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August 19 2019

Manisha Singh

by Charlotte Hays

 

When Manisha Singh was named to serve as the U.S. Department of State’s Assistant Secretary of Economic and Business Affairs in 2017, she began a period of intense preparation for her Senate confirmation hearings.

It was, of course, just the kind of thing you’d expect of a woman who graduated from college at the age of 19, speaks fluent Hindi, and holds a prestigious Certificate in law from the University of Leiden in The Netherlands.  

While boning up for the hearings, Singh (who ultimately was unanimously confirmed) made a discovery that startled her. She explains, “I wanted to be very well-prepared and do the background and the homework.  I wanted to talk to predecessors in this position.  I knew a couple of my immediate predecessors, and I started going back and I went to the beginning. This position was created in the 1940s or so here at the State Department.  I went all the way back.  There was not a single woman who had been confirmed for this position.”

“I thought, wow, it’s 2017 and this is an Assistant Secretary level spot,” she tells IWF. “It’s an economic position.  It’s an important part of the department.  And I was the first woman nominated.  And I thought how could that be?  How could that be the case?  I had taken it for granted that by 2017, at some point, there would have been a woman in this job.  And that made me realize that I don’t ever want to take it for granted that other women have the same opportunities that I do.  I want to make sure that every woman at least has the platform, the opportunity to succeed, to be in a leadership position.  So, that’s where my focus on women’s economic empowerment came from.  Women’s economic empowerment is important to me personally, and it’s important to societies.”

This insight has led Singh, whose State Department portfolio is extensive, to make the economic empowerment of women a key part of her job. She works closely with Ivanka Trump on the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity initiative, W-GDP, which is directed at women in developing countries, and on an initiative that is her own brainchild, Providing Opportunities for Women’s Economic Rise (POWER), which focuses on women entrepreneurs in the U.S. who can benefit from exposure to overseas opportunities.

Singh, whose State Department portfolio is extensive, is making the economic empowerment of women a key part of her job. She works closely with Ivanka Trump on the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity initiative, W-GDP, which is directed at women in developing countries, and on an initiative that is her own brainchild, Providing Opportunities for Women’s Economic Rise (POWER), which focuses on women entrepreneurs in the U.S. who can benefit from exposure to overseas opportunities.

“We are excited to be a part of the White House’s W-GDP initiative,” says Singh. One of the reasons that we in the Economic Bureau are so involved with it is because it is an economic initiative. I think we all know that studies, global studies, domestic studies, have shown that when women participate fully in the economy – when they are a part of the labor force – economies prosper.  As the head of the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, for me that was the perfect opportunity to plug into a greater White House initiative that we thought was going to be very successful. W-GDP is about women’s access to capital, about resources, about training.  It really is about teaching people to fish rather than handing them a fish.  It’s giving women the ability to succeed on their own. 

“The novel part of POWER for me – is that it is going to connect to U.S. women entrepreneurs to opportunities in other countries.  When I travel to all of the different capitals around the world, I try to meet with women entrepreneurs, women business owners, and the common theme that I always heard was they want to expand their businesses beyond their own global domestic economies into the international space. They’d love to come to do business here in the U.S.  Similarly, I met with women’s business organizations here in the U.S., and they said we’ve done well in the domestic market and now we’d like to expand internationally. Maybe there’s a common thread and, if we can build networks and connect these women entrepreneurs in different countries with actual opportunities, they can help each other build and grow the network.”

“When we had our first meeting,” she recalls, “one of the women there was from a venture capital company in Europe that specifically tried to fund women’s enterprises. She said she wanted to fund women’s ventures, but few of them go to the pitch competitions. And then we have other women entrepreneurs who are looking for funding so we can connect them to her and they can at least make their pitches and be heard.  And maybe women’s enterprises will be funded at the same rate as other enterprises. That is what we hope to accomplish with POWER.”

For her outstanding work in providing opportunities for women, IWF honored Secretary Singh at a Champion Women Celebration at the White House in July. The afternoon event featured remarks by presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway, presentation of an award by IWF Board Chairman Heather Higgins and a discussion of women’s empowerment by Singh and U. S. Treasurer Jovita Carranza (who was also honored).

