This June 8,000 world leaders, influencers, academics, activists and journalists flocked to Vancouver, Canada to attend the largest conference on gender equality on the health, rights and wellbeing of women and girls this decade. Serving as a catalyst to achieve a more gender equal world, the theme of Women Deliver this year – ‘power’ – could not have been more poignant or more timely. Across the world we are seeing the power of women led campaigns to challenge the status quo. We need only look so far as the Times Up and #MeToo campaigns to realise the game-changing impact women can collectively have, when we have a shared vision and purpose and the means to take action.
We are also seeing the power of individuals to make us sit up, take notice and want to get involved in the bigger issues that are affecting the world around us. Swedish 16 year old Greta Thunberg inspired global strikes of school children protesting against inaction on climate change and Malala Yousafazi has fundamentally changed the way we think about education for girls across the world.
The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women hosted a powerful side event to supplement the main conference programme, where we asked speakers to ‘pitch’ for three minutes their ideas for how we can harness the power of a global network of ‘sisterpreneurs’. We were joined by an esteemed panel, including Hon Julia Gillard, the first woman Prime Minister of Australia and current Chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership; Sarah Hendricks, Director of Gender Equality at the Gates Foundation; entrepreneur and disability rights activist Tanzila Khan, Founder of Girlythings and Amy Greene, Chair of the AVON Foundation for Women. We also heard, via video, from two women entrepreneurs participants of our programmes in Nigeria and Mexico, Chioma Okunu and Alejandra Montemayor.
We see everyday just how powerful women entrepreneurs can be, not only as businesswomen, but also as change-makers in their families, communities, governments and, for some of them, globally too. We asked our audience, through Sli.do, what they felt were the most essential elements of a global movement of sisterpreneurs. 89% of our audience felt that peer support was the most crucial to mentor and act as role models for one another, with advocacy to remove the barriers for women entrepreneurs and create social change also featuring highly. We also asked our audience what form of technology would best support the development of a global movement. Unsurprisingly social media was a clear winner, but it was interesting to see the popularity of messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, which we know from the programmes we run can significantly support the continuation and longevity of networks of women entrepreneurs.
Fostering these relationships and networks was a central tenant of the pitch from Chioma Okunu, former Road to Growth programme participant and founder of Recycle Points in Nigeria, who highlighted the importance of a global movement to forge togetherness and sharing between women entrepreneurs. Similarly, Amy shared AVON Foundation for Women’s belief in the need for the collective sisterhood and AVON’s mission to become a much more powerful social voice promoting the solidarity to be found in entrepreneurship.
Deeply entrenched gendered perceptions of entrepreneurs was also highlighted by Amy who said “If you Google the term ‘entrepreneur’ 90% of the images you see are male or masculine”. Julia Gilliard highlighted stark examples of the discrimination women face when seeking funding from Venture Capital (VC) investors: male entrepreneurs seen as ‘young and promising’, women as ‘young and inexperienced’; men seen as ‘sensible and level headed’, women as ‘too cautious and does not dare’; men seen as ‘very confident innovator, already has money to play with’, women as ‘good looking and careless with money’. This kind of discrimination not only distorts who gets funds, but also who is provided with the essential expertise they need to help business grow.
The social conscience element of women’s businesses is of course important and the social changes that women’s businesses are making, is often the focus of communications about women entrepreneurs. Tanzila raised the importance of us developing our thinking about women entrepreneurs, to recognise that we need more women entrepreneurs, not just because they are more likely to be interested in and address social issues, but because they have big ideas and important business skills to offer.
We know that as business owners, as leaders, as creative geniuses, the new ideas and fresh perspectives of women entrepreneurs could drive scientific breakthroughs, fuel solutions to the world’s most pressing problems, drive change in the workplace to ensure sexual harassment is no longer ignored or tolerated and, ultimately, more women-founded and women-led business can transform the way we live our lives. Ale Montemayor founder of lingerie company La Talla Perfecta, explained that women entrepreneurs like to listen, they like to contribute rather than compete – bringing a different quality to entrepreneurship.
However, as we heard from our panellists, there are structural and institutional barriers inhibiting the success of women entrepreneurs. Sarah Hendrix shared that economies and economic growth is not experienced equally; the playing field is fundamentally stacked against women, with research showing that in 94 countries the gap in economic participation is more than 70%. Building on this, Julia highlighted that only around 17% of businesses backed by VC investors are run by women and the need to put a spotlight on VC industry to play its part in making a global movement happen.
Despite this uneven playing field, it is widely accepted that investment in women entrepreneurs is transformative for women, communities, societies and economies. We asked our audience where they thought the funding for a global network of sisterpreneurs should come from, most of our audience felt that Venture Capital investors, the private sector, foundations and charities will have a key role to play in the development of this movement.
Finally, we asked our audience for one word to name most significant change we would see in the world when we create a global movement of sisterpreneurs: the consensus was GROWTH.
Our panel agreed that unleashing the potential of women entrepreneurs to galvanise a social revolution could be a powerful next step in our collective efforts towards equality. If we do this, we can move the world in a whole new direction.
You can watch a video from our event on our Facebook feed.