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Cover Story
As Shatter-Proof as Ever!
Women have broken a lot of Gender Barriers in Society, But The Glass ceiling is not Exactly in that List Yet
Issue Date - 17/03/2011
Unleashing The Next Wave of Economic Growth
Entrepreneurship has re-engineered the genetic make-up of many economies. It is now time to tap the potential of women entrepreneurship and unleash this potent force to spur economic growth.

This morning, students in my entrepreneurship class at UCBerkeley’s Business School presented their ideas for a smorgasbord of new ventures, ranging from fresh search engines on the web and better ways for small businesses to buy insurance, to innovative platforms for tourism in China or finding parking spaces in big cities. Half of these aspiring entrepreneurs were women.

At the same time, microfinanced loans were being made and repaid by small-scale entrepreneurs in villages and cities across India, Africa, Latin America and Asia. Most of these loans supported women building businesses for their own livelihood and families’ well-being.

Between these two vignettes – one played out in Silicon Valley and the others unfolding in different time- and economic zones – lies a basic truth: entrepreneurship is a dynamic force for igniting human ingenuity and a powerful engine for driving growth and opportunity up and down the world’s economic pyramid. Entrepreneurs create jobs, stimulate technological innovation and create new value for their customers, investors and themselves. They bring a willingness to take risks, an ability to see tomorrow’s opportunities where others see only today’s reality, and often a healthy disrespect for the status quo that can lead to disruptions in markets, economies and even societies.

Most people see the face of entrepreneurship as men like Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Dr. K. Anji Reddy or N. R. Narayana Murthy – innovators whose vision and tenacity have sparked the creation of global enterprises worth hundreds of billions of dollars. And in fact, most entrepreneurial ventures are started by, owned by and managed by men throughout the world. In the US, only 30% of businesses are women-owned, about the same percentage as in Europe; a sizable gender gap in entrepreneurship also prevails across Asia, Latin America and Africa.

But the real story of women and entrepreneurship is not told in these statistics. Many ventures started and owned by women exist off the scoreboards of formal economies. They may operate in informal markets, or represent smaller-scale enterprises, or play out in ventures officially owned by men either for reasons of tradition or legislation or both. Regardless, women entrepreneurs are vital contributors to the economic well-being of their families, communities and nations. Their businesses do what most business do: generate jobs, sell products and services and create value.

If entrepreneurship is “the pursuit of opportunities beyond the resources under one’s control”, then it is a field ripe for the talents of women, precisely because they have relatively fewer resources under their control in many parts of the world today. Entrepreneurs have to be resourceful before they have resources; and that is both a challenge and opportunity for women entrepreneurs today. In some countries, they must contend with hostile laws that artificially restrict their freedom to pursue their aspirations in creating new businesses to serve real customer needs. They must either confront or work around family and spousal attitudes that often range from ambivalent to resistant. And in most societies, they must do that while fulfilling entrenched notions of their roles in society as mothers and wives.

But in the midst of those realities lie profound opportunities. We can see the evidence all around us. It is not only the “poster women” entrepreneurs like Oprah Winfrey or Estée Lauder that command our respect for creating enormous enterprises through their creative genius and demonstrable leadership. One needs to look no further than down the street or in the next village to find immediate examples of ventures inspired and operated by women applying their own time and talent to new and existing businesses, albeit perhaps at a smaller scale with less fanfare.

Entrepreneurship is not the exclusive province of high-tech, high profile and large-scale ventures or their creators. In fact, most of the economic value and jobs created by entrepreneurs are generated in small-scale, low-tech and mostly unknown businesses across the world. These are the enterprises that represent the lifeblood of most economies globally.

As the gender gap shrinks across the landscape of higher education in many countries, the pipeline of talented women aspiring to make their mark as creators of vibrant new businesses will inevitably expand. The combination of ambition and education will accelerate the impatience which often fuels venture creation by entrepreneurs frustrated by the pace of change or lack of imagination in more traditional pursuits.

And here is the catch. If women entrepreneurs are every bit as talented and dedicated as their male counterparts, the world can unleash their power in transforming markets, opening societies and expanding horizons not just for their benefit, but for all of us. And this, I think, will take creativity and courage in several key areas. First, girls need to see women as entrepreneurs. They need to understand that people like them can tread the path of entrepreneurship and do it successfully, without sacrificing their identity in the process. Schools in every community need to better showcase the rich tapestry of women entrepreneurs by inviting them into classrooms to share their experiences and challenges; and developing practical curricula that focuses on what it takes to start a venture of their own.

Second, women entrepreneurs need to develop mutually supportive networks with each other. This is not to exclude engagement with their male counterparts, but rather to encourage exchange of best practices and peer-to-peer support with others who have personally experienced the unique configuration of issues faced by women starting and growing businesses. In fact, a recent Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report suggested that “being employed and having a social network that includes other entrepreneurs are stronger predictors of women’s entrepreneurship than educational attainment or household income.”

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