Women-to-Women Business Fund Comes to Britain

A women-to-women investment fund is coming to Britain next month to boost financing for female-owned businesses, its founder said Thursday, as efforts grow to close the gender investing gap.

SheEO has lent more than $2 million to 32 female social entrepreneurs in the United States, Canada and New Zealand to grow their businesses since 2015 in an attempt to address a global gender investment gap.

“Most of the people writing checks and investing are men,” founder Vicki Saunders told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “SheEO wants to fund female innovators with great ideas to create stronger communities and a better world.”

Support for female entrepreneurs

It is the latest venture to support female entrepreneurs around the world, who often face more obstacles than men, including a lack of access to finance, business networks, international markets and role models.

Three out of 10 U.S. businesses are owned by women but they only receive $1 in investment for every $23 that goes to male-led businesses, the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee found in 2014.

A Goldman Sachs-World Bank Group partnership to provide capital to women entrepreneurs in emerging markets reached $1 billion in investments in May.

How it works

SheEO brings together 500 women each year who contribute $1,100 each, which they pool and lend, interest-free, to five women-led businesses of their choice.

The loans are paid back over five years and then loaned out again, creating a perpetual fund that SheEO hopes will grow to $1 billion, with 1 million investors supporting 10,000 women-led ventures.

More than 300 women in Britain wrote to SheEO asking it to launch there, Saunders said ahead of a visit to London where she hopes that 500 female investors will come on board.

Workplace gender equality is in the spotlight in Britain, where just 6 percent of the biggest publicly listed companies are headed by women and pay disparities were revealed at major institutions last year.

Twenty One Toys founder Ilana Ben-Ari, one of the first to get SheEO funding in 2015, said it changed her business, enabling her to push ahead with production and hire staff to help with a stressful workload. Her revenue has now doubled.

“It was easy to get my foot in the door and have a meeting but it was near impossible to have a serious conversation about my business,” she said, describing her efforts to get financing from venture capitalists. “Halfway through that meeting you find out — this isn’t a meeting, this is a date.”

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Data Project Aims to Stop Human Trafficking Before It Occurs

Computer giant IBM Corp., financial services company Western Union

Co. and European police launched a project Thursday to share financial data that  they said may one day be able to predict human trafficking before it occurs.

The shared data hub will collect information on money moving around the world and compare it with known ways that traffickers move their illicit gains, highlighting red flags signaling potential trafficking, organizers said.

“We will build and aggregate that material, using IBM tools, into an understanding of hot spots and routes and trends,” said Neil Giles, a director at global anti-slavery group Stop the Traffik, which is participating in the project.

Data collection, digital tools and modern technology are the latest weapons in the fight against human trafficking, estimated to be a $150 billion-a-year global business, according to the International Labor Organization.

The U.N. has set a goal of 2030 for ending forced labor and modern slavery worldwide, with more than 40 million people estimated to be enslaved around the world.

Certain patterns and suspicious activity might trigger a block of a transaction or an investigation into possible forced labor or sex slavery, organizers said.

The project will utilize IBM’s internet cloud services as well as artificial intelligence and machine learning to compare data and to spot specific trafficking terms, said Sophia Tu, director of IBM Corporate Citizenship.

With a large volume of high-quality data, the hub one day may predict trafficking before it happens, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“You can’t do it today because we’re in the process of building out that amount of data and those capabilities, but it’s in the road map for what we want to do,” she said.

While law enforcement is teaming up with banks and data specialists to chase trafficking, experts have cautioned that it can be a cat-and-mouse game in which traffickers quickly move on to new tactics to elude capture.

Also, less than 1 percent of the estimated $1.5 trillion-plus laundered by criminals worldwide each year through the financial system is frozen or confiscated, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

Along with IBM and Western Union, participants include Europol, Europe’s law enforcement agency; telecommunications giant Liberty Global; and British banks Barclays and Lloyds, organizers said.

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US Stocks Slide on Saudi Arabia, Italy Concerns

U.S. stocks fell more than 1 percent on Thursday as the European Commission issued a warning regarding Italy’s budget and concerns mounted about the possibility of strained relations between the United States and

Saudi Arabia.

S&P 500 technology stocks fell more than 2 percent, as did the tech-heavy Nasdaq.

Wall Street’s major indexes pared early losses in morning trading but reversed course to fall further as European markets closed. Italian bond yields jumped after the European Commission deemed the country’s 2019 budget draft to be in breach of EU rules.

U.S. stocks declined further after U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin pulled out of an investor conference in Saudi Arabia as the White House awaited the outcome of investigations into the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“It’s a function of a lot of things coalescing into a concern,” said Mark Luschini, chief investment strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott in Pittsburgh. “The market continues to struggle in the aftermath of the bigger drawdown a week ago.”

