Entrepreneurial Mindset Network eZINE
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Breaking the glass ceiling:

women entrepreneurs make it happen

Interview Fiorina Mugione, Senior Consultant, GDSI Limited, Switzerland.

Keywords: Entrepreneurship, education, career planning, female entrepreneurs, youth unemployment, sustainable development goals.

How did you first become interested in entrepreneurship? 

My first encounter with entrepreneurship has been as a child. I was fascinated by my uncle's coffee roasting business. I liked to hang out in his outlet when he was choosing the best coffee grains from Africa and Latin America, blending their flavours in his unique way. The harbour in my Southern Italy coastal hometown also attracted me. I would meet traders from faraway countries bringing exotic goods and their stories. That was my way of talking to people to practice English and, at the same time, learn the insights of trading.

As a talented child, my family and teachers encouraged me to further my education but only to consider careers adapted to women that will provide a work-life balance. I could be a teacher, a doctor or a lawyer, not an entrepreneur. The education system at the time had the remit of providing doctors, lawyers and civil servants, and a job for life. But no one knows what jobs or fields children will work when they grow up. This fact is even more true nowadays: rapid technological changes, innovation, and artificial intelligence are swiping existing skills and jobs.

In my view, the most helpful thing you can do for children is to foster a sense of entrepreneurship and creativity so that they can create their new future jobs. That way, if faced with unemployment, they gain a career for themselves and, at the same time, add value to their communities. I am now comforted that there is a change in education and how teachers present subjects with greater room for self-learning and experimentation. The latter is vital for the new labour market and entrepreneurs.  

When you look back at the time when you started your first business, what did you learn?

After working in small firms and international organisations, experiencing entrepreneurship first hand has been one of my goals. I struggled with authority and had strong self-motivation to start new things. I thought this drive would serve me well in introducing new products and services to the market. I learned the hard way that being the first to enter the market is demanding. You may need a significant investment, a lot of persistence and perseverance, and the right team.

It was a lonely journey, and I lacked the support to continue exploring business options after the first "glorious failure". Again, family and friends did not believe that this was the right track for me. Although I failed in business, after 30 years of a career in international organisations, that glorious failure provided me with many learnings. I gained self-confidence that I could make things happen no matter what (in that instance, the Gulf War), and I could plan and deliver timely. I was good at networking and developing partners in international trade.

However, I did not do well in calculating and managing risks and sharing the same vision with the business partners. I learned that trust in business relationships—whether external, e.g., in sales or advisory roles, or internal, e.g., with your team—is a more significant determinant of success than anything else, including the quality of your products and services.   I also reflected on my risk-averse nature. I was too afraid to spend the money, quit the job and rock the boat. However, I slowly practised taking more risks by using a step-to-step approach to overcome those fears and build the self-confidence that I have today.

What are the barriers women face in trying to start and build a career in entrepreneurship?

Regretfully, many obstacles prevent women's equal participation in business activity and economic development. Allow me to outline four barriers which impede the full participation of women in economic life and becoming entrepreneurs:

  1. First, outdated and restrictive regulatory environments. Women are not alone in suffering from unnecessary regulatory hurdles, but in many countries, specific regulatory and legal barriers negatively impact women. For example, lack of transparency and corruption in some countries, compounded by institutional discrimination against women, make the business environment incredibly difficult for women, contributing to greater informality and income inequality. Introducing laws to tackle corruption and discrimination is the starting point for changing the business culture and putting women on an equal footing with men.   
  2. Second, obstacles to accessing finance. The Global Findex, a comprehensive database measuring how people save, borrow, and manage risk in 148 countries, reveals that women are less likely than men to have formal bank accounts.  Even if they can access a loan, women often lack access to other financial services, such as savings, digital payment methods, and insurance. Restrictions on opening a bank account, such as requirements for a male family member's permission, restrict women's access to funds. Lack of financial education can also limit women from gaining access to and benefitting from financial services.
  3. Third, fewer opportunities for enhancing skills and training. While this issue negatively affects poor communities, women are more likely to suffer restricted access to technical resources, including skills training. This gap hinders their capacity to engage in economic activities. However, it is not just a question of hard skills: evidence suggests women in business sometimes face other 'invisible' barriers, such as a lack of confidence in their entrepreneurship skills, especially when confronted with discrimination. 
  4. Fourth, under-representation of women in specific sectors. Women are under-represented in high growth, high-value-added fields such as science and technology. Consequently, women have less earning potential, and societies lose out on their innovation potential. To address gender disparities between women and men in these fields, young women should have better access to science and technology education, training and resources. 

So, hard laws against discrimination, proactive policies to support girls and women's education and training, and targeted financial services are essential for empowering women's participation in economic life. But to change working cultures and the business environment so that women engage in all economic sectors, the role of networks among women themselves is essential. These networks aim to facilitate the exchange of experiences and provide training and mentorship. They also have a lobbying function to bring in and retain women in under-represented industries, where C-suites are still strictly male-dominated, and women lack powerful role models. 

