published Friday, October 11th, 2013

Cook: The female capital of the world

The people's choice to win today's Nobel Peace Prize is Malala Yousafzai, the beautiful, blogging 16-year-old girl from Pakistan who survived a school-bus assassination attempt by a local gunman trying to silence her outspoken, enlightenedand very anti-Taliban-esque thoughts on education.

"I know your father is backstage and he is very proud of you," Jon Stewart told her on Tuesday's "The Daily Show." "But would he be mad if I adopted you? Because you sure are swell."

Today, quite wonderfully, is also the United Nation's International Day of the Girl.

"We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world," write Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof in their book, "Half the Sky."

When girls are empowered, educated and allowed to lead, society shifts in profound ways: birth rates drop, economies improve, families heal, ignorance lessens. Empower a girl, the saying goes, and you empower a community.

Through the words of two Chattanooga women, let's explore what that might look like locally.

"There is no reason why Chattanooga can't put its stake in the ground now, and say we're going to be known 20 years from now as the female entrepreneurial capital of the world," said Tiffanie Robinson.

Robinson, director of creative strategies for River City Co., is at the front of a local movement to empower women in the business community. Integral in the formation of the Jump Fund, she and other women are raising an initial fund of $2 million to invest in other women wanting to start or relocate their businesses to Chattanooga.

"No [other city] is putting themselves out there saying, 'Females come here. Females bring your family. Females plan to have your families here.' There are a lot of great young women out there with great ideas," she said.

In the last 16 years, the number of female-owned businesses has increased by 59 percent, a rate 1 1/2 times the American average, says the 2013 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report.

"There are over 8.6 million women-owned business in the United States, generating over $1.3 trillion in revenues and employing nearly 7.8 million people," the report estimates.

The Chamber of Commerce didn't have figures available Thursday on the number of female-owned businesses locally, but did report that more than half of the businesses incubating at the Business Development Center are owned by women.

Which is excellent, exciting and profound.

"Women bring more emotional intelligence to a business team than men do," Robinson said. "Women bring a nurturing sense to the business world that is highly needed."

Nurturing. Emotional intelligence. Business sense. Across town from River City, Summer Elliott -- the girls call her Ms. Summer -- embodies just that.

Elliott, a program coordinator at Girls Inc., works with elementary-school girls, scooping them up for a few hours after school, serving them snacks, helping them with homework, teaching research-based lessons and -- above all -- changing the way they see themselves.

"They are dealing with so much that is so inappropriate at their age," said Elliott, who then began to gently list some of the comments she's heard from girls.

When is dad coming home? Someone is touching me. I'm taking care of my little brother because my mom is working. My mom's not here. I'm staying with my grandmother who's on oxygen or has cancer. Sometimes, I want to die. I'm ugly. My dad hates me.

Besides the lessons she gives on science or how to get a passport or leadership or controlling emotions or what college is like, Elliott, simply, loves these girls.

"The biggest need is having someone who cares about you," she said.

Elliott grew up here, and went to a Girls Inc. summer camp; there she was introduced to the business world. After high school, she went to Carson-Newman University while becoming a Bonner Scholar. She's now working on her masters in organizational leadership, but has returned to the Girls Inc. community that once nurtured her, making her single story a symbol for so much of what is happening across America and the world.

"There is a true shift happening in our economy," Robinson said.

On the day I met Elliott, she'd handed 11 girls from a local elementary school some paper and markers (after their milk and Cheerios) with instructions for a new art project.

"Draw yourself," she told them.

Girls, make your self-portrait big.

Really, really 21st century big.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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