In 2014, a group of about 20 women came together in Hanoi, Vietnam to found the ASEAN Women Entrepreneurs Network or AWEN. Headed by a strong leader named Madame Nguyen Minh Thi Tuyet, we formed friendships with like-minded women leaders from the 10 ASEAN member-states. After two years, the Philippines headed AWEN and I noticed, every other member had two or more business groups headed by equally headstrong ladies, and I had to think of a creative way to manage these women. Some were candidates for government positions or as we say, political leaders, while others were dyed-in-the-wool entrepreneurs leading businesses in renewable energy, consumer retail and manufacturing.
How do you manage a diverse group of women leaders? Let them all have a voice, was my thought bubble. We then thought of a coalition for every country, grouping three to five or more organizations under one umbrella. We formed the Philippine Women’s Economic Network or PHILWEN. With PHILWEN’s SEC papers tucked under my arm, we trooped to Cambodia and sold the idea of a coalition to the Minister of Women Affairs. She listened and as they say, the rest is history. They formed CAMWEN or the Cambodia Women Economic Network.
Meanwhile, to promote networking with other member states, we organized seminars and conferences and invited everyone to the ASEAN Summit in Manila. The women were very pleased as they met former President Fidel Ramos or FVR, they sat with Vice-President Leni Robredo and met many dignitaries, along with Joey Concepcion’s group handling the ASEAN BAC or Business Advisory Council. Joey hosted us at his residence where our AWEN delegates met our business community with MAP members, the diplomatic corps and Philippine business community.
After our chairmanship of AWEN, Thailand took the reins until and during the pandemic, which led us to virtual meetings and fewer than usual face-to-face sessions. All along, we (PHILWEN) would represent AWEN in ASEAN BAC’s Joint Business Council meetings as our Filipino colleagues would always invite us to these important sessions.
What are these meetings about and how does one manage such groups? ASEAN works on policies and though it is not a very speedy process, things get done to benefit member-states as long as you understand the ASEAN framework.
As managers, we have to be mindful of cultural differences even if we are similar in looks and even if we can just speak English (ASEAN’s official language) and get away with speaking in idioms. We need to check if they actually understand what we are saying by checking back and putting ideas on paper.
Though we share many commonalities, like products, agriculture and even what songs and movies we patronize, much meaning is lost in translation. So we need to manage groups by being more prudent when we speak and more mindful of other people’s understanding of our tone and voice.
In a recent trip to Indonesia, the hosts and visitors agreed on everything when the music was played and everyone was asked to dance. There is a “dance” in the figurative sense of the word, too. Like courtship, we gently glide into the conversation and not haphazardly make declarations that may cause discussion failure. And no agreement can be reached despite both parties’ wanting to agree or agree to disagree. In the ASEAN way, tread lightly. This is why caution is the key.
In managing one ASEAN, we have to look at the benefits of coming together. We appreciate policies, like the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (AFTA) allowing the flow of products from one country to another in the region. At a recent coffee conference where the European Union Deforestation Regulation was discussed, the ASEAN members in the conference simply agreed. We will sell to ASEAN if other countries are giving us a difficult time to enter their shores. ASEAN for ASEAN became the battle cry as the conference came to a close.
When you meet groups from other ASEAN member-states, engage them in a healthy discussion built on cooperation and change in policies for everyone’s benefit in the region, not elsewhere. As the ASEAN Coffee Federation (ACF), we are now sought by international coffee organizations because we have two producer-countries that can move the needle in global coffee production (Indonesia and Vietnam). Should these two countries stop coffee exports, many global importers will cry foul. That is a powerful stance ASEAN can take.
In the women’s groups, AWEN is poised to make sure that PHILWEN and other coalitions will make a positive change in regional policies toward gender equity, equality and women’s rights in free markets. The region will listen to its women leaders and give a voice not only on social issues but on economic issues as well.
So how do we manage ASEAN? We work together with our coalitions and deliver the influence to make regional commerce more viable and prioritize trade among ourselves. Only when we do this can ASEAN mean anything to our business, our community and our country.
You can join regional associations as a manager, as an entrepreneur or as a professional. There are many ASEAN groups like AWEN and ASEAN BAC, and you may find a group or coalition for your sector, so everyone can leverage ASEAN’s mighty power as a unified and united force.
Chit U. Juan is co-chairperson of the MAP Environment Committee and a member of the MAP Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. She was AWEN chairperson from 2016 to 2018 and is now a PHILWEN trustee and member of AWEN’s Advisory Council. She is also first vice-president of the ASEAN Coffee Federation.