Supporting Women’s Entrepreneurship Around the World

Article at a glance

  • Through associations, businesswomen can come together to address the social and economic challenges faced by female entrepreneurs.
  • Developing a successful National Businesswomen’s Agenda requires that associations conduct thorough research to identify social, economic, and cultural hindrances faced by women in the private sector. Sound research will boster associations’ advocacy.
  • Dialogue about women’s empowerment must engage male stakeholders. Involving men in conversations about women’s participation in the economy helps policymakers of both genders understand the importance of the legislative solutions being proposed, while also encouraging the challenge of social norms.


According to UN Women, women comprise half of the world’s population, perform 66 percent of the world’s work, produce 50 percent of the world’s food, and constitute between 60 and 80 percent of the manufacturing workforce in developing countries.1 In addition, women business owners make up the majority of entrepreneurs in the informal sector and a large share of the microenterprise sector. Yet, despite their extraordinary contributions to socio-economic development, women continue to be marginalized in many countries around the world.

The Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) views women’s empowerment through the prism of building linkages between political, civic, and economic empowerment, where civil society organizations become a leading force to remove barriers to women’s participation and empower women to shape the future of their own countries.

CIPE’s approach to women’s empowerment is guided by a simple principle: women’s empowerment should not be driven by simply bestowing or extending benefits to women. To be truly empowered, women must develop their power base, advocate for reform, and exert their own leadership to change their countries’ political, cultural, and economic environment.

On November 19, 2014, CIPE celebrated Women’s Entrepreneurship Day by hosting an online discussion with leading women entrepreneurs who embody CIPE’s approach to women’s economic empowerment. The Google Hangout featured three speakers who shared their stories about overcoming social or economic challenges in their communities:

  • Lucy Valenti is the president of Red de Empresarias de Nicaragua (REN) based in Managua, Nicaragua, and chief executive of a tourism company, Turismo e Inversiones S.A. With CIPE support, REN is currently leading an effort to develop a National Businesswomen’s Agenda in Nicaragua, which calls attention to the specific obstacles faced by woman-owned businesses and proposes practical solutions to overcome them.
  • Lina Hundaileh is the chair of the Young Entrepreneur’s Association (YEA) and founder and general manager of Philadelphia Chocolate Manufacturing Company in Jordan. As chair of the CIPE-supported YEA, Lina has successfully advocated for changes to Jordanian laws and cultural perceptions to promote a more favorable environment for women entrepreneurs. For example, she helped effect changes to laws to allow Jordanian women to receive a business license while working from home.
  • Selima Ahmad is the president of the Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI). BWCCI launched the inaugural Women’s National Business Agenda (WNBA) in 2009,2 which contained 30 concrete policy recommendations including increasing lending to women business owners, securing space at markets to sell their goods, and easing the business registration process. BWCCI has also advocated for the creation of a National Women’s Entrepreneurship Development Fund to address various issues including access to credit, training for women entrepreneurs, and better market access for women.

CIPE: What path did you take to become the successful leader and entrepreneur that you are today and what obstacles have you faced along the way?

Lucy Valenti, REN: My leadership path began with the opportunity to live abroad for nearly ten years and experience the development of a tourism industry in another country. Even though I arrived in the Seychelles Islands as a journalist, I quickly fell in love with tourism. When I returned to Nicaragua in the early 1990s, I had the chance to either return to journalism or continue on in the tourism sector. I ultimately decided that I had strengths to share with my country to help develop a new industry, because at that time tourism really had yet to be born in Nicaragua.

I decided to share my experience in tourism. I was convinced that Nicaragua had all the strengths to develop a strong industry in tourism, which could assist in economic growth, reducing poverty, and creating jobs.

My passion for tourism helped guide me, though at the time I never thought of becoming a leader per se but rather wanted to share my experience. There were few people in Nicaragua at that time with extensive international experience in developing this sector.

My background in journalism, in which I had the opportunity to partake in television programs, was exceptional in allowing me to overcome the limits that women normally faced. For example, in public or in large meetings, most of the attendees are men. In such settings, especially within private sector organizations, women do not always participate. One of the reasons is that they are not used to participating and feel somehow afraid or timid to sit at the same table with men.

I think I managed to overcome that fear and gained confidence because I had the knowledge and the practical experience.

Lina Hundaileh, YEA: I graduated from the Jordan University, where I studied nutrition. After graduation, my first job was working for a German company as an assistant director. Then, after the Gulf crisis in the 1990s, the company decided to close its office in Amman.

