Supporting Women Owned Businesses – 6 lessons I learned


Today’s discussion at The Urban Institute on what works in supporting women owned businesses provided a number of clear lessons, directions and priorities. It told us a number of things that we need to learn more about. Six lessons I have learned.

There is much knowledge about what works in providing finance, training, and mentoring female entrepreneurs. If well designed, and addressing specific gender constraints, they can help women’s skills and capabilities. But the impact of single-sector interventions is small: women face many different constraints, and integrated approaches (thus) are more likely to be effective – but also more costly per person. Relatively little is known about how businesses grow in a sustainable manner.

Moreover, women entrepreneurs don’t operate in a vacuum, and a wider set of stakeholders need to be brought into this conversation about women’s economic empowerment. There are many legal constraints that constrain women’s empowerment, directly or indirectly influencing their opportunities to start or grow businesses. Trade in principle provides opportunities for women’s enterprises, but in practice women are disadvantaged. Equally, public procurement provides enormous opportunities for businesses, but the way procurement is implemented means women and small businesses tend to be excluded from these opportunities.

The growing interest in the private sector to promote inclusion provides new opportunities, and knowledge on these is only now emerging. A growing number of companies have committed themselves to purchasing from women-owned businesses; lessons are now emerging on the successes and failures and complications in doing this, and the need for helping women entrepreneurs preparing for this.

There is a critical question around what works for what type (including size) of enterprises. On one end of the spectrum, and representing a very large proportion of women workers in the global South, own-account workers face extreme vulnerabilities, and are excluded from most of the opportunities that markets and governments provide (also, broader labor markets trends are key particularly for the survival type of activities). There are very important – but few – examples of women’s organizations and market facilitators that may help to bridge this gap.

Almost everybody highlighted the need for more and better data, and commended the recent commitments by the Gates Foundation and others to deepen investments. Data needs are diverse though. To make women’s work visible, countries need to invest in labor force surveys. For practitioners looking to make market connections to, or facilitate public procurement for smaller enterprises, better enterprise data is needed. Data like GEM’s on female entrepreneurs is growing rapidly, but still available, for example, for only a small proportion of African countries. Existing data, particularly in the field of business, need to be interrogated on deeply ingrained gender biases.

And finally, there was a strong emphasis on not isolating the question of female entrepreneurship from broader questions of gender inequality. Many of the constraints for entrepreneurship are broader gender constraints: access to collaterals, gender based violence, lack of safe transport etc. Entrepreneurship choices (where these exist), and even choices between a wage job and starting small businesses are directly informed by women responsibilities for households and care.


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