certain why we seem comfortable being behind in a region of such significance to America’s and the world’s future.

In addition to your entrepreneurship and vision for business and trade policy, you’ve done extensive work as a philanthropist and on several influential boards.  Can you talk a little about how you got involved with these outside organizations and how this work complements with your business and personal goals?

My work in philanthropy has always started with passion and purpose, which truly define one’s life calling.  Securing gains for vulnerable people has been intentionally and consistently woven into every aspect of my business operations and life.  I am also an unabashed woman of faith--giving and impacting the lives of others are simply parts and parcels of who I am.

My most rewarding philanthropic contribution was joining my mentor, the pioneering retail executive Myron “Mike” Ullman, who chaired JC Penny, Starbucks, and Macy’s and even led Louis Vuitton-Hennessy, on the international executive board of Mercy Ships for more than a decade.  I have been truly inspired by the way Mike seamlessly weaves business and philanthropy together to bring transformative contributions to both.   Mercy Ships operates the largest hospital ships in the world providing surgeries and medical treatments, free of charge, to the poorest people in Africa while also training and building a strong healthcare workforce across the continent.  I observed firsthand that even in a new school, a sick child cannot learn.   Mercy Ships is directly stemming the tide of needless preventable deaths across Africa often caused by the lack of health care, simple antibiotics, and other accessible medical solutions. Philanthropy, especially when combined with compassionate business practices, can help to significantly transform the human condition—this is why philanthropy remains a core value and priority for me.

What opportunities for women in entrepreneurship have you most excited?

One of the greatest challenges confronting women entrepreneurs also represents one of our greatest opportunities.  Increasingly, but too slowly, women are breaking the glass ceiling in securing seats on corporate boards. According to the Harvard Business Review, “women occupy just 20% of board seats globally, and continue to be excluded from the highest levels of corporate leadership.”  This represents less than a 3% increase for women on corporate boards since 2019, despite the surge in corporate discussions, mandates, and commitments to diversity.

Most disappointingly, African American women, ~13% of the US population, represent only 4.6% of Fortune 500 board seats.  Latina American women, ~ 18% of the population occupy only 1% of Fortune 500 board seats.  Women of color also have a much higher “recycling” rate on boards, meaning that the same women are tapped over and over, according to a recent report published by Catalyst, a global nonprofit founded in 1962 to improve workplaces for women.

We should be doing better, but trends and demographics will push the needle in the right direction.  According to the Women’s Business Collaborative, in September 2022 women comprised 30% of new appointments to US public companies – which marked progress, but below the annual average percentage rate (43%) of women appointed to public boards.  Below the board level, women, particularly African American and women of color, remain underrepresented at the C-Suite levels globally.

There is a plethora of evidence demonstrating that gender and racial diversity on boards lead to better corporate outcomes. Diversity also better insulates companies from reputational and other risks associated with navigating and operating in a complex multicultural world where global growth is driven by emerging rather than developed markets.

Women, particularly, women of color, should continue to add momentum to the trend that is moving more of us onto corporate boards.  Among the most consequential trends are institutional investors and customers voting with their feet and money against all-men boards; the delisting of corporate boards lacking diversity; and, our growing numbers that are projected to put women of color as the majority of all women in the US by 2060.  Without coercion, any sensible CEO with foresight would start building a pipeline of women to rise in the ranks.

What challenges do you see facing business owners in today’s economy?

Beyond the looming recession, the Great Resignation, is a post-pandemic global trend that needs to be addressed.  I have never agreed with those who attribute this trend to stimulus support.  I believe that COVID-19 spurred a great deal of self-reflection. Many people simply realized how unhappy they were with their jobs.  Notably, in the U.S., the enormous gap between the compensation of corporate executives and workers is one-factor driving workforce disruptions.  Other factors include the value Americans are increasingly placing on quality of life.   Instead of blaming stimulus checks, corporations should do a lot of brainstorming and reflection with workers on the work environment, opportunities for promotions, equities in compensation, and work life balance.  I believe that a happier workforce will be a more productive one.   In my small firms, we have appointed team members to work on and assess, with their colleagues, strategies to improve conditions and overall job satisfaction.  This is producing great results.

Is there a single piece of advice that resonated with you throughout your career?

My mother’s advice to “be unstoppable” and “dream big,” was later reinforced for me by Theodore Roosevelt’s famous words “dare greatly” and “critic doesn’t count.”

About the authors

Allison Dembeck

Allison Dembeck

Vice President of Education and Labor Advocacy, Government Affairs, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Allison L. Dembeck is vice president of education and labor advocacy in the Government Affairs Division at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, focusing on education, labor, and workforce development issues.

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