I was faced with two options: either to start my own business or to look for a career as an employee. The first thought that came to mind was, “I don’t want to be a mediocre person. I want to excel. I want to have a good quality of life for myself and for my kids.”

I thought to myself, “I want to start my own business. What can I do?” I am a chocoholic person. I love chocolate, so I thought about starting a chocolate factory. Everybody started laughing. “You want to start a chocolate factory and you have no idea about manufacturing?” My education was nutrition. It has nothing to do with business, accounting, or manufacturing.

Yet, I was passionate about starting my own business and I said, “Let me start digging for information. If the information tells me that it’s not feasible, then I will stop digging.” I told myself I would not have setbacks just because people were telling me “you don’t have the experience to start your don’t have the knowledge.”

I told myself that I would not listen to them. I am a positive, optimistic person so I decided to pursue this option. I started digging for information. To cut this story short, I found a company in Cyprus that was able to sell me the know-how of manufacturing chocolate.

When I started my manufacturing business in Jordan, it was the first chocolate factory that produced real, high-quality chocolate in the country. I started producing three kinds of chocolate. Ten years later, I was producing more than 80 kinds and I was exporting 60 percent of my production. I was leading the local market because my company was the only local firm producing high-quality chocolates comparable to the imported chocolates from Europe.

During this time, I saw that a lot of laws in Jordan were changing and were not friendly towards the local firms. For example, Jordan signed a free trade agreement with the European Union in 1997, giving imported goods a tax exemption. I was faced with fierce competition and needed to diversify my market and products in order to remain a leader in the local chocolate industry. I knew that if I did my homework and researched well, I would succeed and excel. I did my homework and became a leader in the market.

After achieving success with my business, I felt that I needed to give back to Jordan what it had given me. I became actively engaged in civil society. I was very active in helping startups, increasing the exposure of entrepreneurs in the capital, Amman, and in the rural areas where the economy is less vibrant, and I was very passionate about increasing the participation of women in the economy.

I started mentoring and coaching for the Young Entrepreneurs Association (YEA). As I held leadership roles at YEA, I focused on bridging the gap between the government and what the local entrepreneurs needed. As I became active at the international level on these topics, I began to wonder: What does Jordan need to do in this space to help women?

Since then, YEA has been advocating for policies to engage more women in the economy – not only for starting a business, but in the labor market too – because we have one of the lowest levels of women’s participation in the labor market in the world. YEA, therefore, is advocating to create a more conducive environment for women to participate in the economy.

While I am a serial entrepreneur and have started different companies, my aim and passion is to help startups, and in particular to help women to start businesses.

CIPE: Please share specific local examples of how your association is helping women entrepreneurs. For instance, REN is undertaking a women’s national business agenda. Can you tell us more about the reform priorities for women entrepreneurs in Nicaragua? And what you hope to achieve through this process?

Lucy Valenti, REN: My organization is building a women’s national business agenda. In the past, we’ve had national economic agendas that were built with the support of the United Nations. They involved women’s groups and other civil society organizations but not the private sector, especially not women entrepreneurs or women in the private sector overall.

It is only recently that businesswomen have decided to come together to start working on solving the obstacles that hinder women from achieving better results for their businesses. Therefore, we formed the Network of Nicaraguan businesswomen, or REN, about three years ago.

This year, we decided that it was important to create the National Businesswomen’s Agenda to help women develop their businesses. Most of the businesses owned by women in Nicaragua are micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises, as our economy is mostly based on small and medium-sized businesses. With the support of CIPE, we have started to create and work on the agenda. We have already identified four topics to focus on.

These topics were chosen based on what women themselves told us during our consultations throughout the country with women from different sectors of the economy. We identified four main challenges:

  1. Access to credit. Women in Nicaragua face limited access to credit, which hinders businesswomen’s ability to expand their firms. This has been a common concern for many years, and must be addressed.
  2. Capacity building. We found that women need and request a lot of training in different areas of expertise and skills that are necessary to grow their businesses, including leadership skills.
  3. Associations. Most women in the private sector in this country are not associated with any private sector organizations. They find themselves alone having to solve business issues or problems alone. It is thus very important that they come together via private sector associations to help overcome business issues.
  4. Policies and legislations. Women entrepreneurs are often unaware of the laws that affect their businesses, such as the obligations they have, or even the benefits they are entitled to. For example, an official can come and tell them they have to pay extra money because their firm is a certain size, even though by law they may not have to pay that fee because small businesses do not pay the same tax rate as larger enterprises. Yet, uninformed women business owners may not be aware of the difference.

REN is focusing its National Businesswomen’s Agenda on these issues, and hopes to help more women in the private sector become aware of relevant policies and laws, gain access to credit, build their capacities, and join business associations to advocate for their rights.

