Women entrepreneurs: The changemakers of a better world

Helping women start their own businesses is one way to scale up the impact they can have on sustainable development, but they still face a series of challenges such as a lack of access to capital and meaningful mentoring.

When Indonesian business woman Shinta Widjaja Kamdani began learning the ropes of the family business from her father, she struggled to make her father understand that she could be “as good as any man holding the role”.

Today, as the chief executive officer of Sintesa Group—one of Indonesia’s largest conglomerates with businesses in the consumer products, real estate, industrial and energy sectors—Kamdani has not only proven her business chops, but also helps other women to go into business, both as corporate workers and entrepreneurs.

This is why she has collaborated with other business leaders in setting up the Indonesia Business Coalition for Women Empowerment, focused on gender equality in the workplace, and in 2011 cofounded the Angel Investment Network Indonesia to fund startups. 

Speaking at a panel discussion at the Asian Women in Leadership Summit 2017 in Singapore last month, Kamdani commented that entrepreneurship is a key driver of the Indonesian economy. According to the Indonesian Central Bureau of Statistics, the fourth most populous country in the world had a 5.5 per cent unemployment rate in 2016, translating into 7 million people looking for work.

Not only can entrepreneurship drive economic growth and development in Indonesia, but research has shown that when women become entrepreneurs, returns can be even greater. For instance, when a woman is empowered and successful, she will spend 90 per cent of each dollar that she earns on educaton and healthcare for her family, compared to 30 to 40 per cent for men.

Kamdani is also proving to be a key advocate of sustainability, as the vice chairwoman of the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KADIN), which was instrumental in the now-defunct Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge, and is founder and president of the Indonesia Business Council for Sustainable Development. She is also the vice chair of WWF Indonesia. As the chief of Sintesa she has committed to boosting the company’s renewable energy generation capacity to 1,000 megawatts by 2020

Vinika Rao, executive director - Emerging Markets Institute at graduate business school INSEAD, who had moderated the panel discussion Kamdani spoke on, told Eco-Business later: “The importance of women entrepreneurship for development is undeniable.”

“When they’re successful, women become true changemakers. For every dollar they make in income, almost 90 per cent goes back into the family, into education, into healthcare for the children,” she said, pointing to the scale of impact that would be possible by encouraging more women to become entrepreneurs.

Rao added: “I’m not saying it’s not true of men, but clearly it holds true for more women than men.” 

Women have also been found to be more responsible investors, with a 2015 study by the Morgan Stanley Institute for Sustainable Investing reporting that women are more likely to take the sustainability of potential investments into account than men.  

When they’re successful, women become true changemakers. For every dollar they make in income, almost 90 per cent goes back into the family, into education, into healthcare for the children.

Vinika Rao, executive director - Emerging Markets Institute, INSEAD

Barriers to entry

But women entrepreneurs still face more obstacles to business than their male counterparts, according to a recently released study by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP).

The report, Fostering women’s entrepreneurship in ASEAN: Transforming prospects, transforming societies, found that gender inequality creates an average income loss for developing countries. The figure ranges from 7 per cent in Cambodia to 29 per cent in Brunei.

Unequal access to resources, cultural and social norms, poor internet connectivity, the lack of education, and limited access to finance are some of the challenges that the report identifies as stacked against the female would-be entrepreneur.

This is even more so for women living in rural areas who both work outside the home and take care of the household, said Kamdani, who noted that starting a new business in major cities was easier.

Drawing similar conclusions to the report, the Indonesian businesswoman told her mostly female audience at the one-day summit that there were four specific challenges for women in rural areas who want to start their own businesses: acceptance from the family, a lack of education and skills, the lack of capital, and having recourse to expertise and help. 

Woman-to-woman mentoring is one way to solve some of these issues and can be just as critical as offering funding as an angel investor, said Kamdani. “The power of mentoring is unimaginable, and it’s not just about business. A lot of it is speaking woman to woman, even about something basic like ‘How can I talk to my husband about wanting to start a business’?”

She said even as the Angel Investment Network Indonesia invests in women’s businesses, it also builds a network of mentors to connect women who need help to successful women.

Sitting at the table

Speakers at the event also urged women to speak up and sit at the table in corporate settings in order to make more headway in staking leadership roles.

The case for having more gender diversity in top management roles has been proven in research. Having women in leadership roles can promote resilience and help societies and families bounce back from stress and shock, research has found. The World Economic Forum has also reported that companies that have women leaders tend to perform better than companies without, whether it comes to financial performance or corporate sustainability. 

Beth Boswell, head of communications, Asia & Russia for Alcon, recommended practical measures for women to be seen and heard in the workplace, saying: “It drives me crazy that women sit on the outside and don’t take a seat at the table.”

She advised that women come with opinions on the issues discussed. “Make sure you have a point of view and make sure it’s heard. Who do you need to know two years from now? Network,” Boswell urged, saying women who want to advance have to be seen as “smart and contributing”.

Yuko Nakahira, managing director of 3M Singapore, added that while a company’s leadership team is responsible for gender diversity, women need to own their own development. “When I mentor women I tell them: ‘Show your fighting spirit, then people around you can help.’”

But INSEAD’s Rao pointed out that mentoring alone is not a solution. INSEAD research has shown that men who have been mentored for two years tend to be promoted two years later, but the same does not seem to happen for women, in what has been called overmentoring and undersponsoring.

Women need “more than just mentorship”, she stressed. “It has to be an active sponsorship, an active sharing of contacts, opening of doors, and understanding that what defines leadership qualities has to be more inclusive.”

Because women leaders tend be more collaborative than male leaders, this is often misinterpreted as them having less vision, Rao added. Men in senior roles can therefore be crucial “gatekeepers” for women and actively facilitate new connections and take on sponsorship roles.  

However John Buckley, chief risk officer of JP Morgan in Asia Pacific, said there is strength in expressing their true personalities. “The mistake people make is that they aren’t their authentic selves,” he said. “You are 10 times more powerful and influential by being yourself and expressing it that way.”

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