Building a Culture that Supports Women Entrepreneurs

Supporting entrepreneurship in the developing world has long been considered one of the best approaches to “teach people to fish” and build sustainable local economies. In recent years, studies by the United Nations, World Bank, and others have shown that women entrepreneurs are more likely to contribute to community development than men, and are therefore better candidates for support programs. In the words of rock star/activist Bono: “Give a man a fish; he’ll eat for a day. Give a woman microcredit; she, her husband, her children, and her extended family will eat for a lifetime.”

Many programs have focused on providing access to capital, building needed infrastructure, and revising legal and regulatory requirements to make business ownership a more viable option. While these factors are critically important for entrepreneurs to thrive, there is one more issue that successful programs need to address: building an entrepreneurial culture.

Without a culture that supports entrepreneurship, women don’t perceive it as an option. Learning to fish requires something even more basic than bait, nets, or an adequate supply of fish. It requires that there be water. An entrepreneurial culture is the body of water that must exist in order for fishing to begin.

There are three dimensions to building a culture that supports women’s entrepreneurship in the developing world:

  • Education and training
  • Access to support and information networks
  • Family and community support

When all three of these dimensions are addressed, entrepreneurs can flourish. But when any one of the elements is missing, the others alone may not be sufficient for women entrepreneurs to succeed.

Education and Training

Providing business education and entrepreneurial training is often the central component of economic development programs, and is essential to successful efforts. Many training programs focus on teaching women the technical skills needed to operate a specific business, such as manufacturing handcrafts, producing food or beauty products, or raising dairy or wool animals.

But in many areas of the developing world, women have received little or no formal education, and what schooling they have often focuses solely on literacy. Needed areas of added learning are typically basic business skills such as bookkeeping, budgeting, supervision, marketing, and sales, as well as understanding the legalities of starting a business, and obtaining localized information about access to markets and sourcing materials, inventory, or qualified workers.

The needed learning doesn’t end there. The European Commission 2004 report, How to Create an Entrepreneurial Culture, explains that education is not only necessary in business skills, but also in “the development of personal qualities that are relevant to entrepreneurship, such as creativity, spirit of initiative, risk-taking, and responsibility.”

Business skills can often be taught in a classroom or workshop setting, and through internships or apprenticeships, but skill-building in areas such as initiative, risk-taking, effective communication, and leadership qualities may require mentoring, experiential learning, and peer support, as described further below.

Access to Support and Information Networks

A key element for the success of any entrepreneur is the availability of mentorship and peer support. Studies by the U.S. National Commission on Entrepreneurship revealed that the most successful entrepreneurs are “embedded in a supportive system that includes networking opportunities with other entrepreneurs” and “links to mentors and role models.”

Mentors and entrepreneurial peers can provide general business advice, suggest specific solutions, make connections to influential people, recommend resources, and share best practices. Role models can inspire by example, encouraging prospective entrepreneurs to follow what may be a non-traditional path.

Mentorship and support networks can be significant for men and women alike, but evidence suggests that for women, they are critical. According to Joan Steitz, a UNESCO laureate at Yale University, “We cannot expect to capture the interest and talents of girls and women… unless they can view their own participation as possible.” Women often need to see other women operating businesses before they will choose entrepreneurship for themselves.

A fundamental component of successful women’s entrepreneurship programs is that they provide access to mentors, peers, and role models through structured group activities, formal mentoring partnerships, or informal networks of students, graduates, and other women in the community.

The most effective programs offer regular gatherings where participants can share success stories, seek solutions to common problems, reinforce newly-learned skills, and experience a sense of partnership and camaraderie. These meetings continue well beyond the initial training period, to provide ongoing support as the women’s enterprises grow.

To help women improve the personal skills that bolster entrepreneurship — risk tolerance, self-confidence, and powerful communication, for example — support groups like these can be a more effective method of skill-building than classroom education. With the continuing encouragement and example of their peers, women become more confident about their enterprises, increase their self-esteem, learn to lead others, and are better able to withstand opposition and setbacks.

Family and Community Support

The final dimension to building an entrepreneurial culture can be the most difficult to achieve. If family members and community leaders oppose women launching business ventures, this can be a persistent barrier. Values, attitudes, and cultural attributes in many areas of the world can prevent policymakers from taking the necessary legal or financial action to support women entrepreneurs. Opposition from husbands, fathers, in-laws, and religious and political leaders can discourage women from choosing entrepreneurship or sabotage their efforts.

One approach to building support for women’s entrepreneurship is to provide evidence to community leaders of how other communities have benefitted. In areas where women have been able to launch successful entrepreneurial ventures, communities see a dramatic improvement in living standards. Not only are the women’s families better fed and housed, but their children receive more education, and the family’s health improves. When political and religious leaders learn of these tangible potential benefits, they can often be persuaded to change their views.

Another effective strategy is to educate family members. Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, overcame initial opposition to offering microcredit to Bangladeshi women in this way: “We started meeting with the husbands and explaining the program in a way where they could see it would be beneficial to their family. And we made sure to meet with husbands and wives together so everyone understood what was expected.”

A third successful avenue is to encourage women to speak out for themselves. Bolstered by seeing other women’s success and participating in peer support groups, Yunus says, “Women started confronting the religious people. They said, ‘You think taking money from Grameen Bank is a bad idea? Okay, we won’t take any more — if you give the money yourself… And of course the religious advocates said, ‘No, no, we can’t give you money.’ So that was the end of that.”

Building an Entrepreneurial Culture

To teach women entrepreneurs how to fish, it’s clear that simply handing out fishing equipment isn’t enough, nor is it effective to teach basic fishing skills and then walk away. Entrepreneurs need the ongoing guidance of experienced fisherwomen, as well as the companionship of other novices. They also need to live near a body of water where fishing is not only permitted, but encouraged.

Creating this environment is the critical task of entrepreneurial development programs. But many programs have focused only on skills training, neglecting the social support elements that enable entrepreneurs to thrive. According to the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship, the essential attributes of an entrepreneurial support organization are:

  • They place primary focus on entrepreneurs rather than the enterprises they create.
  • They build a support system that nurtures entrepreneurs during the idea phase, provides the resources and tools needed to create new enterprises, and guides the entrepreneur through the process of growing a business.
  • They contribute to the creation of entrepreneurial environments where entrepreneurship is supported in both the public and private sectors.

The hallmark of a successful program is that it offers support to the entrepreneur instead of just to her business. Program elements such as peer support groups, mentoring partnerships, and community outreach provide a nurturing social environment for fledgling entrepreneurs.

Supporting all three dimensions of entrepreneurial culture — education and training, access to support and information networks, and family and community support — should be an essential goal of every entrepreneurial development program. With this three-faceted approach, advocates of women’s entrepreneurship will create an environment where women business owners can thrive.

Copyright © 2007, C.J. Hayden. All rights reserved.

This article was written for the Accelerating Women Entrepreneurs project of FLOW: Liberating the Entrepreneurial Spirit for Good, and has not been published elsewhere. If you would like to print it in your publication, please contact me for details and permission.