CIPE: Selima, can you also share with us the story of how the Bangladesh Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry has helped women entrepreneurs in your country?

Selima Ahmad, BWCCI: Our organization was established in 2001 and is the first women’s chamber of Bangladesh. Currently, BWCCI has about 3,500 members and works to engage and train women entrepreneurs to develop their business skills. Recently it has achieved considerable success in policy advocacy.

In 2009, BWCCI launched the inaugural women’s national business agenda The agenda included 30 policy reform recommendations covering five social barriers, 13 capacity building and training needs, and 12 financial barriers. This structure allowed BWCCI to organize its advocacy campaign very effectively and set top priorities for the reform agenda.

More than 180 organizations representing all six geographic regions of Bangladesh endorsed the final agenda, which was submitted to the national government. In order to help publicize the agenda, BWCCI printed about 4,000 copies of the document and put two full-page ads in local newspapers.

The advocacy campaign was very successful on a number of issues. Among others, it increased lending to women-owned businesses, including through collateral-free loans at a reduced interest rate. Women in Bangladesh had faced many obstacles in borrowing prior to the engagement of BWCCI. Many did not feel confident or knowledgeable enough to enter commercial banks and request loans to launch and grow their businesses. Through BWCCI’s advocacy efforts, according to the Central Bank, $93 million taka (approximately U.S. $ 1,195,400) has been given in small and medium enterprise loans to almost 10,000 women, which has helped to create thousands of jobs. In terms of leadership, as a result of BWCCI’s advocacy work, three BWCCI board members have been nominated by the government to the boards of state-run banks, which is very helpful in increasing the attention to women borrowers and their needs.

What is more, women entrepreneurs previously experienced difficulty securing space in commercial markets. As a result of BWCCI’s advocacy campaign, the mayors of two cities committed to creating a separate market space for women entrepreneurs to sell their goods. This was significant because women entrepreneurs are usually unable to pay to secure a spot at a public market, or they encounter a number of social barriers to having a space in the market where male shopkeepers are not usually very welcoming.

Finally, to reduce harassment and avoid corruption when women entrepreneurs approach public officials to establish or renew their business licenses, city corporation offices – the municipal offices that handle business registrations – have agreed to place citizen charters in their offices. Citizen charters are public billboards that contain information relating to the processing and renewing of trade licenses including fees, processing time, and required procedures. This way the required procedures are on a public display and it is much easier for women borrowers to verify that the proper procedure is being implemented.

Overall, the attention to the needs of women entrepreneurs has increased in Bangladesh. Women have an easier time registering their businesses, applying for a loan, securing a space at a public market to sell their goods, and as a result of BWCCI’s work, women today in Bangladesh have a much easier time participating in the economy.

CIPE: Barriers to economic participation by women often relate to balancing family obligations and professional development. Lina, could you tell us about how YEA has addressed this issue?

Lina Hundalileh, YEA: First, let’s start with some information about women’s participation in the Jordanian economy. Unfortunately, the data about women’s participation and the importance of this in the economy is incomplete. If you want to obtain the official data from the government about the importance of women’s participation in the economy, you cannot find it. Even if you find it, it’s not up to date or it’s not the right information.

For this reason, our government does not know that more than 50 percent of the productivity of the country is lost because it is failing to collect the right data. It is unfortunate, because if the government knew the truth, it would definitely want to do something about it.

One of the challenges that women in Jordan face when they try to start a business or try to become employed is mobility – to go outside of their houses and work – or rather the lack of mobility.

Number two is labor laws. Jordan does not have a law for flexible hours for part-time jobs. If we want to increase women’s participation, and mobility is an issue, then women are faced with the challenge of finding the right nursery to take care of their kids or finding help at home to go to work.

YEA asked, what can women under these circumstance do? We then identified that if the local municipality can establish a law that allows women to stay at home and work, then this eliminates mobility as an issue. Women will then have more rights, and will be able to work from the comfort of their home, a necessity for many women who must balance work and home responsibilities.

YEA addressed this issue at the local level through a campaign called Small Office Home Office Initiative. As a result of this advocacy effort, we now have a law covering certain jobs and activities that women can do from home. Limitations within the law do exist; for instance, a women is not allowed to receive customers at her house and thus not all jobs can be done from home. However, YEA is trying hard to increase the types of jobs that women can do from home as this in turn will increase their overall participation level in the economy.

CIPE: Regarding women’s leadership, why are women still often not a part of business associations?

