Empowering women through social entrepreneurship

Ilustration by: Marija Matić Dobre brlje

Women are more likely to be social entrepreneurs and they often do so for much more than just financial reasons. Often, women also decide to create social enterprises in order to support other women. So, how can social entrepreneurship economically empower women and girls across the world?

Social enterprises are by women for women

Many social enterprises are actually created to support women and girls. According to a British Council report that analyzed the impact of social enterprises for female empowerment in different countries, women-led social enterprises can have a big effect on other women’s lives mostly through education, training, counselling, health, skill development, job creation, campaigning, affordable childcare, tackling human trafficking, combatting gender stereotypes, accessing finance and giving women a voice in their communities.

Across the world, women leaders of social enterprises are identifying the areas in which women and girls are lacking and introducing new programs and projects to tackle those gaps. Women employed by female-led social enterprises also tend to have more opportunities for advancement, even though they tend to have less financial recourses than for-profit enterprises or NGOs.

Innovation for social changes

In 2019, Ashoka and Citi Foundation decided to investigate the ways in which women social entrepreneurs were innovators. They found that women social entrepreneurs usually innovate in four ways: 1) They practice inclusive and collective leadership; 2) They create new roles for women and girls to accelerate social impact; 3) They assert women’s life experiences; 4) They include men in the solution for problems that are seen as usually just affecting women.

What this means is that, to start, women social entrepreneurs do not usually implement the top-down approach that is prevalent in entrepreneurship. Instead, they look for ways to include the communities they work with in decision-making and strive to incorporate different perspectives. Women are more likely to co-create a shared vision of their business and they are more trusting of young people to lead.

Women also invest in the creation of new social roles for other women and girls. Instead of being the sole leaders, women social entrepreneurs actually inspire other women to try leadership positions and find solutions to community problems using their own tools.

 Women social entrepreneurs are also not afraid to use the skills that their life experiences have granted them. If for traditional entrepreneurs emotions such as empathy are not always valued, women social entrepreneurs take advantage of such “feminine” traits to become better leaders and engage more meaningfully with the communities they serve.

Finally, despite traditional ideas about feminism and women’s rights being exclusively female-centric, women social entrepreneurs are not afraid to consider men (or at least some men) as allies for social change. In this way, they can include men in solutions for what is usually considered to be only female problems, such as sexual and reproductive health. By doing so, women social entrepreneurs are investing in lasting social change that embraces the different experiences of both men and women, while striving for a more equal world.

Empowering girls

Women social entrepreneurs usually realize that change does not start only with adults. According to a 2017 report by GAGE, “Some studies highlight the employment opportunities that social enterprises offer adolescent girls. For example, a social enterprise in India delivering eye-care services for poor people, Aravind Eye Care, recruits high school girls each year and trains them as clinicians and administrator, targeting girls from rural areas and often those with limited education (Rametse and Shah, 2012). Another example from India – Datahalli, a social enterprise initiated by the JSW Foundation in Karnataka – encourages girls to complete their education up to twelfth grade and then provides them with basic computer skills, training in data entry and processing, and creates job opportunities at their BPO (business process outsourcing).”

Social enterprises led by women, staffed by women and created for women can be a catalyst for change that trickles down to adolescent girls. By challenging gender norms and offering new role models, girls from poor or marginalized communities can envision a different future for themselves. This can lead to deeper structural changes in society – unfortunately, because many projects aimed specifically at girls and young women remain underfunded, there is not enough data to analyze the long-term impacts of women social entrepreneurship.

Investing in women who can make change happen

All this data tells us that women social entrepreneurs are uniquely positioned to make a difference in their societies and communities. There should be more programs by governments and international organizations to invest and support female-led social enterprises. It is also necessary to create grants for researchers to analyze the impact of these social enterprises and identify best practices. Women entrepreneurs in general tend to be more open to further learning and criticism, so more data and information can help entrepreneurs shape their approach and discover new ways to have an impact.

Although certain areas of women’s rights have gained some media attention in later years, words are not enough – women social entrepreneurs need starting investment to grow their business and they will not be able to create new enterprises or jobs if they cannot access financing. Many women’s organizations could also benefit by diversifying their revenue sources and creating social enterprises to sustain their activities. Women could be pioneers by creating an industry that values market-based solutions without prioritizing shareholders, but rather the beneficiaries of their activities and projects.

Governments need better policies to help women social entrepreneurs and investors need to let go of their gender stereotypes and recognize these women as true innovators. The real change for women’s rights starts with women themselves and it can only be meaningful and sustainable if there are women leaders.

This text was produced in the framework of the project "Support to Priority Actions for Gender Equality in Serbia", implemented by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) with funding from the European Union. The views contained in the text are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of UN Women, the United Nations or any of its affiliated organizations. The project is part of the initiative for supporting women entrepreneurship, women in rural areas, decreasing labor market and employment discrimination, encouraging dialogue on the importance of economic empowerment of women and exchange of knowledge and information among women entrepreneurs.