Of the R310m invested by BUSINESS/PARTNERS in the women entrepreneurs in the 2016 financial year, a remarkable number went to women-owned small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the traditionally male-dominated industries of manufacturing and retailing, says Jeremy Lang, regional general manager at BUSINESS/PARTNERS.
Furthermore, recent investments in medical, legal and engineering practices show that the professions continue to open up for women, and sectors where women entrepreneurs have already established a sizeable presence, tourism, education and the beauty industry, were also well represented in the latest figures.
If these trends continue, BUSINESS/PARTNERS could soon reach parity between male and female clients, a major milestone of economic transformation that was unthinkable a few decades ago, says Lang.
The results show a deep-seated cultural and empowerment shift in South Africa, says Lang. Each loan is a serious investment in a woman-owned small or medium enterprise, based wholly on the viability of the business case and the prowess of the entrepreneur herself. BUSINESS/PARTNERS counts only those businesses at least 25% owned by women, and in which the female entrepreneur is actively involved in the business, as female-owned SMEs.
BUSINESS/PARTNERS’ commitment to the empowerment of women is so strong, says Lang, that it will not simply rely on keeping up with the changes in marketplace but will actively boost the numbers of female entrepreneurs that it finances. The company’s R250m Women in Business Fund was set up a year ago to ensure continued emphasis on female entrepreneurship.
An important part of BUSINESS/PARTNERS’ support for its female clients comes in the form of technical assistance paid for by either interest-free loans or grants, available as part of the finance package from BUSINESS/PARTNERS for its Women in Business Fund. Female entrepreneurs financed through this Fund qualify for grants of up to R25 000 to pay for technical assistance that will strengthen their business, for example a production improvement intervention or setting up a financial controls system. Should they require further they assistance they can apply for an interest-free loans of up to R35 000 for this.
“Sometimes the technical assistance will be aimed at something that we have identified as a weakness of the business. The loan or grant then becomes a condition of the finance that we extend to the business. Sometimes the entrepreneur herself identifies an area in her business that she wants to strengthen, and is then able to apply for a technical-assistance loan or grant,” says Lang.
He says although South Africa has taken major strides towards the empowerment of women, a good deal still remains to be done. Sectors such as manufacturing are still male-dominated and are difficult for anyone to break into, let alone for female entrepreneurs who may have less technical experience and smaller networks because of entrenched discrimination in those industries. “And among the older generation, a female entrepreneur may have fewer assets against which to lend because the savings are in the husband’s name,” says Lang.
Another remaining obstacle to the full participation of women in entrepreneurship is the years that women have to take out of their careers if they want to have children. In certain circumstances, this challenge may be less intractable for entrepreneurs than it is for women who try to climb the corporate ladder. Entrepreneurs sometimes have more flexibility to take time out during the day for child-caring duties, but more often than not the long hours required to build a business make it very difficult. “Fortunately, it looks like men are increasingly coming to the party to share child-raising duties,” says Lang.
He says that the most encouraging signs of the closing gap between male and female entrepreneurs is the increasing number of women who are actively and consciously choosing entrepreneurship as their career, as opposed to those who have had entrepreneurship thrust upon them by inheritance or the necessity of having to provide for a family. “The more we celebrate successful female entrepreneurs as role models, the more entrepreneurship will be entrenched as a legitimate and noble career choice for women,” he says.