Women entrepreneurs are contributing significantly to the global economy, but SWEEP needs to do more to stimulate local activity

Published On: 8 February 2022|

Recent data shows that there has been a slow shift in the entrepreneurial landscape and that more women are prepared to put in the hours and do the work to move their businesses from locally concentrated scales to high-growth enterprises.

Professor Natanya Meyer (left), Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Johannesburg and Chairperson of the EDHE Community of Practice for Entrepreneurship Research, spoke at the recent Student Women Economic Empowerment Programme (SWEEP) Economic Activation Workshop. Her presentation, titled The Beauty of Women Entrepreneurs, affirmed that even though women still grapple with diverse challenges, a tide in entrepreneurship was turning in their favour.

SWEEP, an initiative of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Programme, hosted the first in a series of planned workshops from 25 to 27 January 2022, aimed at empowering student women and offering them a safety net of transferrable and practical skills that will inspire them to start their own enterprises while studying. Participants were drawn from the signed-up SWEEP members and more, from South Africa’s public universities. The EDHE programme, mostly funded by the Department of Higher Education and Training, is being implemented and administered in partnership with Universities South Africa.

While acknowledging the staggering challenges that women entrepreneurs frequently encounter, Professor Meyer aimed to shine a spotlight on some positive trends that suggested possibilities.

Some of the findings she shared were from her PhD study, which sought to understand why women entrepreneurs remain in business despite all the challenges that they face. Professor Meyer admitted that while data was broadly more available on women entrepreneurs, one that looked at specifically student women entrepreneurs was yet to be unearthed.

“That is why this SWEEP initiative is so important to bring in the extra layer of dynamics that we need to investigate on a student level,” she said.

Pointing to some positive global trends, Professor Meyer said the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported that women are considered a reservoir of entrepreneurial talent. This report said they are seen as an engine of growth and a resource of innovation, leading to employment and wealth creation. That is why initiatives such as SWEEP were important because there was a lot of untapped talent within women as an entrepreneurial community.

Still on global statistics, Professor Meyer said recent findings reported that women represented one in three growth-oriented entrepreneurs active in the world today. These refer to individuals striving for high-growth businesses that have transcended survivalist modes.

She further said that new data showed that in low and middle-income countries (including South Africa), 17% of women are entrepreneurs, and 35% aspire to end up there. “This implies that over half of women in developing countries see entrepreneurship as a path to a better future compared to only 25% in high-income countries,” she said.

These statistics, drawn from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) 2020/21 Women’s Entrepreneurship: Thriving Through Crisis Report, indicated that women in the Middle East and Africa displayed higher rates of entrepreneurial intention. “That is something positive for our country and region,” she said, highlighting that Angola has the highest ratio of female to male established business ownership in the world.

She therefore suggested that SWEEP members ought to look to Angolan women entrepreneurs to learn what they need to focus on, as they were clearly setting a benchmark.

Other promising stats from the 2020/21 GEM survey reported that an estimated 274 million women globally are involved in business start-ups while an additional 139 million women are owners of established businesses – those that contribute to the economy through tax and employment. The survey also reported that 144 million women are informal investors.

From yet another section of the 2020/21 Women’s Entrepreneurship: Thriving Through Crisis Report, Professor Meyer cited global margin statistics, which showed that in 2019, the Early Start-up Entrepreneurial Activity females-to-male ratio stood at 0.9%. This meant that for every ten male entrepreneurs, there were nine female entrepreneurs in 2019, and these accounted for entrepreneurs still in the infancy stage (i.e., with up to three years) of business. According to the report, the margin had gone up from 0.7% in 2017. Considering that South Africa was included in the 2019 global margin statistics with a reading of 0.7% (meaning that for every ten male entrepreneurs there are seven female counterparts), our country appeared to be doing something right, she said.

“I think we are one of the countries that can be looked up to, globally, in terms of gender equality…” she said, quickly adding that  “I am not saying inequality is gone…I am saying somewhere, we are doing something correctly if we compare ourselves with what is happening on a global level,” she said.

Persistent obstacles warrant attention

Notwithstanding these apparent successes, Professor Meyer inferred that women were less likely to become involved in entrepreneurship because of perceived attitudes, lack of resources and skills, and institutional, regulatory, and societal barriers. These needed to change, she said.

“Firstly, we know that for many years, women have fought for equal rights… but we are not saying that women need special treatment… the sad reality remains that in some cases, women are still facing a lot of discrimination in certain employment situations.”

She added that women were more likely to see gender as an obstacle to career advancement, given the reality of sexual harassment.

Professor Meyer first counted general obstacles to women becoming entrepreneurs:

  • Limited networking opportunities and role models
  • Lack of training and education (not so much in South Africa)
  • Balancing responsibilities
  • Defying social expectations
  • Access to funding
  • Sometimes struggling to be taken seriously
  • Owning your accomplishments
  • Building a support network
  • Balancing business and family life
  • Copying with fear of failure
  • Unfavourable business environment.

She then listed additional challenges confronting student women entrepreneurs, in particular:

Notwithstanding these seemingly insurmountable challenges, Professor Meyer assured the student women that succeeding in entrepreneurship was highly possible, as demonstrated by  the accomplishment of their peer, her former student, Ms Mbali Blaai, whose business, Data Service Agency, reached a five-year milestone in January 2022. In a pre-recorded talk, Ms Blaai shared with the SWEEP members, the difficulties she had endured at the beginning of her business journey and how she overcame them. Her biggest obstacles were a self-defeating mindset that she says cost her a lot of money, an impostor syndrome, and financial illiteracy. Blaai told her own story to instil hope in the budding women entrepreneurs that obstacles exist to be overcome.

Suggestions to SWEEP

As she wrapped up her presentation, Professor Meyer therefore suggested several areas that SWEEP should pay attention to, to stimulate entrepreneurial activity in student women in South Africa. These were:

  • Providing strong champions and role models
  • Inclusion of influential business networks
  • Promotion of female entrepreneurial networks and association
  • Drawing greater media attention to the importance of female entrepreneurship
  • Student peer programmes and success stories
  • Better implementation of policies and awareness thereof
  • Greater motivation and assistance for business growth
  • Exposing females to the business environment from a young age
  • Enhanced finance opportunities
  • Developing a greater understanding of the female entrepreneurship phenomenon.

In closing, Professor Meyer said, “Today I have rebranded this SWEEP, and I want to give my SWEEP interpretation to all of you. I call it Support Women Entrepreneurs’ Epic Performance. 

Nqobile Tembe is a Communication Consultant contracted to Universities South Africa.