Women Entrepreneurs Face Unique Challenges

In June, TechnoServe convened a panel of women entrepreneurs to discuss ways to build success for women in business, from Silicon Valley to Kenya.

Editor’s note: This blog was originally published by Text100

Silicon Valley and Kenya may be worlds apart, but for entrepreneurs they have two things in common:

  • It takes a lot of hard work, time and resources to turn great ideas into game-changing businesses.
  • Whether you’re in The Valley or a village, if you’re a woman, you’ve got a much bigger mountain to climb.

Earlier this week I moderated a panel on the progress of women entrepreneurs. The discussion was organized by the non-profit TechnoServe (where I serve on the board), and focused on building success for women in business.

Many more women are succeeding as entrepreneurs,  and helping others to succeed through support and example. Even so, we’re a long way from equality of opportunity.

Why? Because it’s harder for women all over the world, in so many ways. I’ve seen and experienced this myself, as had all of the women on the panel.

Overcoming barriers

For women, ideas are the easy part. Compared to men, it’s harder to find enough time to build a business. It’s harder to find financing. It’s harder to find great role models. It’s harder to overcome the built-in and sometimes invisible biases in society.

Women are expected to be primary caregivers for children, manage the household and its finances, and be engaged and supportive of the local community. Esta Kamau, Technoserve’s Deputy Regional Director in Kenya, called those demands a “double or triple burden” that creates real conflicts a woman needs to make her business a priority.

There’s also the problem of male dominance in much of African society. Men own and control most of the property and assets, so women who need a loan have little collateral to offer. Even if they can get financing, Esta notes that even well-educated women “are expected to be silent”. So many great ideas may never get the chance to be heard.

In Silicon Valley there are similar roadblocks and biases. Cheryl Contee, the CEO and Co-Founder of Fission Strategy, talked about the lack of childcare resources and maternity leave. These policies present women with choices that they shouldn’t have to make.

While there’s plenty of venture money in Silicon Valley, once again, the purse strings are dominated by men. Not only is it harder for women to get funding, but its even harder if the product is aimed at women.

Halogen VC founding partner Jesse Draper finds it “very frustrating” that male VCs don’t see the value in a female-centric product. This is why her company is focused on funding women entrepreneurs.

Making progress

Part of the reason these problems are so tough to overcome is because they’re entrenched in our society.

Fortunately, we’re making progress thanks to technology, non-profits like TechnoServe, and women like Cheryl, Jesse and Esta who are paying it forward.

For one thing, technology is helping women go around some of the big roadblocks. With a mobile phone, small starter loans are more readily available.

The same mobile connection can provide vital business information and connect women entrepreneurs to one another. The internet offers them the potential of a global market.

From entrepreneurs to role models

Another is role modeling, which is not the same as mentoring. Esta pointed out that role modeling is aspirational; it’s about seeing someone like yourself that you want to become.

Role Modeling has enormous importance in the development of a successful woman entrepreneur. The more women there are who succeed, the more role models there will be; a virtuous circle.

A small but growing number of companies, including Jesse’s, are focused on supporting women founders. In places like Kenya, TechnoServe helps provide collateral for women who need bank-based funding.

Removing these barriers to success isn’t just the right thing to do, it also makes economic sense.

Businesses founded by women have more than twice the return on investment of companies founded by men. 68 cents on the dollar for women versus 31 cents for men.

Women of color often do even better. The average black female entrepreneur raises $40,000 and succeeds “while white men can raise one million and still fail.”

Listening to women like these, I’m excited about the potential for female entrepreneurs to continue to grow and succeed. We won’t eliminate barriers overnight, but the momentum is powerful. The more we believe in and help each other, and the more we demonstrate success, the faster we’ll get there.