Lucy Valenti, REN: We identified that one of the issues is the problem of lack of association among women, as well as their leadership skills. Many women who are in the private sector and have their own businesses are not part of any organizations.

They find themselves alone when they face problems, and they do not know where to go to get help to solve problems. Therefore, there is a need to promote the idea of women coming together in women’s organizations or chambers. We need to work towards promoting organizations such as REN among women.

We also need women to hold positions on decisionmaking boards. If we do not have women participating in the boards of directors of various organizations, we will not be able to pass the necessary measures to help empower them economically or to change certain norms, legislation, etc. We need women to participate in the boards of different private sector organizations to achieve these goals. We need to work towards preparing a program to help women develop leadership skills and also have them join different private sector organizations.

CIPE: Why is it important to give specific attention to the needs of women entrepreneurs? In REN’s case, why is having a separate women’s business association more effective than having more women in a mixedgender business association?

Lucy Valenti, REN: While I also belong to a general organization – I am a member of the Superior Council of Private Sector in Nicaragua and it is a maledominated organization – we have had to struggle very hard to have women’s issues taken seriously. A few of my fellow women entrepreneurs and I decided that it was important for women in the business sector to have our own organization that could focus specifically on the needs of women. These need will not receive priority if we are in a mixed-gender environment right now.

Our issues – women’s issues – are not really important to most males, and the private sector organizations are formed mainly by men. Women have very little participation in the mainstream private sector organizations in Nicaragua. Overall, in the 21 chambers that exist in the country, women represent about only 16 percent of membership and the percentage of women’s participation on boards of chambers is even lower. This is why we really want to change things. More women need to be on the boards of private sector organizations to take action. We, therefore, decided to create REN to focus specifically on the needs of businesswomen in Nicaragua.

I think that Selima’s experience in Bangladesh is very important for REN and what REN is doing right now here in Nicaragua. It seems obvious to me that there are many similarities in the needs of women all over the world.

For me, it’s very important to have the opportunity that I’m having now to meet and join through this Google Hangout with women like Selima, because I think we could start a very close relationship in order to exchange experiences and see how the agenda they are working on in Bangladesh could help us build our own agenda here. I hope in the future we could continue this relationship and maybe have the opportunity to meet personally and exchange experiences with Selima and the organization in Bangladesh.

CIPE: How has YEA challenged cultural barriers that women entrepreneurs or businesswomen face, in Jordan or throughout the region?

Lina Hundalileh, YEA: Usually, if you look at women entrepreneurs or women participating in the economy, you find them in two tracks: women who have the sparkle in their eyes to start their own businesses, and those who become employees of other organizations or companies. We need to look at these two tracks to help every woman – to help them start their businesses or to help them to excel in their jobs. What hinders the potential of women in both tracks are cultural barriers. We need to talk to our male counterparts.

We can’t ignore the male counterparts and not talk to them. We must raise awareness among them, or provide them with information on how to help us. The fathers, brothers, and husbands are our stakeholders. These male counterparts must be convinced and aware that women– their wives, sisters, or mothers, could be much better off if they had mobility and could excel at their jobs or businesses.

YEA challenged social norms in Jordan by, firstly, raising awareness among men and convincing them that they should want their female counterparts to work. We wanted the idea to come from men. We need them to understand that if women work, life will be much better for everyone.

The second challenge YEA faced was public outreach. Engaging with media and religious leaders was crucial for us. They needed to help us, especially in the rural areas of Jordan. We needed them to be with us, to work with us, to break these cultural barriers.

YEA knew that if we didn’t approach the issue of increasing women’s participation in the economy through this path, we would not succeed. For this reason, when YEA engages the government in a dialogue, we include our male counterparts for a collaborative solution. It’s so crucial for men stakeholders to understand that it’s important for the women in their lives to have the rights and the avenues to work so that everyone’s lives are better – their quality of life, their health, their education.

CIPE: This has been a fantastic panel! Thank you everyone for sharing your insights and experiences. Does anyone have concluding words, or words of encouragement for those watching this discussion, to fight for women’s empowerment around the world?

Selima Ahmad, BWCCI: I appreciate sharing with everyone what we, women entrepreneurs across the globe, face every day. We all face obstacles but we should not be demoralized. We should be courageous. We should work hard. I always emphasize my three Cs: you need to be creative, you need to be competitive, and you need to be committed. That will make your dream fulfilled and that will make us empowered, which will allow entrepreneurship to flourish in every society.

This article is a summary of the discussion that took place on a CIPE-sponsored Google Hangout. To watch the full discussion, visit: com/watch?v=Ovf-rl9iNRg.

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