Opinion: 3 ways to empower women entrepreneurs

Nanjawule Allen opened the Bright Angel Nursery School on a small piece of her family’s land in Mukono, Uganda after participating in the Strengthening of Rural Youth Development Through Enterprise program, a partnership between TechnoServe and The MasterCard Foundation to create sustainable economic opportunities for more than 60,000 youth in East Africa. Photo by: TechnoServe

When Nanjawule Allen was growing up in central Uganda, her parents could not afford to send her to school past the age of 14. With few options, she eventually took on a role that was common for women in her community: that of housewife and mother. But with just her husband’s income, life was difficult for Nanjawule and her family. “At times, my children could fall sick and we could not afford their medication,” she said. Ten years after she left school, she decided to start a small business.

As we celebrate Global Entrepreneurship Week, this year the world is paying particular attention to female entrepreneurs such as Nanjawule. That’s because entrepreneurship is an important avenue of economic advancement for women. And when women entrepreneurs have opportunities to succeed, it benefits whole communities. Women often identify needs and opportunities (especially those that benefit women and families) that their male counterparts do not; women are more likely to reinvest their incomes in their families; and women entrepreneurs create more women-friendly workplaces.

But women entrepreneurs often face a number of unique challenges.

So, how can the international development community support them? Here are three key ways:

1. Engage men, too.

If your goal is to empower female entrepreneurs, it may seem logical to work exclusively with women. However, we have found that capacity building initiatives work better when they engage men, too. Because of longstanding gender inequality, male entrepreneurs typically enter training programs with larger networks of contacts and — in general — better access to resources, and mixed-gender training better allows women to access those resources from their peers.

Such training can also change the attitude of male participants, making them more open to accepting women as potential business partners.

In many situations, it is also helpful to reach out to the participants’ families or husbands, because it provides an opportunity to explain the tangible benefits to supporting the entrepreneurs’ aspirations and ultimately makes it easier for women to access family resources for their businesses.

The U.S. Agency for International Development also notes that this kind of engagement is an opportunity to prevent backlash, including gender-based violence, towards women as a result of their economic empowerment.

2. Make recruitment and selection welcoming to women.

Because women entrepreneurs often face more difficult economic and social circumstances, the playing field for selecting participants in a training program is not level. Special care has to be made that the recruitment and selection process are welcoming to women entrepreneurs. To identify candidates, we often work with organization such as Vital Voices that support female owners of microbusinesses and can recommend those participants that would benefit from further training. The photographs and language used in marketing materials can also send clues to women about whether they would be welcomed into the program.

At the selection stage, it is important to have both women and men on the selection committee and to provide them with guidance about recognizing their possible gender bias and limiting its impact on their selections. In Central America, we also use a checklist to evaluate the extent of female leadership in a business, asking under whose name the business is registered, who is authorized to sign contracts, and who signs the business’ cheques.

3. Build connections with successful women entrepreneurs.

No one understands the challenges facing women entrepreneurs better than other women entrepreneurs. Through training, mentoring and networking, we can help to build connections between rising female business owners and their more established peers. On the outskirts of Kampala, one young woman who had recently started in the tailoring business said, “My mentor is someone who you can talk to when you have a problem, and she helps you solve it … She’s like a mom.”

We invite these experienced entrepreneurs to lead training sessions, for example, on negotiation. Where the technology allows, online platforms are also an efficient way to support networking between entrepreneurs.

The effect of this kind of support can be enormous — not only for the entrepreneur, but also for her community. That was the case with Nanjawule. She enrolled in a training program provided in partnership between The MasterCard Foundation and TechnoServe and realized that there was a business opportunity in her town: opening its first nursery school for the many young children in the community. With a small amount of cash from her husband, she launched the school that now provides educational opportunities for several dozen children and a sustainable source of income for her family.

There are millions of Nanjawules out there, waiting for an opportunity to transform their livelihoods, their families and their community. By providing the right kind of support, we can help unlock that potential.

Over three weeks, Devex will explore how the development sector can work together to promote inclusive local, and sustainable approaches to development. Global to Local will reimagine how to work together to address a myriad of interrelated challenges, pivoting toward more connected and crosscutting approaches to solving global problems. Join the conversation, tagging @Devex and #Global2Local.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Juan Carlos Thomas

    Juan Carlos Thomas is the global director of entrepreneurship at TechnoServe, where he leads the development and deployment of best practices in the support of entrepreneurs and small-and-growing businesses in the organization’s projects throughout Latin America, Africa and India.