Despite the challenges, roadblocks and regional disparities, I believe there are more opportunities than in the past for women and young girls. For example, when I entered my first MBA class in the early 1980s, we were only four girls attending, and the professor's first address to us was: "What are you doing here? Are you sure this is for you?". And when I was looking for a job with an international dimension, countless times recruiters asked me: "Are you sure you can travel? Are you going to have children?". Today, more role models of women leaders and successful in business exist in many fields. In school, women often outnumber men and do better than their male counterparts in many academic careers.

"Despite the challenges, roadblocks & regional disparities, I believe there are more opportunities than in the past for women and young girls." Fiorina Mugione

Female entrepreneur

Picture Credit: Fiorina Mugione

Can entrepreneurship be part of the solution to youth unemployment in developing countries?

Entrepreneurship can turn young people from job seekers to job creators in any country. In developing countries, by embracing social entrepreneurship, young people can also contribute to advancing Sustainable Development Goals and tackling the socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19.

Youth entrepreneurship may contribute to social, economic, and environmental innovation to drive sustainable development. However, this contribution requires young people to participate in policymaking as legitimate and significant stakeholders. In addition, the imperative of green growth, decoupling economic growth from resource use and adverse environmental impacts, requires young entrepreneurs to consider the opportunities for sustainable development and the green economy.

Taking this approach, when I led the entrepreneurship programme at UNCTAD, I collaborated with the Commonwealth Secretariat to write a Policy Toolkit on Youth Entrepreneurship for the Blue and Green Economy. This brief provides a guide to better understanding the challenges for youth entrepreneurship in the blue and green economies. It presents case studies and distils lessons from recent initiatives around the world. In addition, it offers a range of practical considerations to improve the role of public policy in promoting an integrated response to the opportunities and challenges facing young people, the economy, and the environment. 

Another success factor for youth entrepreneurship is building networks. One of the successful experiences that I would like to share is a home-grown and innovative initiative – YouthConnekt in Rwanda. The network connects youth to government employment, the private sector, entrepreneurship opportunities, and off-farm jobs. It provides a virtual platform that connects youth, the private sector, and the government through social media and events.  The African Union endorsed YouthConnekt as a primary implementing modality of their African Youth Charter. Another significant spinoff of the YouthConnekt initiative has been its popularisation and scaling up, leading to the creation of YouthConnekt Africa (2017). Another initiative I cherish is the United Nations Inter-Agency Network on Youth Development (IANYD), which established a structured coordination mechanism and a common strategy. 

What policies need to be put into place to help disadvantaged or under-represented people to become entrepreneurs?

I contributed at UNCTAD to formulating the Entrepreneurship Policy Framework, setting out the 6 key pillars of successful entrepreneurial ecosystems (formulating a national strategy; optimising the regulatory framework, improving access to finance, enhancing entrepreneurship education and skills development, facilitating technology exchange and innovation; promoting awareness and networking). The resource is open for everyone to use, and UNCTAD has worked with governments in ten countries to develop National Entrepreneurship Strategies.

In my own reflection, the entrepreneurial ecosystem is changing – the exponential rise of digital communications and technologies - presents opportunities for businesses and enterprises to thrive and become more inclusive. Leading actors from the local entrepreneurial ecosystem,  research foundations, formal ecosystem operators and policymakers can partner in this endeavour. I can highlight three priorities:

  1. Develop entrepreneurship and labour skills. It is crucial to ensure that socially disadvantaged groups have access to relevant education and skills development, enabling them to acquire the requisite competencies and in-demand skills to engage effectively in self-employment or participate in the labour market. In addition, providing socially disadvantaged groups with business knowledge, information, and advice through mentoring and access to networks is imperative to ensure that these groups have the necessary support to engage in business activities effectively. Policymakers can ensure investments are made in education and training to provide in-demand skills and support the capacity of institutions to provide relevant skills, as well as improve the support infrastructure, particularly access to networks and mentoring. Entrepreneurs' financial management skills can also determine their ability to access credit and grow their firms.
  2. Facilitate access to finance. Banks traditionally require clients to provide collateral such as land or real estate to secure loans. However, many creditworthy SMEs and vulnerable groups do not have the type of collateral required by commercial lenders and therefore have trouble accessing finance. To remove this barrier, the government and financial institutions may relax collateral requirements and introduce different schemes for creditworthiness evaluation. In addition, policymakers should consider providing financial incentives, ensuring access to innovative financing, and supporting the development of the necessary infrastructure, such as incubators and accelerators, which can help catalyse start-ups' development. For example, several countries have established funds to support female entrepreneurship. In addition, venture capital promotes alternative energy and environmentally friendly technologies, using funds to spur green entrepreneurship.
  3. Adopt a holistic approach. Priority economic reforms often reflect stakeholders' immediate needs rather than long-term development goals. Virtuous sequencing in all the domains important for entrepreneurship would build an enabling environment and the confidence of entrepreneurs and investors in pursuing business opportunities. ◼️