Women Entrepreneurs: The Key to Global Economic Development
  • Architects of Change

09/2/09 | Gayle Tzemach Lemmon | 3 Comments

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Author

When I began writing about women entrepreneurs in post-conflict countries with a trip to Rwanda in 2005, no one thought there was a story.  I tried to mine government workers and international agency officials on the ground for interview ideas, only to be told that there were not enough small businesswomen in the country to make my trip worthwhile.

They were wrong.

What I found in Rwanda, and later in Bosnia and Afghanistan, was a small but growing group of female entrepreneurs building the kinds of businesses that stimulate economies and put people to work. I met a group of women weavers in Rwanda selling their baskets to Macy’s, and I visited a textile company near the former front lines of Sarajevo employing more than two dozen women. With little fanfare and even less support, these women were marshaling resources to run the enterprises so critical to supporting families and to lifting their countries out of poverty.

In speaking with these businesswomen about the opportunities and the challenges presented by their work, I realized the importance of supporting women entrepreneurs in post-conflict countries.

Why is it so important to support them?

  • Conflict leaves many women at the helm of their households for the first time.  As breadwinners, they must find a way to support themselves and their children on their own.  Entrepreneurship is one way to accomplish this.
  • Reaching women means reaching children.  With more income, women are likely to ensure that girls, as well as boys, receive an education. Education is the surest way to lift a country out of poverty over the long-term. By educating both sexes, the positive impact of education is that much greater.

There are many reasons to support women’s economic empowerment, but it is easier to envision than to implement.  And while many organizations try to support women’s initiatives, few succeed.  This comes in part from an aid system focused on short-term results rather than long-term investment.

What women entrepreneurs need most is

  1. Access to information.  Women are often not connected to the business networks through which information flows and contacts and connections are shared.  When women find a way to share their know-how and their skills, their businesses benefit.
  2. Access to markets.  Finding markets for the goods women produce is a challenge, particularly in landlocked and remote countries such as Rwanda and    Afghanistan, where shipping costs can far outweigh potential profits.  Connecting women entrepreneurs with interested customers provides a long-term boost to the women’s businesses, with the possibility of creating long-term sustainability.
  3. Access to capital.  Finding the dollars needed to grow their businesses is  difficult for many women entrepreneurs, most of whom have little in terms of  collateral or a prior track record of business achievement, both of which are  critical parts of securing a bank loan.  Tools such as loan guarantees and  women-focused financial products can help women get around the barriers  presented by a lack of available investment capital.  Microfinance is another excellent first step for many, with microloans providing the funds to get a small  venture started.  The challenge, however, comes when the business succeeds  and the necessary investment amounts grow larger; here in this “missing middle”  there are few tools to help women make the transition from micro-enterprise to  full-fledged small business.

What is certain is that women entrepreneurs are playing a vital role in rebuilding their countries and are poised to contribute even more.  Already, with little assistance and often limited resources, women entrepreneurs from Rwanda to Bosnia to Afghanistan are doing their part for their nation’s economic reconstruction.  Their work creates jobs and spurs growth, and it is part of helping their nations reap the benefits of the talent and potential of all -- not just half -- of their citizens. 

Aziza, Afgani entrepreneur & founder of Muska Ball and Leather Making Company
Aziza, Afgani entrepreneur & founder of Muska Ball and Leather Making Company

Recent news coverage of women entrepreneurs in underdeveloped countries:

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a former ABC News producer who began writing about women's entrepreneurship during her second year of MBA study at Harvard. She currently is working on a book to be published by HarperCollins in 2010 about a young entrepreneur who supported her family and her community during the Taliban years.

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  • This is great info - and a great question above. My nonprofit group is about to embark on a small micro loan program as there are many women in the village we work for who are entrepreneurs. My boyfriend and I personally funded a friend living in Victoria Falls who had a good small business concept - I'll keep you posted as to how that goes... Also the beautiful bracelets that are being made in South Africa with the Do Ubuntu Orphan Bracelet campaign (http://www.orphanbracelet.org/) absolutely amazing contribution and a beautiful - wearable product. For ladies here who love to support companies like Gaiam.com or World of Goods - you can now shop at these conscious companies while having a percent of your sale benefit women and family projects of the Jabulani Village Zimbabwe. Got to: http://shop.napafrica.org/shop and have your shopping dollars help get water, preschool, community garden and micro loan projects off the ground.

    Thanks again and can't wait to see you all at the conference!!!

    Mire Molnar
    2 booths: Piece of My Heart Productions + NAP Africa

    Posted by MireMolnar, 23 September 2009.

  • I see women entrepreneurs are much more organized and devoted to company development. I loved this post. Will surely be back soon.

    Posted by utopiabacklinks, 21 September 2009.

  • Thanks for this article. I am curious who are the leading thought leaders regarding moving international women's entrepreneurship up to its next level so that it can embody full business success, connection to markets, etc. The shoes I am wearing right now come from a women' coop in South Africa. (They just happened to be available at my local shoe store.) I'd love to know who's leading the way in the area of financial sustainability for these women, our sisters. Thanks Gayle for the story. Maura Conlon-McIvor, Ph.D., Portland, OR and NY.

    Posted by maura Conlon-McIvor, 3 September 2009.