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 Female entrepreneurship: time to move into next gear


 There can be no doubt that the position of female entrepreneurs is improving. The numbers show that every year, more women venture into business, and finding women in leadership positions is no longer the surprise that it used to be as recently as one generation ago, says Gugu Mjadu, marketing executive director at Business Partners Limited.

But before we start taking our foot off the accelerator, Mjadu urges a closer inspection of the available data. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, a longitudinal comparative study of entrepreneurship across the world, shows that in many countries men and women are roughly equal participants in early-stage entrepreneurship.

In South Africa, however, the ratio is seven women for every ten men who start their own business. Furthermore, the research shows that many of the South African female start-ups are what the GEM researchers call “necessity entrepreneurs” - those who have started their businesses because they had no other choice, as opposed to “opportunity entrepreneurs”, people who start their businesses because they choose to.

The distinction is important because necessity entrepreneurs, also known as survivalists, are less likely to create wealth, employ others and escape from poverty than opportunity entrepreneurs. When it comes to gender equality on the business field, South Africa therefore still has a long way to go. But Mjadu believes that it is important to acknowledge the progress that has been made so that the promotion of female entrepreneurship can move from first to second gear, allowing it to pick up more speed.

First gear was setting broad structural systems in place, such as funds dedicated to finance women-owned businesses, making sure female ownership and management counts significantly on South Africa’s B-BBEE scorecard, and making fundamental changes to South Africa’s school curriculum in favour of promoting gender equality.

This broad infrastructure is largely in place, although it can do with some more tweaking. For example, although there are a number of funds available for financing female-led entrepreneurial initiatives, more can be done to support survivalist-type businesses to make sure that more female entrepreneurs graduate from the informal to the formal sector, in other words, from necessity to opportunity entrepreneurship.

Globally, micro-finance has a good reputation for helping entrepreneurs, especially female business owners, to graduate from the informal to the formal sector by providing small loans that gradually grow bigger. One way to boost this sector in South Africa is for government to subsidise the interest rates of micro-financiers.

Apart from improving and adding to the broad structural systems, however, it is just as important to move towards “second-gear” solutions. These are perhaps more subtle and difficult to measure, says Mjadu, but they are crucial for making sure gender equality is achieved and maintained in the field of entrepreneurship.

An important step is to raise awareness of the facilities and support systems that have been put in place to help female entrepreneurs, says Mjadu. How many business women know about the specialist funds that have been set aside to invest in female-owned businesses? Similarly, how many female entrepreneurs know how much they add to the B-BEEE score of a business and do they know how to take advantage of this?

Raising awareness is not only the job of government departments and the funds themselves, but also that of business associations, especially women’s associations and business chambers. While the first-gear steps may have involved many “outside” players such as government to spark the emergence of female entrepreneurs, the second-gear shift will require more intense involvement of female entrepreneurs themselves.

Female entrepreneurs must make use of existing social networks between women to support each other’s business ventures, to raise awareness of the funds and support structures for female entrepreneurs, and to do business with one another. Although the school curriculum has to a large extent been dragged into the 21st century by removing most of the overtly patriarchal content, it can safely be said that it has not yet come close to uprooting deep-seated sexist attitudes in South African society.

Much more local, individual actions are now needed to make sure that specific schools and individual teachers encourage and support girls as much as boys to consider entrepreneurship and commercial subjects as a career option. Even inside the family, deep-seated prejudice may live on, for example when a boy child goes with the father on a Saturday morning to help out at the family business’s workshop, while the girl child is expected to stay at home to help with the domestic chores.

While South Africa’s constitution and court system could be relied upon as the broad foundation for female equality, the next phase will clearly have to rely much more specifically on female leadership to change the ethos at the family and school level, says Mjadu.

Female entrepreneurs and business leaders must form the vanguard as champions of equality, and serve as mentors and role models for the next generation of entrepreneurs.




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