Women social entrepreneurs are innovators creating social changes

Photography: Marija Piroški

Women social entrepreneurs are innovators creating social changes​ 

In many countries across the world, women are much more involved in businesses with a social impact than in traditional companies. In several European countries, social enterprises have more women leaders than any other kind of enterprise. Why is that the case? And what happens when they lead?

What is social entrepreneurship?​

Social entrepreneurship is a term that applies to entrepreneurs that create businesses and organizations focused on social change. The main goal of social entrepreneurs is not to make a profit, but rather to invest, develop and implement new solutions to solve social or environmental problems in a given community. Ashoka, an international organization that has been supporting local social enterprises since the 1980s, describes social entrepreneurships as “individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social, cultural, and environmental challenges. They are ambitious and persistent — tackling major issues and offering new ideas for systems-level change”.

There are many kinds of ventures that can be described as social enterprises. From microfinance institutions to bagel shops, housing projects, tech companies…it is an area as vast as entrepreneurship itself, except that here the social impact is just as important as the financial one.

Women as social entrepreneurs​

According to an OECD working paper, the 'gender gap' in social entrepreneurship is much smaller than the gender gap in 'mainstream' entrepreneurship, suggesting that social entrepreneurship can be a powerful tool to increase female entrepreneurship and participation in the labor market. Furthermore, the research found social enterprises led by women and men to be very similar in size, profitability and growth.

A major difference that was found between male and female-led social enterprises seemed to indicate that women were actually more innovative: “Women-led ventures seem to be more likely to open up new markets – that is, when starting up, providing a product/service which no one else at that time provided. This suggests that perhaps due their specific sensitivity towards social needs, women social entrepreneurs are notable ‘lead innovators’ when it comes to social innovation”.

On the other hand, female-led social enterprises were also generally more participatory in terms of management, suggesting “the power of women social entrepreneurs to empower others (and in doing so, enabling colleagues to learn and develop important talents and skills)”.

Motivations to start a social enterprise​

The European Women’s Lobby started mapping women’s social entrepreneurship in Europe in 2015, with the WEstart website and database. So far, the database features information about 11 European countries, with a list of female-led social enterprises, and a report of the research conducted in those 11 countries.

A survey conducted by the WEstart project discovered that a larger percentage (26%) of female-led social enterprises were located in the Human Health and Social Work Activities and respondents reported that the social issues more relevant to their mission were “Inclusion of socially marginalized people and groups” followed by “Diversity inclusion”. Mainly, they concerned with the integration of socially excluded people into the labor market.

The main motivation to start a social enterprise was to respond to needs in the community and make a difference. Report further states: “In the countries studied, women described personally experiencing and witnessing unmet needs in their community and looking for innovative solutions that will bring about a specific social impact. They also describe feeling a personal calling towards social issues and a desire to make the world a better place with their work”. This indicates women are usually more concerned with social goals than men, perhaps due to traditional gender roles that place women much closer to social issues both in their private and professional life.

Furthermore, many women surveyed had a personal connection with the mission and goal chosen for their enterprise: “The majority of women interviewed for the WEstart project made reference to having had a personal or first-hand experience that motivated them to start their social enterprise”.

Interestingly, very few women were interested in making a profit. “At the individual level, for 31% of women, seeking to make a profit was not a motivating factor. In relation to their household situation, the same applied with 47% of women reporting that “seeking to support myself or my family as a primary earner” was not a motivating factor. Finally, leading a social enterprise appears to be out of choice, since for the majority of women (68%) unemployment or underemployment was not a motivating factor”. Even when women considered the profitability of the enterprise to be important – mainly, women who were unemployed or in countries undergoing economic crisis – the social mission of the enterprise remained equally important.

Supporting women-led social enterprises​

The problems faced by female leaders and founders of social enterprises are very similar to those faced by mainstream female entrepreneurs. There is a lack of funding opportunities that hinders women’s entrepreneurship and many female leaders have reported that it can be harder to attract investors. Furthermore, strict policies and regulations can often be an obstacle to create social businesses and keep them afloat.

It is also important to support initiatives that allow female social entrepreneurs to learn from each other and become more knowledgeable and skillful in running their social businesses. Female social entrepreneurs often suffer from a lack of visibility and it is important to foster networking events and initiatives that highlight the role of female entrepreneurs in communities across the globe.

Female social entrepreneurs are innovators that bring about social change. A friendly policy environment can encourage more women to create social businesses and foster female leadership and participation in the social economy. Likewise, educating consumers on the benefits of female-led social enterprises can encourage them to seek out their services and products, benefiting the local economy and community.


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.