“I’d like to talk to you,” the young man demanded. “Sure, have a seat,” I smiled.
I was in Liberia on a USAID consulting assignment. My task was to identify 25 women-led enterprises in the agriculture sector and support them with business training, advisory, and business plans. One hot Saturday I was holding court on the patio of a rural hotel interviewing candidates, and the man had been eying the stream of women who met with me.
“I want to know why you are helping only women. What about men? We need help too.” A stern and lengthy lecture ensued. Despite his ire, it was a fair question.
I explained that it was just good business. When women acquire skills and develop incomes, they use more of that money for their families and communities than men do. The investment pays back nicely in terms of better education and health for their children, as well as reduced poverty. Women are also far less likely to default on loans. An investment in women has a huge multiplier effect, yet they remain marginalized in many ways, including business.
And that’s the fair answer. What’s unfair is that women are systematically excluded from economic opportunities, especially in developing nations.
I help entrepreneurs in developing countries develop business skills. Operating a business at the bottom of the pyramid is difficult for anyone, male or female. They are called “entrepreneurs of necessity” because there are no available jobs and the only way to make a living is to sell something on their own. These microenterprises lack access to capital as well as technical and management skills, and they have little hope of getting help.
Women in poor countries face additional hurdles. While more women are starting their own businesses, they are doing so mostly in the informal sector. Little or no education puts them at a huge disadvantage. Women-owned enterprises tend to grow slower than their male counterparts. Women also have child-bearing and child-rearing responsibilities in addition to running the home. Additionally, they face cultural norms which result in discrimination, subordination, lack of confidence, and restrictions on decision-making and ownership.
There is reason for optimism, however. According to the 2017-18 Global Entrepreneurship Monitoring (GEM) study, women entrepreneurs from lower-income countries tend to be more confident about their abilities and have less fear of failure than those from higher-income countries. While only three countries of the 48 studied showed female entrepreneurship rates equaling or exceeding male-owned enterprises (interestingly, Ecuador, Vietnam, and Brazil), the global female-to-male entrepreneur ratio has increased by 6%.
The good news is that success stories of women entrepreneurs in developing countries abound. We should honor and encourage them. After all, full employment of half the population would pretty much zero out poverty.
Mobile: +1 973.801.4582
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