Leveraging Technology to Connect Asia’s Women Entrepreneurs
March 11, 2015
The numbers are clear: business networks are a powerful lever for business success, but women entrepreneurs in Asia continue to lag behind their male counterparts in this fundamental form of social capital.
Business associations, informal peer groups, and other types of networks are a proven resource for small- and medium-sized enterprises, a gateway to skills and business connections that can make the difference between prosperity and failure. For Asian women confronting the gender gap in traditionally male business environments, networks can be crucial to their business success. The Boston Consulting Group has found that access to networks encourages women entrepreneurs to increase their aspirations, envision long-term plans, and set more ambitious growth targets. Women with more social capital were able to gain greater access to more diverse credit options, including microfinancing and cooperative loans. A recent study conducted by The Asia Foundation in Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines for the APEC Secretariat found that women business owners who interact with business associations are 24 percent more likely to report plans to increase their firm’s size over the next three years.
Yet despite the clear benefits, our research found that 34 percent of women business owners in these three countries never interact with business associations, compared to just 26 percent of male owners who never do. One explanation is the well-known “triple burden” – women traditionally have to balance their business lives with household duties and childcare responsibilities, leaving little flexibility for engagement with business networks. In addition, women often find themselves locked out of traditional, male-dominated networks.
The scene is ripe for new networking tools, particularly those that capitalize on increasingly available technologies, to increase access for women entrepreneurs. In Bangladesh, The Asia Foundation is using the cellphone network to extend the reach of existing women’s business associations. In cooperation with Banglalink, the nation’s second largest mobile carrier, we have established a mobile business network and four business hotlines. The hotlines connect women to knowledgeable business counselors for help ranging from business licenses and bank loans to specialized training and business associations. Banglalink is supporting the initiative with discount calling rates.
In other parts of Asia, ICT solutions for women entrepreneurs will first have to overcome a significant gender gap in mobile and internet use. In Malaysia, the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women and its partners have developed the Mentoring Women in Business program, connecting women entrepreneurs with global business experts. The program includes ICT and business skills training, and mentees receive a tablet allowing them to continue meeting virtually with their mentors for another year. Ninety-three percent of participants reported that the mentoring had a positive effect on their business. Last year, the Indonesia Women’s Business Association (IWAPI) partnered with the Microsoft Corporation to train members in Office 365, giving them more flexibility in where and when they work. Other platforms, like #StartupLokal, Indonesia’s largest online startup community, offer online and in-person networking and information sharing.
Access to markets is another major area where online networks can have significant impact. In Indonesia and China, WeConnect International is working to connect women entrepreneurs with corporate buyers by registering and certifying businesses that are at least 51 percent owned, managed, and controlled by women. These businesses then have access to an online marketplace where they can showcase their products to large corporate buyers.
The Asia Foundation is currently developing several programs to support women entrepreneurs’ access to online networks. The South Asia Women Entrepreneurs Symposium (SAWES), a partnership with the U.S. Department of State, has a substantial online component, including a growing library of on-demand webinars on business-related topics such as business plan development. The SAWES Facebook page has become a hub for over 30,000 SAWES participants and aspiring entrepreneurs. (Interestingly, about half of these participants are men.) In India, the Foundation has partnered with eWIT, a women’s IT forum, to develop a business-to-business web portal to facilitate cross-border networking, provide access to regional markets, and serve as an information hub on trade and business regulations.
In the long term, Asia’s women entrepreneurs may be best served by more women in technology. In Malaysia, Gorgeous Geeks, which says it is “putting lipstick on technology,” works to support women’s careers in the male-dominated technology sector. In Korea, where the ratio of male to female entrepreneurs is 5:1, the Korea IT Business Women’s Association (KIBWA) highlights women as role models in IT, and the Gyeonggi Women’s Development Center runs an online career coaching service for women that includes an online employability assessment, employment support, and e-learning programs to help bring women into the workforce. Girls in Tech, active in China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and South Korea, focuses on empowering women technology entrepreneurs with online learning modules and events like virtual hackathons.
To better understand the extent of networks and services available for women entrepreneurs across Asia-Pacific region, including technology-related networks and services, The Asia Foundation is working with Nathan Associates on a USAID project to support APEC on women and the economy. While this research has highlighted what is quickly becoming a crowded market, it is important to recognize the limitations of technology as well as the benefits. Networks, whether physical or virtual, must address the real needs of entrepreneurial Asian women and the cultural and technological constraints they face if they are to yield tangible benefits.
Nicolas Picard is a program associate for The Asia Foundation’s Economic Development Programs based in San Francisco and Kate Bollinger is the senior program officer for the Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program in Washington, D.C. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.
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