“It takes a village to raise a business” is my rendition of the popular proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” As a woman who has been building a dried fruit processing and distribution business for the past seven years in Nigeria, nothing has accelerated its growth- financially and otherwise - more than my growing network. A robust network builds the social capital that can lead to greater collaboration and credibility, funding and emotional support for female entrepreneurs.
There is an assumption that networking is an innate skill, but in my experience, it’s a case of “practice makes perfect.” When I first started my business, I was extremely shy about telling people what I did. I lacked confidence in telling my story and often avoided talking about my business because I feared it was too small and not worth discussing. This fear of judgement, mixed with a heavy helping of impostor syndrome, made me shy away from the positive force that would subsequently have a huge impact on my business’ growth. As I started to overcome the fear, I noticed that people enjoyed hearing my stories. People are drawn to stories that are honest and teach them about experiences they didn’t previously have. More often than not, people want to help where they can.
Networks are immensely valuable where there is shared value to be exchanged. Research drawing on data from Ghana, Malawi, Togo, and Uganda in the World Bank’s new Profiting from Parity report on women’s entrepreneurship suggests that women and men use their networks differently. Women’s business networks are mostly comprised of other women and are smaller than that of men. In the early days of entrepreneurship, I only felt comfortable engaging with people I had a relationship with and was averse to meeting and connecting with people I didn’t know well. I was uncomfortable with being “transactional” and believed I had to develop strong rapport with people to ask for their time and/or advice. However, I learned that people are approachable and not offended by direct requests.
Women need to optimize their use of networks to meet their key needs. Networking is time consuming and can become a distraction if one isn’t deliberate. First, women should target networking events which are segmented based on criteria such as stage of business, company size, and industry. I don’t believe generalist networking events have much impact. Being part of the 2018 Cohort of the Stanford University Program for Entrepreneurs in Developing Economies (SEED) has exemplified this for me. The network is comprised of entrepreneurs who are at a similar stage of maturity in terms of size, revenues and growth prospects. The value I have gotten thus far from this network has been immense because I can learn from my peers and those slightly ahead for me. The targeted nature of the network is why I believe it is so impactful.
Second, I personally believe that traditional mentorship relationships are quite difficult to develop and sustain. However, there is room to create opportunities for female entrepreneurs to have access to experts who are open to supporting them on an ad-hoc basis, especially around the key functions of business. In this scenario, the “mentorship” is defined by the entrepreneur’s needs without the ‘burden’ of a general, sustained engagement. Through one of my network affiliations, I have been paired with a marketing expert for a period of 3 months to coach us through defining the company’s marketing agenda. This set-up mimics a mentorship engagement with the frequency of check-ins and the opportunity for discussions on specific and adaptive challenges; However, it is defined by achieving a particular objective over a defined period. Having a “mentor” for a subject area of business has been very helpful.
If women increase the quality of their networks, they will have access to the most powerful tool available to scale their businesses. Female entrepreneurs often decry the challenges with regards of lack of access to funding or markets, but I believe that if we focus on networks, the rest will follow.