Empowering women entrepreneurs

September 26, 2012

By Amanda Bullough, Ph.D. 

In my academic career, I have honestly never been more proud, again!

For the second time, I’ve been able to really connect my research interests, my interest in working with women for economic development, and my teaching all together in a worthwhile way. This fall, Thunderbird offered and conducted the second Emerging Market Women Entrepreneurs Business Plan Consulting course. This course connected 11 Thunderbird MBA and MA students (Clay Adair, Nada Al Harthi, Maram Alamsi, Aderonke Coker, Sanchita Dhara, Jillian   Furbish, Rahul Garg, Eri Miyagi, Morgan Olson, Elliot Rossbach, Morgan Wildermuth), from six different countries (United States, Nigeria, Palestine, India, Saudi Arabia, and Japan), with three women entrepreneurs with high growth potential businesses: a high-end embroidery textiles business in Afghanistan, a natural skin care products company in Indonesia, and a luxury/indigenous massage spa in Malaysia. The purpose of the class was for the students to learn about the anatomy of a business plan, starting businesses in developing countries, and the difficulties facing women entrepreneurs. We also wanted to provide in-depth consulting to help our women entrepreneur clients grow these worthwhile businesses.

Here’s how my students impressed me, even more than I hoped they would:

I knew all along what kind of impact we would make through this course for our women clients. I also knew that each student would walk out of the course with a lot of new insights and skills. What I didn’t realize fully was the impact the experience would have on their views of others in the world around them.

For example, I have always stood in awe of these women. They often face discrimination and discouragement throughout their entire lives, and yet they persevere in the most astounding ways. Even in the most hospitable of developing country circumstances, they face structural barriers. They don’t fear negativity, they don’t fear failure, and they don’t let fear for their lives stop them. I am moved by learning that my business students are humbled by these women and have learned as much from them as they’ve given. Here are some highlights of what they shared with me at the conclusion to the course:

This was a course, for all practical purposes, on business plans, but the students also got a refresher course on product analysis and competition, effective marketing strategies in a foreign and developing country, distribution methods, and how to achieve brand awareness in a completely unfamiliar culture. Students realized the procedural and strategic differences associated with trying to sell a product in an unfamiliar culture and business environment, in the real world, rather than just in theory.

There are structural limitations that women face, even in the most positive business environments, like not being allowed to own their businesses outright without a man owning at least some portion, even if he’s not a functioning member of the business’s start-up or operations. One student commented, “Being a woman in a developing country almost always adds an additional layer of complexity to being an entrepreneur.”

Another commented, “[I learned that] when I start my business in the future, although many factors of business success vary according to region (for example, marketing and distribution), there are certain universal things that must exist in order for a business to succeed, such as organization, a good grasp of the numbers, making sure not to grow too quickly before a solid base is established, and the belief that you have something special and different to offer.”

As a result of this class, students have become more effective leaders because they know what questions to ask, what to look for, and how to recommend that an entrepreneur proceed.  Students have also learned more about how to advise organizations working to promote women’s entrepreneurship in developing countries.  Grants that support the advancement of women’s businesses are important in developing countries, but consulting on the effectiveness of the business model is also critical for the profitability and growth of the business.

Several students noted the important lesson: when working to promote entrepreneurship in developing countries, it is necessary to have a local expert from the region.  Our male students in the class commented that they now have a better appreciation and understanding of what women in developing countries face with regard to starting and running businesses. They feel that this understanding positions them better for future work within emerging economies.

Students also learned that you cannot rely on the client to give an accurate idea of the problems his or her company faces. It often takes an outsider with a keen eye to uncover all the elements that need attention in a business − an exercise required in order to write a proper business plan. There may be underlying root causes as to why a business isn’t profitable, for example, that have little to do with what the owner of the business thought was the problem.

In terms of project management, students learned that it helps to understand the scope of work if you can determine early on the type of data that will be needed.  In describing a take-away in this regard, one student advised consultants, “Ask for information in a variety of ways and in multiple contexts, particularly if English is not the first language of the client.” Ask politely to avoid badgering the client, but in different ways so that you can obtain the information needed for analysis.  Students had questions prepared, but had not prepared for the possibility that the client would be unfamiliar with some terms. So they took care to explain what information was needed, how it might appear in her records, and how it would add value to her business plan. Approaching the client with reasons for the requests made her extremely responsive and eager to learn more about the process

In another example, when one student consulting team asked the client about competitors they were initially told that there were no competitors. When at a later meeting the client mentioned that the success of her company inspired other individuals to enter the spa industry, they again asked whether these spas were competitors and were told that they were not. It was only once the team did an analysis of the competitive landscape, drew conclusions from this analysis, and presented them to the client that she gave a well-researched competitor analysis that she had been using as a basis for her pricing structure and positioning strategy. During a short consulting project, this type of delay in learning critical details resulting from miscommunication can cause significant issues.

Students also learned how important it was to get to know the client and how she communicated in order to make the best use of time on the project. They made simple changes to Skype sessions and emails and dramatically increased the amount of data the client provided.

People in Afghanistan are much less supportive of women in business because their families fear for their security, even though a thriving business could benefit the community.  The lack of business associations, education, infrastructure, and security can be crippling for the development of the private sector, and subsequently the economic development of the country.  Students learned that when dealing with people in locations plagued with severe adversity, people from developed countries must be able to exercise patience and try to understand that operations in these places may not function as smoothly as we expect.

Some of the students have received feedback from the women already, saying how helpful their ideas, questions, and recommendations were.  They now view the women less as victims, after working with them these past weeks, and more as strong forces to be embraced and encouraged for the development of their countries. These entrepreneurs are starting businesses not only out of need, but also because of a belief in their resilience and their ability to grow from adversity.

When the students try to put themselves in these women entrepreneurs’ shoes and think of how determined they would be after roadblocks, closed doors, and failed attempts throughout their entire life, they have a new-found respect for just how strong and resilient the women are. This seems to have left some of the students humbled by how fortunate they have been in their own upbringing.  They were moved by how the women we worked with were not only motivated to generate an income for their own personal households, but they also quite passionately want to do what they can to change their whole country and other people’s lives through their businesses.

Each of these students should feel very proud of their work and dedication to this course and these women!

Amanda Bullough, Ph.D., is assistant professor of global entrepreneurship and leadership at Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona. She is academic director of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Entrepreneurship Program in Afghanistan.