Young women entrepreneurs: Are we ready for this emerging economic force?

Women during an entrepreneurship seminar by the Institute of Development Studies and Practices. Photo by: IDSP

Many women in developing countries want to enter the formal economy. Typically, they have three options: joining family businesses, working as employees at someone else’s business, or striking out as entrepreneurs to start their own businesses.

Regardless of their preference, they face many of the same challenges: limited access to cash and credit, business development services, markets, networks and mobility; cultural traditions and taboos that limit the types of work they can do and the extent to which they can work alongside men; child care and family responsibilities; and insufficient technical and business skills. These and other obstacles stand in the way of women trying to gain a foothold in business.

Much has been researched and written about these challenges, and many approaches to overcoming them have been attempted, with varying degrees of success.

In rural areas, the literature is replete with poultry raising, jam making, embroidery, tailoring, carpet weaving, handicrafts, bee keeping and other activities that are low on the value chain and labor-intensive, and that work within the spatial confines it is believed women can maneuver. Indeed, when asked, women often specifically request training in these areas. Years of experience and numerous studies lead me to believe that these requests are largely based on what women see other women doing, not on what young women want to do themselves. Women are simply unaware of other options.

So women gravitate to — or are led to — starting or expanding micro-businesses that produce something, like eggs or jam or carpets. While common sense tells us that not everyone has the interest or aptitude for growing, sewing or producing something, development projects tend not to provide many options, especially if target groups specifically request something traditional. Too often, these projects are undertaken without sufficient market research or quality control, resulting in an overabundance of similar products of low quality with neither a sufficient domestic market nor any chance of export to ensure success or sustainability. These types of projects are primarily implemented in rural areas, where even young women with some education are viewed as unable to do much else.

For a growing number of young women in urban and peri-urban areas, however, both options and aspirations are multiplying. In many countries, women are staying in school longer, marrying later, having fewer children — and choosing more contemporary occupational paths. Even within this group, women face traditional forces encouraging them to work within family businesses, stay close to home, not work with men, and not travel. Increasingly, however, courageous women are breaking the traditional template.

One of the paths such women are choosing is employment in an existing entity in the public or private sector. This makes sense since not everyone is a natural entrepreneur, and a job ensures a regular paycheck. Typically, the pay is low, benefits are minimal or nonexistent, workplaces are not “female-friendly,” and neither corporate nor government policies recognize the needs of female employees. Oftentimes, male co-workers also make the workplace unpleasant for women.

Among women with an entrepreneurial spirit — and those who simply won’t put up with the difficulties of working in a male-dominated office — many are aspiring to build their own business.

One interesting change among female entrepreneurs is the beginning of a shift from producing something to providing a service.

Working in gender over a recent five-year period in Afghanistan, I was able to talk with women from many parts of the country. I kept track of what young, inexperienced but educated and ambitious women wanted to do with their lives, and I stayed current with research on related topics. All the women I met wanted to work, whether married or not. Even after having a child, women wanted to return to work. And the majority of women wanted to work in the service sector.

Many wished to open an orphanage, school, clinic or some type of humanitarian enterprise, which, in a poor, war-torn country, is understandable. But the array of services that women wanted to provide was rich and diverse. The following illustrates the modern thinking about careers among many young, primarily urban women with some education:

• Establishing driving schools for women.

• Providing taxi or transport services for women.

• Starting culinary academies and catering services, especially for the extensive wedding market.

• Providing gardening or landscaping training, leading to the establishment of landscaping companies, flower shops, greenhouses servicing florists, et cetera.

• Starting secretarial schools with a placement service.

• Opening businesses in a wide range of information and communications technology.

• Establishing gymnasiums and providing professional exercise training.

• Starting highly professional beauty schools and salons.

• Establishing law firms, accounting companies, dental offices et cetera, where professionally educated women could provide services.

• Cutting and polishing gemstones and other services in extractive industries.

• Providing entertainment services, such as bands for weddings and parties.

• Starting party planning companies.

• Setting up tourism businesses as guides or managing hotels.

• Establishing laundry and cleaning services for hotels, guest houses and offices.

• Starting travel agencies.

• Providing translation services.

• Running media companies working in print, radio or television.

• Opening psychology or mental health clinics.

• Opening veterinary clinics.

• Starting English language schools.

• Establishing equipment repair companies dealing with computers, mobile phones and other electronics.

• Opening public baths for women.

• Becoming turn-key wedding businesses, providing marriage halls, catering, flowers, entertainment, wedding dresses et cetera.

These women want to provide services within their own country, where they know a market exists. Among the many challenges they will face, perhaps the greatest will be competing with men, who own and run the businesses in the areas of interest to women.

The support that women need will differ from the traditional micro-, livelihood or income-generation activities that have helped rural women with little or no education; it will also differ from the high-level international networking and sales conventions for businesswomen leaders. The young women described here represent a relatively new demographic, which requires a different type of support to help them overcome not only traditional obstacles but new challenges as well.

These women are ready. The question is whether the international development community is ready to assist.

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She Builds is a month-long conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Creative Associates, JBS International as well as the Millennium Challenge Corp., United Nations Office for Project Services and U.K. Department for International Development.

About the author

  • Mary fontaine devex

    Mary Fontaine

    Mary Fontaine is the gender practice lead of JBS International. She is an award-winning technical gender specialist with more than 20 years of residential development experience in the Near East, Middle-East and South Asia. She has lived and worked in director-level positions in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran and Pakistan, and has brought shorter-term technical expertise to programs in East and West Africa, Eastern Europe and the Balkans. She serves on the board of directors for Women for Afghan Women.

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