“I’d like to talk to you,” the young man demanded. “Sure, have a seat,” I smiled.
I was in Liberia on a USAID consulting assignment. My task was to identify 25 women-led enterprises in the agriculture sector and support them with business training, advisory, and business plans. One hot Saturday I was holding court on the patio of a rural hotel interviewing candidates, and the man had been eying the stream of women who met with me.
“I want to know why you are helping only women. What about men? We need help too.” A stern and lengthy lecture ensued. Despite his ire, it was a fair question.
I explained that it was just good business. The international donor community figured out that when they invest in women, they realize high returns. When women acquire skills and develop incomes, they use more of that money for their families and communities than men do. It pays back nicely in terms of better education and health for their children, as well as reduced poverty. Agricultural productivity improves, and women are far less likely than men to default on loans. An investment in women has a huge multiplier effect, yet they remain marginalized in many ways, including business.
And that’s the fair answer. What’s unfair is that women are systematically excluded from economic opportunities, especially in developing nations.
Operating a business at the bottom of the pyramid is difficult for anyone, male or female. Most owners are “entrepreneurs of necessity” because there are no jobs available. They lack access to capital as well as technical and management skills, and they have little hope of getting help. They live day to day in subsistence mode.
Women face additional hurdles. While more of them are now starting their own businesses, they are doing so in the poor informal sector. Less education puts them at a huge disadvantage. Women-owned enterprises tend to grow slower than their male counterparts. Women also have child-bearing and childrearing responsibilities in addition to running the home. And then there are cultural norms which result in discrimination, subordination, lack of confidence, and restrictions on decision-making and ownership.
The good news is that success stories of women entrepreneurs in developing countries are increasing. We should honor and encourage them. After all, full employment of half the population would pretty much zero out poverty.