woman box cropped iStock_000018366548XSmallThe case for Women’s Entrepreneurship

The HBR Blog Network reports that awareness of women’s entrepreneurship has reached critical mass. Women and entrepreneurship are mentioned seven times more in the media now than a decade ago. (VanderBrug) It is not surprising that we have some new buzzwords: Sheconomy, Womenomics, Mompreneurs.

But this fresh lexicon does not scratch the surface of the untapped potential that empowering the ‘other half’ of the population in terms of achieving a more prosperous and just world.

On a global level there is increasing attention given to women entrepreneurs, which started with Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Group in Bangladesh; microfinance and village ‘telephone ladies.’ One reason entrepreneurship has a gender dimension, is that often it the only means for a woman to achieve economic independence. Structural barriers such as property and land ownership and access to financing persist. But economic empowerment, in turn, contributes to broader efforts gender based social injustice. As superlative women’s rights activist, Mahnaz Afkhami, points out, “A woman who is economically independent is less likely to be systematically abused and more likely to walk away from a cycle of abuse.” Economic empowerment fuels the fight for women’s rights.

The gender gap in entrepreneurship persists in the United States, as it does in government and corporate leadership. As Lean In author, Sheryl Sandberg – Facebook’s COO – notes, educated American women have more choices but too often impede themselves by ‘leaning-out,’ or not aggressively pursuing leadership positions. But on a global scale, it is often women who are hungrier than men. If ‘necessity is the mother of invention,’ women are highly motivated by lack of choices to survive and better themselves and their families and communities.

Female founders are not the only ones having a huge stake in the success of their entrepreneurial endeavors. Entrepreneurship may be the most important driver of economic growth and innovation. But women entrepreneurs reinvest more back to their community. In emerging markets, consider “…women’s increased income and assets as a gender dividend driving family, community and country wellbeing.” (VanderBrug) As a development issue, women’s entrepreneurship has gravitas, creating especially strong tides, lifting all boats higher, faster.

Research shows that women’s businesses often tend to be more innovative and outperform those owned by their male counterparts. Take this example from the Arab world. Wamda, a hub for high-tech venture activity, looked at the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2012 report. It highlights the fact that while women aren’t necessarily more innovative than men across the globe, they are in the Middle East. Wamda also notes that all else being equal, female founders represent a lower risk proposition for investors. (Curley) The explanations range from ‘women just work harder,’ to the traits associated with women such as collaborative leadership and emotional intelligence providing more of a competitive advantage for their firms.

Too much of the dialog on women and entrepreneurship focuses on work-life balance. Case and point: Meghan Casserly’s review in Forbes of Christopher M. Schroeder’s Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East is entitled “The Surprising Common Ground of Female Founders from the Middle East to Silicon Valley.” Casserly’s main point was to draw a parallel between the work-life challenges women entrepreneurs in both the Middle East and Silicon Valley. She missed the point and does a disservice to women entrepreneurs in the process of this oversimplification. We need a sharper focus to go beyond the macroeconomic statistics.

There is an acute need to address the huge ‘missing middle’ between bottom-of-the-pyramid aid and social enterprise schemes, and 1 percent of the most-developed-economy ventures that are VC funded (a very small portion of which have female founders). As international aid is localized, are there expanding opportunities for creating lateral linkages, or are important capacity-building opportunities for sharing know-how compromised? How do we move from the imitation/improvisation versus invention/innovation dichotomy to a more place-based model that values grassroots and reverse innovation? More focus needs to be given to increasing granularity in looking at women’s entrepreneurship on a global level, to inspiring startup and empowering scale-up to achieve greater levels of success.


Afkhami, Mahnaz, “Freedom leads to Empowerment” in International Museum of Women, Economica: Women and the Global Economy. Oct 15, 2009 http://www.mahnazafkhami.net/2009/freedom-leads-to-empowerment/

Casserly, Meghan. “The Surprising Common Ground of Female Founders from the Middle East to Silicon Valley.” (14 August 2013) in Forbes. http://www.forbes.com/sites/meghancasserly/2013/08/14/the-surprising-common-ground-of-female-founders-from-the-middle-east-to-silicon-valley/

Curley, Nina. (05 September 2013) “Women entrepreneurs are more innovative than men in the Arab World.”  http://www.wamda.com/2013/09/women-entrepreneurs-innovative-men-arab-world

Isenberg, David (30 November 2012) “Focus Entrepreneurship Policy on Scale-up, not Startup” Harvard Business Review Blog Network http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/11/focus-entrepreneurship-policy/

VanderBrug, Jackie. (04 September 2013) “The Global Rise of Female Entrepreneurs” On Harvard Business Review Blog Network, http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/09/global-rise-of-female-entrepreneurs/  

3 thoughts on “Women’s Entrepreneurship

  1. Wow…7 times more. I wouldn’t have known.

    You have a very tactful and smart way of criticizing. It doesn’t even come across as criticism as much as it does an alternative perspective about the aspects of women in entrepreneurship, such as those that have been overlooked.

    Can you explain this phrase a bit differently, though?

    “As international aid is localized, are there expanding opportunities for creating lateral linkages, or are important capacity-building opportunities for sharing know-how compromised? How do we move from the imitation/improvisation versus invention/innovation dichotomy to a more place-based model that values grassroots and reverse innovation?”

    • Thank you, Sandra. And indeed, it is is my intent to question more than “criticize.” The question I raise is a question. I don’t have the answer. My writing can be convoluted at times, because I try not to oversimplify. But I can rephrase the question. The old models were fairly centralized. Donors (most developed nations) defined problems in underdeveloped countries, prescribed “fixes” and executed them through NGOs and other grantees / contractors. Similarly, technology “haves” transferred technologies to “have nots.” The downside is that circumstances on the ground, in the field are highly varied. We are seeing a movement now to decentralize development solutions, and research & development is becoming more diffuse on a global level. Innovation can come from anywhere. As an aside, I read a study recently that pointed to the fact that researchers in the “Global South” tend to collaborate more (based upon co-authorship of publications in peer reviewed journals) with researchers from Europe and North America. More South-South research collaboration is needed both for development and for solution of regional problems. Decentralization is a good thing, but it comes with the challenge of diffusing lessons laterally (meaning not via the old ‘hub-and-spokes’ model). The current revolution in telecommunications and internet opens up a world of possibilities. Crowdfunding is just one manifestations of decentralization and devolution of knowledge and decision-making. One of the reasons I started blogging was to reflect on ‘translatable’ and actionable lessons learned to enhance empowering people in a ‘lateral’ fashion.

  2. For my final paper in the MOOC course “Beyond Silicon Valley, Entrepreneurship in Transitioning Economies” I looked at the case study of Eve Medical, founded by Jessical Ching, a young women entrepreneur in Toronto who heads up a start up in the medical device field. The medical device is for women only. One of her issues is finding funding for round 2. Since VC’s are typically run by men, my question is, could there be a gender bias in the distribution of VC capital? I would be interested to hear your point of view, especially since you work in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where women don’t have nearly the same voice as men.

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