ECONOMYNEXT – An entrepreneur is an entrepreneur, irrespective of whether it’s a man or woman, so why the need to differentiate, ask Anuja Narain and Dekyi Yangsto Chawla. The two, who were joined by Afsana Rahimi, were panellists in an online discussion organised by the Friedrich Nauman Foundation for Freedom, (FNF) South Asia office in its “Restart Asian Economies series: Ideas and Actions for the Women Entrepreneurs, on December 14.”
Anuja Narain is the Co-founder of Rupalee, Fair Trade with Style, while Dekyi Yangsto Chawla is the Co-Founder of a husband and wife partnership, Rewards 360 Global Services, both Indian based business enterprises. Afghanistan based Afsana Rahimi is the CEO of Shayar Media Services.
Narain is most emphatic when she points out that there is no such term as ‘men entrepreneurs.’ Women entrepreneurs are as educated, liberated and high achievers as men, yet, society continues to see them differently. What needs to change, she points out is to eradicate how the two genders are perceived in terms of the supports available in the business world.
Women are taken seriously in the business arena only if she is successful, says Narain, who described herself as the ‘influencer and catalyst’ between producer and buyer of her company’s customised handicrafts. ‘It takes baby steps to train rural women to handcraft the items, giant steps to attract buyers, and creativity and innovation to locate global markets.’ Her career path involved persuading women from rural communities to strike out of their traditional role of homemaker to take up a job. It also meant facing their hostile spouses. However, over time they have come to accept the additional income brought in by the women.
There was a woman, who, armed with a PhD wanted to venture into the business world, only to be told by her husband, that she would drive him to bankruptcy says Narain, who added that the woman was undeterred, and is today, not only the owner of multiple businesses but is also a co-partner in her husband’s Real Estate company.
Another woman, who had the support of her family, had launched her own life-style exhibition 20 years ago. Today she has shows in the UK and other South-East Asian countries. When the COVID 19 pandemic put paid to holding exhibitions, she moved into offering vocational training for women entrepreneurs at the grassroots while also inviting artisans from across India to exhibit their products at two of her cultural centres.
It is not only the social, cultural, technological and marketing barriers that women in business must steer through. The biggest stumbling block is the lack of financial support available to women in business.
Chawla adds that questions regarding work-life balance are always directed at her and never her husband, although she is the Co-Founder of their company. Society fails to recognise that as entrepreneurs, both women and men are self-starters who have similar passions and goals, she says. The reason that men far outnumber women in the business world is not that the latter is less capable or innovative, but simply because males are over-confident about themselves and sure of achieving what they set out to get. On the other hand, conditioned from childhood to have less self-worth resulting in lower self-assurance and the stereotypical expectation of women being responsible for the family, are the root causes that prevent most women from venturing into the world of business. “Women are better multi-taskers, display empathy, and lean towards more participatory and consultative leadership, while men tend to have autocratic management practices. Yet, most investors consider funding women as high-risk, unless the business has a male co-founder,” says Chawla.
Women, she points out are not inferior to men in their approach to creativity or capability, though most may opt to run smaller ventures or not to expand their companies simply because they feel compelled to ensure a work-life balance. Research shows, she says that women are not outperformed by men when it comes to profitability. “So stop treating us like a different kind of species!”
Armed with nearly a decade of experience working as a Marketing Director for a media Institution, Rahimi launched her company in a country where getting into and holding her own in the business world is certainly not easy for a woman. “It is a new idea that a woman can be in business.’ Currently, the Chair of the SAARC Chamber of Women Entrepreneurs Council (SCWEC), Rahimi explains that because all opportunities are geared towards the men, the number of women in business is very few.
The challenges are many; with no capital to invest in or collateral to use against a loan, society’s attitude and little or no access to technology or marketing, so naturally, venturing into and keeping a business afloat does not come easy for Afghani women. Echoing Narain and Chawla that women in business should not be treated differently to men, Rahimi states that she spends time at local universities to share her story and encourage young women to become entrepreneurs. It is important she says to nurture their self-confidence so they could prove to themselves, their families and society that they have the potential to be successful in business.
Would a quota system which ensures a guaranteed number of places for women be the answer, an idea currently being discussed in European circles? While Chawla and Rahimi consider having a quota as beneficial, Narain whose handicrafts company employs nearly 99percent women does not feel such a scheme would make a difference for outfits such as hers.
With the drawbacks Afghani women face, Rahimi believes that a quota system would open up more opportunities for women to be actively involved in the country’s economic activities. Chawla meanwhile states that if the quota is introduced not because women entrepreneurs are seen as a different species, but to ensure equality, especially if it is to encourage them to take on more leadership roles, it could work. More women in leadership roles she believes would help the younger generation to challenge age-old concepts that hold women back from starting their own businesses, and also climb the corporate ladder. More women in business would also mean more women mentors for those starting out their careers.
The COVID pandemic brought further challenges, explains Rahimi, which had compounded the problems businesses had faced with the recent elections held in her country. The challenges Afghanistan faces, she says are different to other countries, adding that a recent survey of 110 companies had indicated that a good number were on the verge of closure. There has been no help forthcoming from the government, she added.
Chawla noted that many companies reacted quickly to the COVID related challenges and found innovative methods to manage the situation. It had provided a window of opportunity for banks for instance to reach out to their clients through various rewards programmes.
Narain’s company is faced with a totally different challenge. COVID resulted in huge labour migration and artisans stopping work. As well, buyer activity had fallen with a loss in demand for customised products. However, digital marketing has helped rake in more retail sales than the usual bulk orders.
The three panellists agreed that the Friedrich Nauman Foundation for Freedom, (FNF) has a role to play in supporting enterprises run by women. Chawla would like to see FNF working with governments to offer women-specific growth funds and encouraging investors to fund all-women run start-ups, supports that will ensure businesses are not shut down, connect women entrepreneurs to mentors and help with job creation. In a world where investors consider even backing well-known businesswomen as high risk, what would it be like for those less known, she asks.
There are three C’s says Chawla “circumstances, capital and confidence which women must learn to develop. FNF could work with the government or the various Chambers of Commerce to identify collaborative projects especially those that would secure supportive and conducive environments where women could thrive. Digital networking sessions for instance could connect women and other stakeholders across borders.
Unlike Rahimi and Chawla who have both been employed by other companies before venturing out on their own, Narain had plunged headlong into the business world, soon after becoming a lawyer. While her legal background has come in handy, she is of the opinion that if she too had some formal grounding in how to do business it would have helped. “Rural women need hand-holding but are unable to attend training institutes to learn the basics of running a business,” so workshops on such matters should be available within their own settings.
Afghani women, on the other hand, both in urban and rural areas need a great deal of capacity building training to sell their products and would benefit from cross-border interactions and learning experiences. Narain points out that cross-border activity such as trade shows held in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India etc. have helped enormously. Trade shows not only help sell their products, they also open up opportunities for women to connect with and to do business with each other.
The session was moderated by Country Representative FNF Bangladesh, Dr Najmul Hossain, and assisted by Subodh Kumar Agarwal, Programme –In-Charge, On-line Business Dialogues. (Colombo, December 22, 2020)
By Kshama Ranawana