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From Rwanda to Shanghai, women are setting up new businesses with social and environmental change at their heart. Charlotte Sankey asks what's driving them.
An entrepreneur walks around the slums of Kigali, Rwanda, calling on her neighbours. She is a 'Solar Sister', selling small, affordable solar-powered lamps to light people's homes, taking the place of toxic kerosene ones.
In Shanghai, Huang Ke approaches corporate sponsors with her vision of V-Roof volunteers greening up to 300,000 square metres of the city's rooftops.
In Gujarat, three artisans embroider patterns onto brightly coloured cloths for SEWA – a trade union that offers women training in business, design and leadership to help them set up their own entreprises.
In Swaziland, Sibongile Maseko, Production Manager at Quazi Design, watches over 20 women making striking pieces of jewellery from old magazines. Back at home, Maseko cooks for ten dependents, as well as her neighbours. And she offers training in business skills to other entrepreneurs in the community.
Maseko is one link in an impressive female chain of entrepreneurship. Quazi Design receives funding from the New York-based non-profit Nest, set up by Rebecca van Bergen, at the age of 24. Nest funds 15 artisan projects worldwide: Gujarat-based SEWA is also among them.
These social enterprises are just a few pixels in a sizeable picture. Worldwide, thousands of women are setting up businesses – small and large – that create jobs and deliver wider social and environmental benefits. Nor is it a new trend. Many of today's most successful ethical brands had visionary women at their roots: The Body Shop, Green and Blacks, People Tree... So what's driving them? The flexibility of running your own show is one attraction for women, research suggests. A study of small enterprises in Trinidad and Tobago by the International Labour Organization found that women there are attracted to activities which allow them to stay close to home, and which draw on skills acquired through the performance of 'traditional' roles.
Networking is one such skill, as illustrated by Maseko's story. Collaboration is another, or "the ability to co-exist with other people's egos", in the words of Juliet Davenport, Founder of Good Energy. A study by the British Chambers of Commerce, 'Achieving the Vision', found that women in the UK are nearly three times as likely to collaborate with research institutions than male-led businesses.
The same study also found that female entrepreneurs are more likely to offer a product or service that's unfamiliar to the market. Davenport is a case in point: her company was the first to offer electricity from 100% renewable sources to UK households ten years ago. Every so often, Davenport pops in for a cup of tea and a chat with her customer care team, drawing on their experiences to find out what will persuade more consumers to buy her wares. Her willingness to listen and her appetite for innovation may seem unrelated – but they're not. As Sylvia Ann Hewlett, President and CEO, Center for Talent Innovation, argues, "If you have the power of different kinds of perspectives and backgrounds, you will create better decisions, discover opportunities to hit new markets, and create new products."
Marjora Carter, the urban regeneration strategist who founded Sustainable South Bronx, agrees. "I find, with very few exceptions, that when I give women particular projects to do and allow them to proceed in a way that they think they should – and not the way that I think they should – they generally take it as an enormous boost of confidence and encouragement."
Another attraction of social enterprise – for women, though not exclusively so – is its focus on long-term impacts, as opposed to short-term gains. Statistics show that women in business take fewer risks, favouring stability over profit potential.
"Women think about the future, and what sort of world is being created for future generations", remarks Theresa May, Home Secretary and former UK Minister for Women and Equalities. Carmel McQuaid, Climate Change Manager at Marks and Spencer, concurs. She finds women show a more patient approach to business, and are "willing to wait for a slower but better outcome".
'A better outcome' might not be a bigger surplus
'A better outcome' might not be a bigger surplus, as Christine Wilson, Head of Youth and Society at the British Council, found in her former role as a social enterprise advisor. She witnessed "extraordinary women doing extraordinary things", but found that they weren't "necessarily interested in scaling up".
"Women don't see their business as linear, but organic and circular", argues van Bergen, the founder of Nest. "It isn't something you grow to sell, with a beginning and end", she explains. "Above all, it tends to be focused on the networks you create."
Is this how women increase the impact of their work: by passing on the baton, rather than adding another inch to their own?
Charlotte Sankey runs the communications agency Creative Warehouse.
Photo: Quazi Design