Mnuchin’s decision sparked worries of potential strain in U.S.-Saudi relations, especially if Saudi leaders were found to have been involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance. Investors raised concern that if Saudi Arabia were sanctioned, it could restrict oil supply, prompting a rise in energy prices.

Shares of military contractors such as Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Co. also fell on concerns that U.S. lawmakers may block arms deals with Saudi Arabia.

U.S. stocks had opened lower as weak earnings reports from companies such as Cessna business jet maker Textron Inc. and equipment rental company United Rentals Inc. raised concerns about the impact of tariffs, climbing borrowing costs and rising wages on corporate profits.

Textron shares fell 10.8 percent and United Rentals shares sank 14.7 percent, while Sealed Air Corp. shares slid 8.7 percent after the packaging company cut its full-year profit outlook because of higher raw material and freight costs.

Worries about rising interest rates following Wednesday’s release of the Federal Open Market Committee’s minutes from its September meeting also pressured U.S. stocks.

“The market is coming to grips with the reality that the Fed may make financial conditions a little tighter than they originally thought,” said Paul Zemsky, chief investment officer of multi-asset strategies and solutions at Voya Investment Management in New York.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 417.17 points, or 1.62 percent, to 25,289.51; the S&P 500 lost 47.59 points, or 1.69 percent, to 2,761.62; and the Nasdaq composite dropped 168.31 points, or 2.2 percent, to 7,474.39.

Among the few bright spots was Philip Morris International Inc., which rose 3.4 percent after the Marlboro cigarette maker topped analysts’ estimates for quarterly profit and sales.

Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by a

3.72-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 3.43-to-1 ratio favored decliners.

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Russian Firms Test Non-Dollar Deals to Sidestep US Sanctions

Several major Russian companies are exploring ways to do deals abroad without using dollars, spurred on by a U.S. threat to broaden sanctions that have impeded access of some Russian firms to the international banking system.

The Kremlin has been pushing companies to conduct more deals using other currencies to reduce reliance on the dollar.

Russian Alrosa, the world’s biggest producer of rough diamonds in carat terms, said it had completed a pilot deal with a Chinese client using yuan in the summer and another non-dollar transaction with an Indian client.

Other companies working on similar transactions include energy firm Surgutneftegaz, agricultural company Rusagro and miner Norilsk Nickel.

Russia’s central bank said this week the amount of non-dollar dealings was growing, with the share of rouble settlements in the Russia-China and Russia-India goods trade now between 10 and 20 percent.

The share was higher in the service industry, it added.

But there are limits to how much business can be shifted.

Major companies still rely heavily on dollar deals and most of Russia’s foreign earnings come from oil sales priced in dollars.

In addition, foreign banks with major U.S. activities may still be wary of business with any entity under U.S. sanctions even if transactions are not in dollars, bankers say.

The United States and its allies imposed sanctions on Russia in 2014 over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. Washington said in August more measures could follow, after accusing Moscow of using a nerve agent against a former Russian agent and his daughter in Britain.

The new steps, which could be announced in November, may target dollar dealings, U.S. lawmakers have said.

Speed helps

One challenge facing companies dealing in the rouble is the Russian currency’s volatility. Between April 6 and 11, after Washington imposed sanctions on Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska and some of his companies, the rouble lost almost 13 percent of its value against the dollar.

Alrosa said it avoided the fluctuation risk by completing the Chinese deal in a day. U.S. dollar deals tend to take longer due to associated compliance checks required.

“An increase in the speed of operations is an advantage in such an operation,” the company said in an emailed statement.

Alrosa did not give a value for its China and India deals but said the Chinese buyer had bought a lot at its auction of diamonds of 10.8 carats or larger in Hong Kong. Alrosa data indicates that its lots are on average worth about $100,000.

Alrosa said the banker for its Chinese deal was Shanghai office of VTB, Russia’s second-largest bank. An industry source, asking not to be named, said Russia’s biggest bank lender Sberbank worked on the Indian deal.

VTB and Sberbank declined to comment.

The Chinese client settled its purchase in yuan, which VTB converted into roubles and transferred to Alrosa.

“We carried out the transaction itself in one day, in several hours,” Alrosa said, adding that on this occasion the currency move was in the client’s favor.

No currency hedging was required because of the speed of the deal, the company said, but the client had to open an account in VTB’s branch in Shanghai to complete the transaction.

Alrosa said it was also considering settlement for future deals in Hong Kong dollars, adding that other Chinese clients had shown interest in non-dollar transactions.

