Rita Bhandary is a woman in business who means business. She is the current President of the Federation of Women Entrepreneurs Association in Nepal (FWEAN) and a successful entrepreneur in her own right. Rita began humbly, learning as she went to seize opportunities to launch her business and a career, and, eventually, to share her success with other women across the country. Her story starts not with the Federation of Women Entrepreneurs in Nepal, but in the home, like many women in South Asia.
As she noted at CIPE’s panel at a March 2015 National Endowment for Democracy conference in Delhi, entrepreneurial success for the women of Nepal is just like the recipe for success worldwide: take opportunities when they present themselves. Bhandary’s experience also shows the importance of sufficient human, physical and financial capital for women to succeed in business.
After graduating from university, Bhandary married and went on to raise two children. But as her children grew and went on to university themselves, she was becoming frustrated. Her husband suggested that she enroll in a general secretary course, but even this seemed like too much; Bhandary recalled that she had lost confidence in her abilities and in herself. Family and friends urged her to enroll in the course, and though she struggled initially, she eventually realized that she was both capable and talented. After she completed the course, her husband helped her obtain a small plot of land, allowing her to start her first business – a flower nursery – which took off even though, at the time, buying flowers as gifts was unheard of in Nepal.
Bhandary’s flower nursery was eventually forced to close because the business lost its land, but she reached out to friends for help starting a handmade paper company. In the early stages of her second business, Rita saw an advertisement for a training program for craftspeople, but the advertisement specified that applicants must have three years of experience.
With a dose of newfound confidence, Bhandary applied with only one month of experience. When the donors came to check on her business, she showed them an empty room with just two workers and no machines. She was still figuring out how to open the company and she needed their help right then. “After three years, I won’t need your help,” she said.
Bhandary’s experience shows, as CIPE has found, that business skills training can be important, but is only effective if markets exist in which trainees can apply their skills. In addition, women in business also need fixed assets, financing and mentorship. But even that is not enough. As highlighted in a 2014 World Bank study on entrepreneurship, training, paired with loans and exposure to other successful businesses, increased knowledge, improved operations, and reduced failure rates. But this success was seen only by men. Women improved their business knowledge, but showed no improvements in other outcomes. To a great degree, that is because many women entrepreneurs around the world also face the challenges of a business environment that presents women with a range of regulatory and other hurdles not faced by men.
It is precisely the role of women’s chambers and associations, such as FWEAN, to tackle those barriers through the policy advocacy process. Recognizing this, Bhandary became not only a successful entrepreneur, but a leader focused on empowering other women. She FWEAN as a platform to consolidate their voice to improve the business climate for women in Nepal.
Earlier this year, with the support of CIPE, FWEAN reached out to government ministries interested in moving forward a bill designed to help women-owned SMEs. The bill sat in Parliament for years, so FWEAN held a series of events to publicize the importance of women’s entrepreneurship amidst Nepal’s ongoing struggles to complete its nearly nine-year peace process and to rebuild the country after the devastating April earthquakes. Working together, the women of FWEAN received a positive response from the government, and FWEAN is now seen as a credible, and powerful, representative of women in business.
Rachel Grossman is an Assistant Program Officer for Eurasia and South Asia at CIPE.