Female Entrepreneurship: What Support Programs Should Do (and What They Should Avoid Doing)

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Take a look at the nine points listed below, and think about the various support programs for women entrepreneurs that you may be familiar with. Have you seen these factors before?
  • Ignore gender differences
  • Create curriculum around PowerPoint (Stand and deliver)
  • Emphasis on existing idea or opportunity
  • Use of big business examples
  • Use of industry standards
  • Reliance on banks as start-up funds
  • Primarily including male instructors and speakers
  • Assumptions about firm size
  • Assumptions about linearity of growth

This is a list of what NOT to do when designing and implementing successful support programs for women entrepreneurs, as suggested by Prof. Patricia Greene of Babson College at a recent presentation at the World Bank Group. Her seminar was the first in a series on "Women Entrepreneurs: A New Approach to Growth and Shared Prosperity."

Now serving as the Paul T. Babson Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies at Babson College, where she formerly served as Dean of the undergraduate school and as Provost, Greene offered a fascinating discussion on "Female Entrepreneurs and the Entrepreneurial Eco-system: Gaps and New Approaches," in a session that was jointly organized by three units of the Bank Group: the Innovation, Technology and Innovation Practice (a practice within the Financial and Private Sector Development Network); the Gender and Development Group; and the Africa Region (West and Central).

The discussion provided interesting insights and advice on how to design and, more important, how to scale up such support programs. Scaling up is a critical challenge simply because the scope of the problem is so large. Women entrepreneurs in developing countries are concentrated in low-productivity and informal sectors, characterized by limited growth. As a result, their businesses are unable to grow from micro and small-scale enterprises into medium-sized or large productive enterprises that are able to contribute to national economies in a significant way.

According to the International Labor Organization, 865 million women worldwide have the potential to contribute more fully to their national economies, with 94 percent of them (812 million) living in emerging and developing economies. Empowering the growth of female entrepreneurship, especially women who lead firms with significant growth potential, would lift millions of people out of poverty, create jobs, increase incomes and have important spillover effects that would lead to greater economic, social and household empowerment. Women entrepreneurs now are an untapped source of potential national and regional productivity gains.

The discussion also raised some important questions. Consider, for example, the first point, suggested in the above list of things not to do: to ignore gender differences. How do we operationalize engendering a program beyond just separating the women from the men? Prof. Greene emphasized the importance of delivery methods or appropriate role models that can inspire the women who are participating in the program. But should the business education components also be adapted to women? Is a primary focus on so-called "soft skills," such as learning to network in male-dominated sectors, more critical for success? More important, to what extent do social norms have an impact on the choices available to and the preferences of women entrepreneurs? What role can our programs play in changing these norms?

The next discussion in this series at the Bank Group, on April 29, will explore these issues in deeper detail with Rohini Pande, the Mohammed Kamal Professor of Public Policy and the Director of Governance Innovations for Sustainable Development Group at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Another intriguing element on the list that Greene offered is the assumption of linear growth and, more generally, the definition of success in the context of the program. This issue is especially important for programs focusing on growth or high-potential women entrepreneurs, where firm growth is one of the most important indicators of success. How should we envision growth for women-led businesses? Should it be different from any other business? This critical question, which is important as evaluators measure programs' impact, will be the topic of continuing discussion throughout the seminar series.



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