A woman sits with a microphone in front of a USAID banner

Margot Ellis speaking at Venture Day Minsk 2018. / Imaguru

One thing I’ve learned from working at USAID is no matter what the data says, you need to see what’s happening on the ground, too. This proved to be the case in Belarus, where USAID is transforming the business and social landscapes for women.

Last month, our Belarus Country Office Director Victoria Mitchell Avdiu was asked to speak on a panel about women’s representation in entrepreneurship. Current data suggests that gender equality is relatively high in the country. However, at Victoria’s presentation, the room was unexpectedly packed.

On a Tuesday evening in Minsk, nearly 100 young women came to hear guidance about how they could break through the barriers that too often hold working women back. They wanted to know how to build confidence, where to find mentors, and how to pursue meaningful professional paths when there may be few female role models ahead of them.

A combined image of women speaking into a microphone

Victoria Mitchell Avdiu (right) and crowd during Q&A at a Women in Entrepreneurship event. / Imaguru

Do those questions sound familiar? I imagine every woman reading this, no matter what country they’re from, can relate. I certainly can.

During my career in business, I spent some time working in the automotive industry. Like so many women in male-dominated fields, I assumed that I should hide my skills more traditionally associated with women. I had no one around to tell me otherwise. I quickly realized, though, that those very skills – empathy, observation, cooperation, sensitive communication, humor – were actually some of my strongest assets. My instinct was to build relationships.

I learned that embracing my skills and instincts as a woman offered a new perspective in my workplace and demonstrated that I could be an effective leader.

This is an area where the data and on-the-ground experience perfectly align: numerous studies indicate that the participation of women leads to better development outcomes. It’s the reason that one of USAID’s global objectives is empowering women and girls. We need to make sure women have the support they need to not just be included, but to succeed.

In Belarus, USAID provides strong support for women as they gain new opportunities and work to become leaders. New startups in Belarus’s tech and business fields usually have male-dominated teams, with women making up less than 10 percent. In contrast, at USAID-supported startups, women make up more than 30 percent of the teams. In fact, last year more than half of the beneficiaries of our business finance programs were women.

In USAID’s Community Connections Exchange Program, interested Belarusians undergo a rigorous selection process to participate in a short-term exchange to the United States, where they learn about best practices in a variety of professional fields and take part in programs including innovative entrepreneurship, teaching business to youth, and empowering women to resolve community issues. This past year, close to 60 percent of participants were women. In the past decade, over 400 women have benefited from this exchange, gaining new skills from America and returning to become leaders within their home communities in Belarus.

I’m proud of the data coming out of Belarus. But, of course, what often matters most is not just numbers but what’s happening on the ground. That’s why I’m especially proud of who is delivering USAID support in Belarus because we lead by example.

Our Belarus office is unique in that every one of our staff members is a woman – from the director who leads meetings with diplomats and government officials, to the private sector development specialist who supports a better environment for women entrepreneurs, to the administrative assistant who keeps the office organized and helps us accomplish our work.

Regardless of who benefits from USAID’s assistance to Belarus, women have had a hand in that powerful support.

For USAID to fulfill its promise to empower women and girls around the world, we have to look at not just the numbers but also the experience. If Belarus teaches us anything, it’s that women can lead the way.


Margot Ellis is the Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator in USAID’s Bureau for Europe and Eurasia.