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I recently visited the small villages nestled in the mountains between Oaxaca and Veracruz to meet with women entrepreneurs running small forestry, toymaking, ecotourism and coffee businesses. I went to hear first hand their experiences starting businesses and taking on leadership roles in their communities. I also wanted to understand the challenges faced by them and generations of women to come.
Oaxaca is a beautiful state, pulsing with life, culture, traditions, and rich cuisine. Indigenous groups make up 40 percent of the population and 16 languages are spoken in the area. It holds 111 pueblos mágicos that the tourism ministry has singled out for their historical and cultural uniqueness. Yet, Oaxaca lags the rest of Mexico by many measures of economic success. It is among the poorest states in the country, with significant income inequality, and with a private sector that still needs to be more competitive both within Mexico and the world to be able to grow and create more jobs.
Empowering women and unleashing the potential of female entrepreneurs can make a big difference in Oaxaca. Women that run businesses and take on leadhership roles in their communities are powerful agents of change—they increase jobs, contribute to growth and improve quality of life for their families and communities.
Too often women aren’t given the opportunity to succeed in business. In Latin America, as in many other parts of the world, women generaly run enterprises that are smaller, less formal, and less profitable than those men own or run. Across the region, women also export and import far less than their male counterparts. Mexico—and Oaxaca—are no exception.
In Latin America, about 75 percent of female entrepreneurs operate in consumer sectors - many running small subsistence shops. In 2014 alone, Mujeres Moviendo México, the first large-scale training program for women entrepreneurs in the country, trained 10,000 women in the states of Aguascalientes, Mexico, Guanajuato, Queretaro and Mexico City. The training included technical and managerial skills—such as calculating costs, setting prices, marketing and sales strategies. There were also modules on behavioral skills to enhance personal initiative, proactivity, self-starting behavior and persistence. Preliminary results from our evaluation of the program indicate that women who took the training increased their weekly profits by 10 percent. Women who established or ran businesses in male-dominated sectors like manufacturing, agribusiness and high technology services made profits 230 percent higher than women who established or ran businesses in traditionally female sectors like small retail or basic services. A 230 percent increase in profits is a life-changer for women and their families.
I came to Oaxaca to meet the women doing this despite living in indigenous communities governed by customs and traditions that have generally excluded them from the decision-making process. They run or own businesses in the male-dominated forestry, manufacturing and coffee sectors. In the past few years, some have become members of the committees deciding how to use communal resources such as forests, agricultural lands and ecotourism resorts. Women’s participation in these committees is a radical change as men have long been the sole decision makers on communal assets. For several years, the Bank has supported the development of sustainable forestry management, local communal governance structures and social improvements in these villages. Our programs have contributed to diversifying the local economies, shifting from full dependency on logging to the development of complementary activities such as furniture production and ecotourism. These businesses are small but full of potential for growth.
In village after village, confident women presented clear, well-informed strategies for their businesses and communities. Some have degrees in biology, accounting or forestry management. They are full of pride for their lands and communities. They explained the challenges of communal businesses and working in environments still largely dominated by men with a unique mix of determination and ingrained patience. They explained that it is critical for them to have better access to local and international markets – especially finding out where buyers are and how to contact them. They all seek credit to grow their businesses. They also talk about strengthening their leadership roles in the community, having the power to make independent decisions about their businesses and ensuring that more women have active roles in making and influencing community decisions. Several mentioned how hard it is to balance their roles in business and as community leaders with caring for their families. They told me that all they really want is “to be given a chance and be accepted as equal.“ As I listen to them, I know that – if given a chance – they will succeed.
Men still dominate most meetings - both in numbers and because they speak first and with a clear sense of authority. In a large representatives assembly in an Ixtlan mountain community, I struggled to find a single local woman in the audience. I asked men about the womens’ contributions to decision-making. Their answers were telling. “They bring a different perspective and help us make better decisions,” said one.
Another said “several women work or run firms that process wood. They are more precise than men; the furniture that they make is of higher quality…Girls are now studying to be administrators, accountants, and forest managers,” he said. “They return to our communities with university degrees, they know how to use computers and contribute to improving our family and community businesses. This was unthinkable ten years ago.”
Driving back to Oaxaca City along a winding road nestled between beautiful forests, I felt optimistic about the prospects for businesswomen in Mexico and across the world. The women I met are still an exception in the indigenous villages of Oaxaca, a very traditional state. But if women can start and run businesses in male-dominated communities and sectors here, they can do it anywhere. Women can be the engines of change for accelerating economic growth and improving the quality of life—not only in Mexico but also across Latin America and the Caribbean. The World Bank Group must redouble its efforts to help them do it.
Empowering women and unleashing entrepreneurship