The Herculean Challenges of Women Entrepreneurs
The Imposter Syndrome
I was at a Christmas party two years ago when a conversation about CEOs and their challenges came up. While I was contributing to this discussion, an acquaintance asked very loudly — Oh, are you a CEO? You have these issues? — and I found myself fumbling around and doubting my answers. After the party, my husband and one of my close girlfriends who were at that conversation were very upset that I did not stand up for myself and share more confidently, yes, I am a CEO, even if it’s a small team I lead. I wondered why I felt awkward to speak up in that situation — after all, I am usually confident and generally able to articulate my thoughts in a public forum. But I couldn’t in that moment. And what I have since discovered is that it is an issue, something that plagues many women entrepreneurs — the Imposter Syndrome.
Examining Our Own Biases
That incident sent me on a journey to kick off conversations with women entrepreneurs in my network about the type of challenges they were facing as they build their businesses — and of course I uncovered and learnt a lot more. My learning curve was accelerated by the opportunity to be part of Frontier Incubators, a program by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Government of Australia which put gender front and centre in the program approach, which gave me tools to begin applying a Gender Lens in my own organization. Importantly, it led me to examine my privilege and biases in my work as an investor and supporter of early-stage entrepreneurs. Like countless women founders, I have been in enough meetings, where the underlying assumption is that some invisible male boss is the decision maker, to have experienced unconscious bias first-hand. These experiences, together with those of my colleagues, led Villgro Philippines to formally adopt a gender-lens to our work and we have been making progress and figuring out what that means for us.
The Ups and Downs of Raising Capital
An estimated 61.3 million women entrepreneurs own and operate businesses across the ASEAN region. In the Philippines, it is estimated that women-led SMEs comprise one in four of all SMEs and there are more women entrepreneurs running businesses in the top 4 out of 5 industries. Data from the IFC shows that around $900 billion to $1.1 trillion of SMEs’ credit requirements are unmet in East Asia, with a disproportionate impact on women entrepreneurs. One of the main reasons for the discontinuance of business among women is widely cited as barriers to access finance. To dive more into why, through the last 12 months, we’ve been talking to women entrepreneurs in the Philippines and across the region. We also spoke to key players investing in women entrepreneurs. So, what did we learn?
Capital is available but out of reach for many — The good news is with an increased focus on women from donors, investors, governments, and financial institutions, more capital is being unlocked for women entrepreneurs in the market. The challenge is that the barriers to access that capital remains high — very often, women-led businesses do not meet the high-growth criteria of investors even though they may be solid, cashflow positive businesses.
In some young ecosystems like the Philippines, investors still have a low risk appetite and tend to be more traditional — I was on a call with a young woman entrepreneur last week who had seen her company’s revenues double during the COVID-impacted months, and looking even stronger in the coming months. She was finally able to get a commitment for the capital she needed urgently but was given a term sheet that was detrimental to her business and set her up for losing a majority stake within the year, if things did not go to plan. She had to walk away despite how much she needed that working capital — these stories are not uncommon.
Women entrepreneurs often may self-select themselves out of these opportunities as the barriers are so high — for example, formal banks in Asia and the Pacific are not equipped to meet the needs of women entrepreneurs, since they typically need collateral in the form of land, houses, cash, and/or other assets — a requirement to assess a client’s creditworthiness. An experienced woman business owner with steady revenues based in Davao has been unable to get a loan in the past 5 years as she did not have the requisite collateral. Right now, she has an opportunity that is game-changing for her business but needs capital to buy the right equipment and hire the right team. Even though she has a pre-order, the bank loan is still out of reach, as she has neither the credit history nor the right collateral. This is the case for many women-led businesses.
