There is growing evidence that women entrepreneurship is crucial in unlocking significant economic growth and driving meaningful and lasting transformation in communities. The World Economic Forum wrote in May 2022: “Investing in female and diverse ethnic minorities is a critical step in both taking reparative measures to mitigate the impact endured by disparaged communities and supporting the recovery of these communities in a post-pandemic world. Investors should take note.”
This means a proactive, deliberate effort to support women - from well-connected networks for existing entrepreneurs to providing a ladder for previously disadvantaged women at grassroots level - is a strategic imperative for our country, and while entities such as the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation (EO) South Africa are prioritising inclusivity, there is space for more broad support for women, including role models, tools to increase self-belief and business acumen, and legislative and local government support.
This is the view of four highly successful South African women entrepreneurs, all members of the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation (EO) and owners of very different businesses. Cara Saven, EO communications chair and owner and founder of Cara Saven Wall Design says that it is important to understand why women go into entrepreneurship as opposed to finding a job.
“No two people will have the same situation, and in many instances, people start businesses out of necessity. In my case it was the need for flexibility because of life circumstances and classic jobs don’t allow for this flexibility. And so, when women start businesses and hire other women they change this because they understand the level of flexibility required by women who may also be mothers. We have ignored for too long that 50% of our population have a very different struggle from men.”
Statistically, 70% to 80% of small businesses fail in their first five years, meaning support is crucial especially for young startups who may not have access to various forms of social capital. To truly achieve transformation and inclusivity across race and gender it’s imperative that organisations like EO connect with business owners at grassroots level. It’s for this reason that Bootcamp to Boardroom was launched running in conjunction with top Cape Town business owners through support from EO and Over The Rainbow Foundation.
Gaynor MacArthur, EO member and managing director of Digicape, says: “EO has been intentional in transforming and driving inclusivity, actively looking to increase the female membership of all races in the organisation. The female members in the EO MEPA region are highly supportive of each other and embrace the Bootcamp to Boardroom initiative to help drive, support and train startup businesses, in all aspects from cash flow, to marketing to sales approaches,” she adds.
Carmen Amos, EO member and Executive Producer Juice Films, feels that this support helps women navigate male-dominated industries. “I loved the mentor programme many of us took part in last year which was about mentoring women starting their own businesses. I would like to see more of this. It has encouraged me to create more space within my own office to support women in our industry,” she says.
The question then, is what else can and should be done to actively drive and support women entrepreneurship?
Saven rays that the whole journey starts with self-belief. “The first thing we must prioritise is for more women to have a sense of belief in themselves. This is especially true for mothers who worry about juggling motherhood and their own businesses. They need to be reassured that starting small is the perfect place to start.”
Referencing the classic roles that are ascribed to women traditionally, EO member and Caveat Legal founder and CEO Yvonne Wakefield says there should be formalised mechanisms to support women who generally must juggle far more than many of their male counterparts.
“Unpaid duties like childcare, care for elderly parents and housekeeping place huge constraints on women’s time, energy levels and creativity. These are the most important personal resources needed for innovation and entrepreneurship,” says Wakefield.
“Government home, child and elderly-care subsidies for women entrepreneurs, or tax incentives for women entrepreneurs, could help with this. Another mechanism that could be used to benefit women entrepreneurs would be a change to empowerment laws so that women could be seen as previously disadvantaged and eligible for better ratings, giving their businesses better access to supply chains,” she says.
MacArthur agrees, adding: “I don’t think many startup entrepreneurs have a clearly defined understanding of what a high-growth startup versus a small startup business is. They both require grit, courage and capital, and when funding is made available it comes at a price, so I would definitely say that two things that need to change: Women need to support women more, and women entrepreneurs need more support from our local governments.”