Igniting the entrepreneurial spark in women

What can we learn from our African sisters?

Photo by Wellington Rodrigues on Unsplash

The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Report highlights some interesting paradoxes. One is that as countries become more developed, the less likely it is that a women will become entrepreneurs. Another is that as economies develop, women’s perception of their own entrepreneurial capabilities goes down.

What’s going on here? Why is it that as the standard of living rises, women are put off from going into business? Is it a gender issue? Is it education? Is it that with development comes bureaucracy and paperwork? Or is it because as we become middle class, everyone wants a profession? Even now getting your family fortune from “trade” is considered below par by the English upper crust — even though some of the biggest families made their initial fortunes from unspeakable trade.

Who knows what is putting women off becoming an entrepreneur but by not considering it an option, women are missing what could be their biggest opportunity in life — and a better option than a job.

My entrepreneurship education

I received my world class education in entrepreneurship from living in Africa. In Cairo I lived in an Italian building with a columned entrance and a caged lift near to Tahrir Square which was made famous by the Arab Spring. I had a corner apartment on the top floor and twice a week my cleaning lady, Om Nadia, my own personal Mary Poppins, magicked everything clean and tidy — no matter how I left it.

One day she made me a pitch: I should get a washing machine. Even though she could neither read nor write her plan was calculated down to the last piastre. By making modest monthly payments for a year I could get a washing machine which would mean she would have time to do even more cleaning.

The truth was that I could have bought the washing machine outright but she had put a lot of effort into the plan so I went along with it. I’m also sure that she, quite rightly, got a cut from the washing machine seller.

Major donor

I went on to fund many other projects for her, her family and neighbours. Sometimes she invited me for lunch where I was treated like a celebrity. She and her four children lived in a single room in a crumbling building in one of Cairo’s notorious slums. As I sat on the only chair a stream of people came to personally thank me for lending them money. Now it’s called micro-financing.

Your money’s lazy

A few years later I was working in Sierra Leone where Mrs Buck was helping me and my baby son in our house. Freetown was tough — the government was in free fall; there was no electricity or water; armed robberies were common and most likely sanctioned by the army because soldiers hadn’t been paid; rebel attacks were on the rise. And if that wasn’t enough, the deadly spectre of malaria was always there.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Mrs Buck and I got to know each other well. One day, when we were having tea, she politely asked if she could tell me something. She said that she had noticed that I always had money in my wallet and she wondered if I realized how lazy my money was being. I defended myself saying that each week I went to the bank to get the money that I needed for upcoming expenses. She looked unimpressed. She told me what happened to the salary I gave her. After she had paid only the very urgent bills, she either lent out cash at a high interest rate, or bought goods in bulk and resold them at a profit. Like Om Nadia she could barely read or write but she could recite at great speed exactly how much she made on each trade that turned one thousand leones on pay day into one thousand three hundred after just one week.

Pay your bills — not

She never paid for anything in full squeezing as much free credit as possible from all suppliers. Apart from my lazy money, she criticized the way I just paid people without making them come back two or three times for installments.

Salaried jobs in Africa are in short supply, especially for poorly educated women. And even for the educated, salaries of government jobs like teachers and civil servants are poorly — and sometimes never — paid. The only way women can support their families is through being entrepreneurs. It ranges from people like Mrs Buck buying tomato paste in bulk and reselling single cans on credit, to my neighbour, the wife of a senior banker, who, when she travelled to the UK, brought back the latest perfumes to resell to the rich Lebanese.

Where’s the spark?

Women in more developed societies have benefits. In theory those who have fallen on hard times are supported and helped to get back into the workplace. But if a woman has caring responsibilities, from a financial point of view, it may not be worth her while to get a job. But even with caring responsibilities, a woman can become an entrepreneur creating a business that works for her lifestyle and the ecosystem she lives in.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

It would seem that being “on benefits” casts such a gloomy spell that it wipes out entrepreneurial spirits. Thatcher is partly to blame as she used “being an entrepreneur” as a blunt instrument to reduce unemployment figures. But it’s time to move on. African women are lauded and respected for being entrepreneurs. It is expected of them and they are proud of it. Indeed, a woman who didn’t have a least a couple of business enterprises on the boil would be criticized as idle.

So how can we capture that spark of opportunity spotting and grabbing? How can we inspire those who are on benefits but can’t find a job to think of being an entrepreneur? Small businesses are the glue of the middle classes and people should be encouraged and supported in developing their business ideas. Everyone, even the most disadvantaged, has at least one business idea in them.

Cordelia is a social business entrepreneur who has a background in technology, development and communication. She mentors and coaches women who are starting or scaling up small businesses. She is a mentor with the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women. Find out more on demistifi.com