“There is so much energy out there in the women’s business community,” Singh.  “We just need to provide them with the right platform.  I know so many women who have ideas in the STEM fields, in science and technology.  Yet if you look at the major Internet companies, or major technology companies, Facebook, Amazon, LinkedIn, everything, Twitter – they are all started by men.  And I thought well, okay, we’re just, we don’t have the right platforms because how can it be that women’s ideas are not getting us as far as men’s ideas? When I know for a fact that they have great, you know, we have great ideas.  So that’s kind of where POWER came into being.”

“My parents were your classic immigrant story,” she says. “They wanted to come to this country because it is not just the greatest country in history but because it is the greatest idea in world history. I think the idea of America is that, when we all come together, we can succeed as a society.  When we buy into the American idea, we all move forward. My parents always impressed upon me how lucky we were to be in this country, and that is partly the origin for my interest in public service.”   

Singh was born in Uttar Pradesh in India and moved to the United States with her parents when she was two years old. She grew up in Lake Alfred, Florida, a small town near Winter Haven. Her father was a research professor at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, a research extension center in central Florida. “My parents were your classic immigrant story,” she says. “They wanted to come to this country because it is not just the greatest country in history but because it is the greatest idea in world history. I think the idea of America is that, when we all come together, we can succeed as a society.  When we buy into the American idea, we all move forward. My parents always impressed upon me how lucky we were to be in this country, and that is partly the origin for my interest in public service.”   

Singh loved growing up in a small town. “We were quickly absorbed into the community,” she recalls. “I did all your traditional Florida things. I was on my high school tennis team.  And I try to still play, although I was much better back in the day.  And I was on the swim team.  So, it was the tennis team and the swim team, which is very, very Floridian.  And the only thing I didn’t do that most Floridians do is play golf.” 

She was an outstanding student, who finished high school at the age of 16 and went on to college. “It didn’t occur to me that I was young,” Singh says. “I was just kind of working and doing what I wanted to do. And before you know it, I was graduating from college.” She graduated from the University of Miami (where she also picked up conversational Spanish). But why stop there? She has a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Florida and a Master of Laws (LLM) from the American University College of Law. While working towards her LLM, Singh worked at the Office of General Counsel at the U.S International Trade Commission. To top it off, she completed a Certificate at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands.

She explains this last choice: “The University of Leiden is just north of The Hague, which is where the International Court of Justice is. It’s a famous international law destination. So, I thought it would be great to live overseas and learn international law at the University of Leiden, which is known for its international program. I wanted the experience of living abroad, understanding not just the laws and policies of the different countries, but how people think and function.”

Singh’s academic credentials may sound intimidating, but in person she is friendly and always makes the person to whom she is talking feel important. She is not all work. Singh is an accomplished amateur photographer. Her interest in photography developed after her father gave her a camera for Christmas and she subsequently took photography courses. “I’m an aspiring photographer,” she admits. “Actually, I’m not too bad a photographer.” She likes scenic photos and had a website of her photos before joining the State Department. Singh says she would love to devote more time to photography but there’s the demanding job.

Singh has another, perhaps surprising, avocation: short story writing. “Most of my writing is – as you can imagine – official. But when I have down time I’d like to pursue more writing in fiction.” She hasn’t the time to pursue publication but gives her stories to friends to read. Some, as you might imagine, deal with the economic lives of her characters.

Singh has another, perhaps surprising, avocation: short story writing. “Most of my writing is – as you can imagine – official. But when I have down time I’d like to pursue more writing in fiction.” She hasn’t the time to pursue publication but gives her stories to friends to read. Some, as you might imagine, deal with the economic lives of her characters.

“One of my favorite short stories I wrote after the financial crisis,” she tells IWF, “and it dealt with the effect the crisis had on the lives of people. Just how were people trying to get their lives together?  And so I created this fictional couple where the husband is laid off from his job at the end of the financial crisis and he’s not able to find work. It creates a strain on their marriage. I tried to develop his character and capture what he goes through. He’s in his 50s and he’s now looking for a job and he’s not trained in building websites.  He was a construction worker. He’s not going to be a technology person.  And, you know, the idea that everybody can be a part of the Internet economy it doesn’t always work.  And, so, I developed this character as looking for jobs. They are about to lose their house and then they hear that the banks are getting a bailout. They don’t understand that.  Like why are these big banks getting a bailout?  And I can’t find a job? I want to show their emotions that they go through, everything they felt.”