Non-dollar limits

But there are limits on how much of Alrosa’s business can switch to other currencies. China accounts for just 4 percent of its sales, while India accounts for 17 percent.

Among initiatives by other Russian firms, Surgutneftegaz has been pushing buyers to agree to pay for oil in euros instead of dollars, Reuters reported in September.

Russian farming conglomerate Rusagro told Reuters that some of its trading operations were in yuan and said this would increase with the expansion of business with China.

Russian nickel and palladium producer Norilsk Nickel said it was discussing the option of rouble payments with foreign customers which have rouble revenue, although it said it had not secured deals under those terms.

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Rural Americans Struggle with Poor Broadband Access

Even in the country that invented the internet, access has remained painfully slow for many rural residents in places like the central state of Arkansas, far from the big cities of the East and West coasts. That may be about to change.

The Federal Communications Commission — a government agency — recently auctioned off almost $1.5 billion in subsidies to get broadband providers to serve an additional 700,000 American homes over the next 10 years. Additional such auctions are planned.

For rural residents in Arkansas — ranked as one of the worst connected states in the country — it cannot come too soon.

“Remember dial-up?” That’s how Ashley Vaughan responds when she’s asked to describe her internet speed at home. She’s a resident of Pangburn, Arkansas, a town of about 600 people. After leaving the area for a few years, she returned in 2015.

​”[Internet speed is] still as crappy as it ever was,” Vaughan said. “I was trying to watch Hulu [a streaming network], and my husband was trying to load a webpage at the same time, and neither of them worked.”​

Rural areas

The issue of poor broadband access — defined by the FCC as fewer than 25 megabits per second (Mbps) — is not uncommon. Almost 20 percent of the American population, or 60 million people, live in rural areas, which generally experience the least connectivity in the country. 

Of those, around 15 million Americans have access to less than 10 Mbps.

In Vaughan’s case, she says her internet speed is only 0.05 Mbps. She’s called her internet provider to complain, but was told her service was the best available where she lives.

To get around the problem, many communities have sidestepped big companies and created municipal networks. Individually, some people spend extra on portable broadband access for their phones.

That slow speed doesn’t just mean fewer shows watched or video games played. It also impacts Vaughan’s son’s schoolwork, which increasingly requires use of a computer. Vaughan describes an instance in which her son took hours to download a single textbook, preventing anyone else in the house from using the internet during that time.

Many households in the U.S. have been wired for DSL, or digital subscriber lines, permitting the transmission of high-speed internet data over telephone lines. Meanwhile, most suburban and urban areas have seen the installation of fiber and copper cables, providing faster service. But many rural areas have been left behind.

“Fiber lines are expensive to install, and older copper lines are expensive to maintain,” said Jameson Zimmer, a broadband analyst with BroadbandNow, a data aggregation company based in Los Angeles.

On average, Zimmer says, it can cost tens of thousands of dollars to run fiber lines, depending on the complexity of the terrain and the length of the line. This means there are fewer internet providers willing to take on that financial burden — giving consumers fewer options.

 “What to do about this is overwhelming,” Zimmer said.

Legislative push

It’s a problem that both Republican and Democratic party leaders are working to solve.

U.S. Senator John Boozman of Arkansas has been one of the leaders in the push for legislation broadening access to high-speed internet.

In an email to Voice of America, Boozman wrote that investing in affordable, high-speed internet would strengthen the American economy. He applauded President Donald Trump for signing an executive order earlier this year to expand broadband access into rural areas but said the issue needs attention from “all levels of government.”

“There is a sense of urgency in the need to close the rural broadband gap. Today, reliable connectivity is just as essential as traditional infrastructure like roads and bridges,” Boozman wrote. “I’ve seen students sitting in the back of pickup trucks outside of schools in order to access the internet to complete their homework.”

Alisha Summerville feels that urgency. She’s a co-owner of the online store ASK Apparel, which launched last year and is based in Pangburn. Even though she relies on her smartphone to do most of her work, the store earns $10,000 to $15,000 a month from online purchases and sells to customers in 18 states.

The store earns an additional $5,000 to $10,000 through a brick-and-mortar store in the neighboring town of Heber Springs, but Summerville says the company was set up to serve online shoppers and it encourages foot traffic to become online traffic.

“That’s where business is going,” Summerville said of internet sales.

Summerville says she takes her internet connection into consideration every single time she makes a decision — from marketing and design to the equipment she uses. Having better broadband access at home would mean she could accomplish a lot more.

“When your internet is down, so is your business,” Summerville said. “When I’m thinking about internet, and I’m thinking about sales, I’m thinking about how much further we could reach.”