To grow your business, you need access to market — In many instances the connections and the confidence that can unlock customers are elusive to women entrepreneurs. The market a woman entrepreneur looks to access depends on her education, family situation, and the economy. According to a recent study by the Asia Foundation and the ADB, women typically face multiple challenges: lower confidence; limited access to technology; limited mobility (compared to their male counterparts); and limited access to networks, including those of large-scale purchasers are out of reach. For women entrepreneurs who do not come from privileged backgrounds and do not have college or business school networks, accessing a pool of experienced mentors and experts is difficult and getting in front of venture capital or even angel investors is close to impossible. Women’s access to business networks tends to be more limited than what their male counterparts enjoy, which limits their opportunities to learn from the experience of others, develop useful business contacts, and gain market information. I have heard quite a few stories of women entrepreneurs being unable to close market partnership deals, which they felt were at least in part owing to the fact they did not have men in their leadership team nor the cultural capital to make it happen. It becomes harder to identify and address when it is an underlying unconscious bias that results in these outcomes.
COVID-19 and the resulting lockdowns has added immense pressure on women — They find themselves challenged with balancing the company’s needs and the needs at home. A woman entrepreneur who leads a majority female team, highlighted that the most productive hours of her team were the school hours of their children, as the team followed flexible schedule to balance priorities. Now with all family members at home through the day, care and household chores still fall significantly to women and work piles up.
So Where Do We Go From Here?
Despite all the challenges, more women are starting businesses than ever before. Globally, donors, governments, and corporations have begun allocating funding to push the gender equality agenda, and specifically supporting women entrepreneurship as a key driver. Philanthropist Melinda Gates has committed USD 1 billion to promote gender equality. In her words, the window of opportunity was pried open with the #MeToo movement. So, we have an opportunity to bring focus back to gender equality (when it really should not have gone away). In the Philippines, available data shows that around one in four of all SMEs in the country and led by women (majority owner and/or CXO). Research and data from Investing in Women has shown that Women-led SMEs tend to employ more women than businesses run by men. This means increasing the number of women entrepreneurs in the Philippines will have the added effect of increasing the rate of paid employment among women.
We need to do more to support women to grow their businesses, so they can move from being micro to small, or small to medium or large companies to impact their lives, their families, and communities. From what I have seen and heard from the brave women who are daring to start and run businesses throughout is that they are doing what it takes, hustling to survive but without the crucial support and capital, they cannot cross the Valley of Death — making that leap from small operations to a scalable business. Only a handful of women (without the networks and privilege) out of the many women-led enterprises have paved their way to growing successful companies. In one of my all-time favourite books Leapfrog, Nathalie Molina Nino outlines essential hacks that women entrepreneurs need to do to get a fair shot. As she says, many of the women entrepreneurs probably haven’t grown beyond solopreneurship due to lack of personal capital, or family or friends who can’t invest or share key resources or did not go to the right schools. This opportunity gap must be addressed.
As my friend, the incredible Shuyin Tang says, the ecosystem needs to change and tailor products and services to women entrepreneur’s needs, not the other way around — women are already beating the odds stacked up against them. Shuyin, a Partner at Patamar Capital and a leader in impact investing in Asia, and her team have seen first-hand how venture capital is not always the right fit for women-led businesses. Learning from their experiences in gender lens investing, they have designed a new fund with an innovative approach to invest in women and are currently developing new financial products that are suitable for diverse women-led companies. Similarly, our friends at Ashoka Philippines recently launched the Advancing Women Social Entrepreneurs in ASEAN, a program to bring together women social entrepreneurs to support and engage with each other through coaching and skill building — a much needed network.
Those of us who can, simply must try harder for women entrepreneurs! And as women, we have every right to be impatient to claim a gender equal world. At Villgro, we have taken the lessons from our conversations seriously. We are thrilled to launch WE Rise — a program that is deeply focused on empowering women entrepreneurs to access capital and build their skills to grow their companies. We are excited to collaborate with Value For Women to develop and deploy Gender Scorecard to help enterprises assess and improve their organization’s gender inclusivity. WE Rise is supported by the Advancing Women’s Empowerment Fund (AWEF), an initiative from the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE) in partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), under the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity (W-GDP) initiative, and the Visa Foundation.
About the Author: Priya Thachadi, is the Co-founder and CEO of Villgro Philippines.
Villgro funds, mentors and nurtures early-stage enterprises that are building innovative solutions to transform the lives of the poor and marginalized. She also co-founded Unlock Impact, a women-led social impact advisory firm that partners with people and organizations to scale inclusive solutions. She is based in Manila, the Philippines. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org