“I hope he finds a job eventually,” IWF interjects.

“He did,” Singh replies. “There was a happy ending.  He did find his job at the end and everything works out okay. But you go through all the pain with him and understand what he went through. And just what people must have felt like during that time.”

In a way, the story shows how the Assistant Secretary is able to relate economic policy to the lives of individuals. “My primary job is as a policy maker,” Singh explains. “There are different components to the job, but I like to think it is primarily making foreign policy for the Executive Branch.  As the head of the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, I serve as the key economic policy – or international economic policy – advisor to the Secretary.  I look at decisions or situations in the world and some areas I have statutory responsibilities.  For instance, I handle sanctions policy.  I handle investment screening for the U.S. government, trade policy.” 

“All of the things that you hear about in the news -- trade, investment, commerce -- all of those things fall under my purview,” she continues. “I take a look at what’s going on—some of it is what’s coming out of the White House that the State Department needs to provide opinions on, and I give the Secretary my input.  ‘Mr. Secretary here’s what I think on this trade policy measure.  There are sanctions coming down, here’s what we should do or not do on sanctions.  On investment measures.’  I look at what other countries are doing.  Is there another country that is enacting a rule that is going to be detrimental to U.S. industry?  Well, if so, then we need to be aware of that.  Should we do something about it?  Should we act diplomatically? 

“We looked at intellectual property threats from around the world,” she says, “but China really is our focus right now because before, it used to be, well the Chinese are taking software or, you know, music recordings, movies, trademarks, and all of that is bad.  But now we have gotten to the point where the Chinese are looking at future technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, things that are going to directly affect our military security.” 

“Perhaps I can go have a conversation with my economic counterpart in another country to say that this is going to adversely affect our companies.  You shouldn’t do it. Should we use an international forum to solve international disputes?  Primarily my job is as a policy advisor on international economic policy to the Secretary of State and then the Secretary, of course, ultimately advises the President on what action the Executive Branch should take.”

One of Singh’s areas of expertise is the very-much-in-the-spotlight-now issue of intellectual property rights. “I think one of our biggest threats right now on the economic front is coming from China,” Singh says, “and that is because China is stealing our intellectual properties.  China is forcing technology transfers.  I was at the State Department ten years ago in the Bush Administration as well.  And we looked at intellectual property threats from around the world, but China really is our focus right now because before, it used to be, well the Chinese are taking software or, you know, music recordings, movies, trademarks, and all of that is bad.  That affects our companies very negatively.  It affects their bottom line, and therefore it affects American workers.  But now we have gotten to the point where the Chinese are looking at future technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, things that are going to directly affect our military security.  The President’s national security strategy states that economic security is national security.  And we need to make sure that we are using our economic tools in the interest of national security.”

Does the Assistant Secretary offer advice on sanctions?

“Yes,” she replies. “I do in conjunction with the Treasury Department.  The State Department and the Treasury Department have joint authority on sanctions. We feel that sanctions are an effective tool to shape and change global malign behavior.  When it comes to actors like North Korea or, for instance right now in Venezuela, where we are trying to get the Guaido regime, the elected government, the legitimately elected government, in place, we are using sanctions to change the behavior of these regimes that are global bad actors.  And we think sanctions are an effective tool because military force should be only a last resort. We want to be able to do things diplomatically through economic pressure the best we can.”

As you can see, the Assistant Secretary’s portfolio is the world. But for Manisha Singh, sometimes it all comes back to Lake Alfred, Florida. Manisha Singh loved to ride her bicycle to the Lake Alfred post office as a girl. She fondly remembers doing so. She stopped by the PO on a visit home in the last year. The postal clerk behind the counter recognized the visitor.

“I didn’t know her, but she knew me,” Singh recalls. “She knew my parents and she said ‘Are you visiting from Washington?’  And I said ‘Yes, ma’am, I am.’  And she said ‘Your parents are so proud of everything you’re doing in Washington, all of the great work.’ And I said ‘Well, thank you so much.’ And it brought tears to my eyes because this is somebody at the local post office, who clearly knew my parents and knew who I was. It brought back the memory of riding my bike up to the post office, the same little post office, twenty-thirty years earlier.”

Singh’s joy in making her family and her small town proud is indeed a quintessentially American story, making our country—and our entire world—a better place for everyone.





Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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