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Facebook’s Election ‘War Room’ Takes Aim at Fake Information

In an otherwise innocuous part of Facebook’s expansive Silicon Valley campus, a locked door bears a taped-on sign that reads “War Room.” Behind the door lies a nerve center the social network has set up to combat fake accounts and bogus news stories ahead of upcoming elections.

Inside the room are dozens of employees staring intently at their monitors while data streams across giant dashboards. On the walls are posters of the sort Facebook frequently uses to caution or exhort its employees. One reads, “Nothing at Facebook is somebody else’s problem.”

That motto might strike some as ironic, given that the war room was created to counter threats that almost no one at the company, least of all CEO Mark Zuckerberg, took seriously just two years ago — and which the company’s critics now believe pose a threat to democracy.

Days after President Donald Trump’s surprise victory, Zuckerberg brushed off assertions that the outcome had been influenced by fictional news stories on Facebook, calling the idea ”pretty crazy .”

But Facebook’s blase attitude shifted as criticism of the company mounted in Congress and elsewhere. Later that year, it acknowledged having run thousands of ads promoting false information placed by Russian agents. Zuckerberg eventually made fixing Facebook his personal challenge for 2018.

The war room is a major part of Facebook’s ongoing repairs. Its technology draws upon the artificial-intelligence system Facebook has been using to help identify “inauthentic” posts and user behavior. Facebook provided a tightly controlled glimpse at its war room to The Associated Press and other media ahead of the second round of presidential elections in Brazil on Oct. 28 and the U.S. midterm elections on Nov. 6.

“There is no substitute for physical, real-world interaction,” said Samidh Chakrabarti, Facebook’s director of elections and civic engagement. “The primary thing we have learned is just how effective it is to have people in the same room all together.”

More than 20 different teams now coordinate the efforts of more than 20,000 people — mostly contractors — devoted to blocking fake accounts and fictional news and stopping other abuses on Facebook and its other services. As part of the crackdown, Facebook also has hired fact checkers, including The Associated Press, to vet new stories posted on its social network.

Facebook credits its war room and other stepped-up patrolling efforts for booting 1.3 billion fake accounts over the past year and jettisoning hundreds of pages set up by foreign governments and other agents looking to create mischief.

But it remains unclear whether Facebook is doing enough, said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters For America, a liberal group that monitors misinformation. He noted that the sensational themes distributed in fictional news stories can be highly effective at keeping people “engaged” on Facebook — which in turn makes it possible to sell more of the ads that generate most of Facebook’s revenue.

“What they are doing so far seems to be more about trying to prevent another public relations disaster and less so about putting in meaningful solutions to the problem,” Carusone said. “On balance, I would say they that are still way off.”

Facebook disagrees with that assessment, although its efforts are still a work in progress. Chakrabarti, for instance, acknowledged that some “bugs” prevented Facebook from taking some unspecified actions to prevent manipulation efforts in the first round of Brazil’s presidential election earlier this month. He declined to elaborate.

The war room is currently focused on Brazil’s next round of elections and upcoming U.S. midterms. Large U.S. and Brazilian flags hang on opposing walls and clocks show the time in both countries.

Facebook declined to let the media scrutinize the computer screens in front of the employees, and required reporters to refrain from mentioning some of the equipment inside the war room, calling it “proprietary information.” While on duty, war-room workers are only allowed to leave the room for short bathroom breaks or to grab food to eat at their desks.

Although no final decisions have been made, the war room is likely to become a permanent fixture at Facebook, said Katie Harbath, Facebook’s director of global politics and government outreach.

“It is a constant arms race,” she said. “This is our new normal.”

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US Again Declines to Label China a Currency Manipulator 

The Trump administration has again declined to label China a currency manipulator, but says it is keeping China and five other nations on a watch list.

“Of particular concern are China’s lack of currency transparency and the recent weakness in its currency,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in his biannual report to Congress.

“Those pose major challenges to achieving fairer and more balanced trade and we will continue to monitor and review China’s currency practices, including thorough ongoing discussions with the People’s Bank of China,” he said.

Mnuchin said China — along with Germany, India, Japan, South Korea and Switzerland — would be placed on a list of countries whose currency practices require what the report calls “close attention.”

Governments manipulate currency by keeping the exchange rates artificially low to make its goods and services cheaper on the world market. 

But that puts trading partners and others at a disadvantage. President Donald Trump promised throughout the campaign to label China a currency manipulator once he got into office, but so far he has declined to do so.

Instead, Trump has imposed tariffs on billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese imports to address what he says are unfair trade practices and the trade deficit.

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