April 2014

Women Entrepreneurs as a Catalyst for Change

by Sarah Thrift on April 6, 2014

Today in America there are over 8.6 million women-owned businesses, contributing nearly $3 trillion to the economy and employing 23 million people. During the recent recession and rise in unemployment, majority women-owned firms continued to create jobs. Women are establishing new businesses at 1.5 times the rate of men and are expected to create over half of the expected 9.7 million new small business jobs between now and 2018.

These trends are not limited to the US. In Europe, 17% of women have either started a business, have taken over one or are planning to start one. In developing countries, female entrepreneurship is also increasing, with approximately 10 million small and medium enterprises owned by a woman. Strikingly, in Ghana, Nigeria and Thailand, women are now creating more businesses than men.

The potential gains from a larger female workforce are significant. In Egypt, for example, if the number of female workers were raised to the same level as that of men, the country’s GDP would grow by 34%. In Japan, GDP would expand by 9%, and in the United States, by 5%.

For all these incredible economic contributions, women business owners are contributing in far more ways than just economically. There is growing evidence that women are more likely to reinvest their profits in education, healthcare and their community. Women are also more likely to start businesses with both social and economic goals or to use their businesses as a way to espouse values and drive behavioral change.

Women Entrepreneurs use their Businesses to Espouse their Values and to Drive Change

Robin Chase is an American entrepreneur, passionate about the role of business and innovation in addressing climate change. She used her skills and passion to co-found Zipcar, the world’s largest car-sharing company, which was sold last year for $500m. She has subsequently set up Buzzcar, where people rent their own cars to others. Robin’s approach has changed car usage across the world, to the benefit of both the economy and the environment. She has also used her position as a successful entrepreneur to influence public policy on transportation and climate change, for example sitting on the Board of the World Resources Institute, the National Advisory Council for Innovation & Entrepreneurship for the US Department of Commerce, and the OECD’s International Transport Forum Advisory Board. She comments that “my eldest daughter jokes that my world lens is predictable: everything comes back to climate change, making better use of resources (sharing!), and innovation as an engine to our future prosperity.”

Anne Githuku-Shongwe is an African entrepreneur and founder of Afroes, a mobile applications company which is cleverly using the power of mobile technology to inform, connect and educate youth across Africa. Afroes works with both businesses and with social development agencies to create content which seeks to inspire the conversations and actions of youth across Africa. It currently has four games accessed by 420,000 youth in ten countries. Learning topics range from life skills – like dealing with gender-based violence and child protection – to environmental sustainability and civic education. Anne describes herself as “committed to seeking innovative solutions to empower Africa’s future leaders including through interactive digital media”. Last year, Afroes was selected as one of the top five innovative and entrepreneurial companies in the world in a Dragon’s Den Competition at the 5th Global Forum on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Roshaneh Zafar set up a microfinance program in Pakistan, with a volunteer workforce of five women. Today the Kashf Foundation has become a wealth management group protecting and managing the resources of its clients. It employs over 1000 staff, has worked with 1.5m families and has disbursed $279 million. Kashf’s work has significantly improved the financial situation of its clients with 85% having increased their income by 30% annually and with households spending 13% more on education and 22% more on healthcare. It has also achieved significant social impact. 82% of its clients report gains in self-esteem thanks to the ability to plan for the future and reduced dependency on others. 42% now see a new future for their daughters.

As Women Business Owners we are in a Privileged Position to Drive Change

These are but a few examples of women pioneering change through their businesses. As women business owners, I know we can all think of many more examples of women we know who are doing amazing things. Whatever our line of business, it is important to remember that we are all contributing to change and are in a privileged position to do so, for example through the opportunities for employment we create and by being a role model to other women and girls.

By sharing our own experiences with other enterprising women, we can catalyze change. Our stories of both success and failure provide invaluable insight to our fellow business owners, helping us all to hone our impact.

I know that I have gained so much from others, both practical advice – such as surrounding myself with the best people possible and not compromising on this – to pure inspiration and admiration at the vision, courage and persistence of my fellow women entrepreneurs.

I’ve also been privileged to work with a wonderful woman in my own team who has consistently encouraged me to trust my intuition and follow my values even if doing so didn’t always seem to make immediate business sense. This has taught me to be true to myself, with the knowing that however small a decision or action may seem to be, if it creates more of the change that we want to see in our world, then it is priceless.