Women entrepreneurs need distinct networks and social spaces to keep themselves going.

Research on entrepreneurialism has shown that women will play an increasing role in what has essentially been a male-dominated space.

According to Prof Vasanthi Srinivasan from IIM-B, “Age is no longer a critical factor for entrepreneurial orientation.” She adds that a large number of the young population of India is becoming entrepreneurs.” Research shows that more than 430 million jobs can be created if people start their own businesses. Of these young entrepreneurs, 50 per cent are going to be women.

When we look at the statistics on women entrepreneurs, we find that women form 35.3 per cent of the total entrepreneurial activity. The percentage of firms run by women with more than $1 million revenue is only 1.8 per cent. This points to the fact that there is room for improvement as one goes up the scale into building growth capabilities.

Women-centric networks

For entrepreneurs, constant growth and learning is vital. Networking facilitates this growth and learning. In order to survive in this competitive space, it is imperative to develop and maintain strong entrepreneurial and social networks.

The rationale behind networking is to grow and learn using sources that were previously not within the reach of entrepreneurs.

When one thinks of business networks, industry-specific or otherwise, usually, chambers of commerce come to mind. These give one the idea that the needs of most of the business owners have been met. Contrary to popular belief, however, there are other key business networks springing up around the world — women entrepreneur-specific networks.

This brings up the question: why the need for a separate set of networks to cater to a woman business owner? This question has many answers, but broadly a combination of socio-cultural norms and constraints in traditional infrastructure create a space for networks catering solely to women.

Entering men's domain

In several countries, cultural and social imperatives prevent women from freely mixing with men, especially those outside their own family.

One of the major challenges faced by women entrepreneurs is the cultural norm of “purdah” which places severe restrictions on their mobility and prevents them from being able to take part in normal economic activities freely. They also have had to, at times, restrict the nature of their businesses to sectors traditionally associated with women — such as education, beauty or health.

However, this practice is changing in today's global world; women are moving forward and working in a space long dominated by men.

The robust Indian economy is a big boon, but more focus needs to be placed on creating stronger foundations for the financial, societal, logistics and technology pillars to fully leverage the capabilities of the Indian Woman Entrepreneur. This clearly explains the need for exclusive business networking spaces for women.

More strides have been taken in Women's Leadership and Empowerment in the last five years than in the last twenty.

While looking at the next five years, it may require more than merely building on the momentum that has been created. What, in fact, may be required would be large strides, different thinking, even tectonic shifts, that create a future platform of hugely spiralling and impactful change.

Use of Technology

In the urban set-up, while many women, across sectors, have taken the entrepreneurial leap, they're now faced with the challenges of scaling up.

Research has shown that start-ups by women require 40 per cent less capital than those run by men. In the US, women-run enterprises are growing five times faster than all other firms.

In keeping with this growth rate and increasing the percentage share in businesses bringing in more than $1 million in revenue, technology is one tool that can be of immense help. Technology has the intrinsic ability to run like a fibre across all sectors and businesses, to provide business results that are measurable.

However, the effective use of technology for enabling businesses to grow and thrive is something yet to be completely understood or implemented, especially in non-tech businesses.

In a study conducted by Cartier Women's Initiative, 234 organisations that support women entrepreneurs were surveyed, and it was found that only 14 of these work with developing and supporting networks of women entrepreneurs.

More importantly, it was found that none of these organisations focus on the use of technology to scale up.

Collaboration and networking are two vital tools that will help entrepreneurs bridge this divide. A lot of companies have recognised this need and have taken a step to enable entrepreneurs with the relevant knowhow. One such example is Dell's Women Entrepreneur Network (DWEN).

Besides DWEN, there are several organisations working towards empowering women entrepreneurs.

One such network is WEConnect International, a corporate led non-profit that facilitates inclusive, sustainable economic growth by empowering and connecting women business owners globally.

The Women's Entrepreneurial Network works on similar lines, supporting and guiding women business owners, women business professionals and women-friendly businesses grow their business through networking, education and connections.

Networking platforms facilitate best business practice sharing and give a window for participants to constantly question and revisit their business approach in light of the information shared by others.

While it sometimes seems like we are reaching saturation point with the number of women's networks there are in the market, it is certain that we are going to see a rationalisation in the next couple of years. The survivors will be those who are committed to understanding small business issues.

While women entrepreneurs in many countries still face significant challenges in launching and growing their ventures, increased social acceptance, influence of technology and targeted assistance programmes are making it easier for women to become entrepreneurs.

Yet, social structures influence personal starting endowments, resource availability and perceptions of what is possible.

Women may follow either traditional or integrative approaches, which imply different recipes for success. The number and strength of women entrepreneurs is expected to increase — meaning the aggregate impact of women on business and society will continue to grow.

(The author is Executive Director, Marketing – Dell India. Views are personal.)

(This article was published on June 15, 2012)
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