IWD 2014: Empowering women entrepreneurs is good business

Thursday, 6 March 2014 14:53 GMT

A Zimbabwean trader sells fruit and vegetables at a rural marketplace outside the capital Harare, April 5, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

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Empowering women in developing economies is critical, and not just because it is fair and desirable that every human being should be able to seek an opportunity to fulfill their true potential. In many cultures, women also play a key role in ensuring family, and even community, welfare.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, “Equality for women is progress for all” is a great rallying cry – highlighting that it is in everyone’s interest to empower women and ensure they have the same economic, social and political chances as their male counterparts.

In developed economies we often think of the barriers to gender equality thrown up by wage gaps, glass ceilings and the representation of women on business boards and in our political systems. But we look less often at the obstacles faced by women who work on their own, who launch and run their own businesses – and the opportunities this route gives women to thrive and set their own goals for success. 

When we think of female entrepreneurs the success stories that come easily to mind are the high-profile women like Net-a-Porter founder Natalie Massenet, designers Cath Kidston and Victoria Beckham or television mogul Oprah Winfrey.  They are role models for thousands of young female entrepreneurs who are keen to make their idea or vision a reality – be it in technology, agriculture or fashion – as well as women who work out of their family home to make ends meet.

Studies conducted by Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) reveal that women are just as likely to see the opportunities and benefits of entrepreneurship as men, but they’re less confident that they have the necessary capabilities and the right network to set up their own business. Evidence suggests that women are more cognisant of – and held back by-- fear of failure.

This, in part, explains why men are more actively engaged in entrepreneurship in 60 of the 67 countries studied by GEM.

 In countries like the UK, where I live, female entrepreneurs are the exception, not the majority – a small but growing band of women who choose to strike out on their own.  In the developing world, where opportunities for formal employment are far fewer and further between, it is a very different story. There, millions of women work diligently to run tiny businesses – farming, running a small shop or selling their skills, perhaps as a cook or cleaner, to a number of local clients. 

The supply chain for SABMiller includes thousands of women like these, whose ability to develop their businesses gives security to their extended families.  They often play a key role in their local communities, assured by the knowledge that they have a contracted customer for their goods and services. The highest levels of female entrepreneurial activity are in Sub-Saharan Africa, involving 27% of women, and Latin America and Caribbean, with 15%. 

Empowering women in these developing economies is critical, and not just because it is fair and desirable that every human being should be able to seek an opportunity to fulfill their true potential. In many cultures, women also play a key role in ensuring family, and even community, welfare.

 Businesses run by women in developing countries are often family businesses in the true sense of the word. They are set up with advice and financial support from relatives and in turn provide family members with a steady revenue stream and jobs.

In Latin America – where SABMiller has been operating for over two decades – we have put in place a programme to empower tenderos (small shop-keepers), who account for the majority of our sales in the region. The programme provides them with access to micro-credit, as well as training and advice so that they can scale up their business.

We are working with 40,000 tenderos across six countries, 65% of whom are women, often from the poorest social classes. Two-thirds of micro-credit funds go to women, who are proving that they are often more timely and responsible in paying back loans than men in the same geographic region.

The benefits of the programme are felt beyond the individual or business level – empowering women to seize these economic opportunities can translate into very real social and development opportunities for the rest of the community.

The real transformation is what you can’t quantify in numbers:  the self-esteem and confidence these women gain after the programme finishes is long-lasting and provides inspiration to others.  By scaling up their small business, these women are able to increase their range of goods, which leads in turn to increased sales, and many are able to help send their children to university.

 SABMiller strongly believes that women entrepreneurs are the key to unlocking significant economic value in the poorest communities around the world.  But they can only do so if they have the necessary support to overcome the numerous obstacles they face. It is incumbent on all of us – including the private sector, governments and civil society – to ensure that women in the most remote and poorest regions are able to fulfill their true potential.

By working together, we can achieve business and social goals, while empowering women to improve their livelihoods.  And it’s my hope, that we’ll see more and more women in every part of the world take their future into their own hands, building enterprises that challenge traditional ways of doing business and enrich our communities, wherever they are.  

 --Catherine May is Corporate Affairs Director at SABMiller, a multinational brewing and beverage company based in London