You Can't Learn to Fish Without Water:
Building a Culture that Supports Women Entrepreneurs
C.J. Hayden, MCC
Supporting entrepreneurship in the developing world
has long been considered one of the best approaches to "teach people to fish" and build sustainable
local economies. In recent years, studies by the United Nations, World Bank, and others have shown
that women entrepreneurs are more likely to contribute to community development than men, and are
therefore better candidates for support programs. In the words of rock star/activist Bono: "Give a man
a fish; he'll eat for a day. Give a woman microcredit; she, her husband, her children, and her
extended family will eat for a lifetime."
Many programs have focused on providing access to
capital, building needed infrastructure, and revising legal and regulatory requirements to make
business ownership a more viable option. While these factors are critically important for
entrepreneurs to thrive, there is one more issue that successful programs need to address: building
an entrepreneurial culture.
Without a culture that supports entrepreneurship,
women don't perceive it as an option. Learning to fish requires something even more basic than bait,
nets, or an adequate supply of fish. It requires that there be water. An entrepreneurial culture is
the body of water that must exist in order for fishing to begin.
There are three dimensions to building a culture that
supports women's entrepreneurship in the developing world:
- Education and training
- Access to support and information networks
- Family and community support
When all three of these dimensions are addressed,
entrepreneurs can flourish. But when any one of the elements is missing, the others alone may not be
sufficient for women entrepreneurs to succeed.
Education and Training
Providing business education and entrepreneurial training is often the central component of economic
development programs, and is essential to successful efforts. Many training programs focus on teaching
women the technical skills needed to operate a specific business, such as manufacturing handcrafts,
producing food or beauty products, or raising dairy or wool animals.
But in many areas of the developing world, women have
received little or no formal education, and what schooling they have often focuses solely on literacy.
Needed areas of added learning are typically basic business skills such as bookkeeping, budgeting,
supervision, marketing, and sales, as well as understanding the legalities of starting a business,
and obtaining localized information about access to markets and sourcing materials, inventory, or
The needed learning doesn't end there. The European
Commission 2004 report, How to Create an Entrepreneurial Culture, explains that education is
not only necessary in business skills, but also in "the development of personal qualities that are
relevant to entrepreneurship, such as creativity, spirit of initiative, risk-taking, and
Business skills can often be taught in a classroom or
workshop setting, and through internships or apprenticeships, but skill-building in areas such as
initiative, risk-taking, effective communication, and leadership qualities may require mentoring,
experiential learning, and peer support, as described further below.
Access to Support and Information Networks
A key element for the success of any entrepreneur is the availability of mentorship and peer support.
Studies by the U.S. National Commission on Entrepreneurship revealed that the most successful
entrepreneurs are "embedded in a supportive system that includes networking opportunities with other
entrepreneurs" and "links to mentors and role models."
Mentors and entrepreneurial peers can provide general
business advice, suggest specific solutions, make connections to influential people, recommend
resources, and share best practices. Role models can inspire by example, encouraging prospective
entrepreneurs to follow what may be a non-traditional path.
Mentorship and support networks can be significant
for men and women alike, but evidence suggests that for women, they are critical. According to Joan
Steitz, a UNESCO laureate at Yale University, "We cannot expect to capture the interest and talents
of girls and women... unless they can view their own participation as possible." Women often need to
see other women operating businesses before they will choose entrepreneurship for themselves.
A fundamental component of successful women's
entrepreneurship programs is that they provide access to mentors, peers, and role models through
structured group activities, formal mentoring partnerships, or informal networks of students,
graduates, and other women in the community.
The most effective programs offer regular gatherings
where participants can share success stories, seek solutions to common problems, reinforce
newly-learned skills, and experience a sense of partnership and camaraderie. These meetings continue
well beyond the initial training period, to provide ongoing support as the women's enterprises grow.
To help women improve the personal skills that
bolster entrepreneurship — risk tolerance, self-confidence, and powerful communication, for
example — support groups like these can be a more effective method of skill-building than
classroom education. With the continuing encouragement and example of their peers, women become more
confident about their enterprises, increase their self-esteem, learn to lead others, and are better
able to withstand opposition and setbacks.
Family and Community Support
The final dimension to building an entrepreneurial culture can be the most difficult to achieve. If
family members and community leaders oppose women launching business ventures, this can be a
persistent barrier. Values, attitudes, and cultural attributes in many areas of the world can prevent
policymakers from taking the necessary legal or financial action to support women entrepreneurs.
Opposition from husbands, fathers, in-laws, and religious and political leaders can discourage women
from choosing entrepreneurship or sabotage their efforts.
One approach to building support for women's
entrepreneurship is to provide evidence to community leaders of how other communities have benefitted.
In areas where women have been able to launch successful entrepreneurial ventures, communities see a
dramatic improvement in living standards. Not only are the women's families better fed and housed,
but their children receive more education, and the family's health improves. When political and
religious leaders learn of these tangible potential benefits, they can often be persuaded to change
Another effective strategy is to educate family
members. Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, overcame initial opposition to offering
microcredit to Bangladeshi women in this way: "We started meeting with the husbands and explaining
the program in a way where they could see it would be beneficial to their family. And we made sure to
meet with husbands and wives together so everyone understood what was expected."
A third successful avenue is to encourage women to
speak out for themselves. Bolstered by seeing other women's success and participating in peer support
groups, Yunus says, "Women started confronting the religious people. They said, 'You think taking
money from Grameen Bank is a bad idea? Okay, we won't take any more — if you give the money
yourself... And of course the religious advocates said, 'No, no, we can't give you money.' So that was
the end of that."
Building an Entrepreneurial Culture
To teach women entrepreneurs how to fish, it's clear that simply handing out fishing equipment isn't
enough, nor is it effective to teach basic fishing skills and then walk away. Entrepreneurs need the
ongoing guidance of experienced fisherwomen, as well as the companionship of other novices. They also
need to live near a body of water where fishing is not only permitted, but encouraged.
Creating this environment is the critical task of
entrepreneurial development programs. But many programs have focused only on skills training,
neglecting the social support elements that enable entrepreneurs to thrive. According to the Center
for Rural Entrepreneurship, the essential attributes of an entrepreneurial support organization are:
- They place primary focus on entrepreneurs rather than
the enterprises they create.
- They build a support system that nurtures
entrepreneurs during the idea phase, provides the resources and tools needed to create new
enterprises, and guides the entrepreneur through the process of growing a business.
- They contribute to the creation of entrepreneurial
environments where entrepreneurship is supported in both the public and private sectors.
The hallmark of a successful program is that it offers
support to the entrepreneur instead of just to her business. Program elements such as peer support
groups, mentoring partnerships, and community outreach provide a nurturing social environment for
Supporting all three dimensions of entrepreneurial
culture — education and training, access to support and information networks, and family and
community support — should be an essential goal of every entrepreneurial development program.
With this three-faceted approach, advocates of women's entrepreneurship will create an environment
where women business owners can thrive.
Copyright © 2007 C.J. Hayden. All rights reserved.
This article was written for the
Accelerating Women Entrepreneurs Alliance, and has not been published
in print or online. If you would like to print it in your publication, please contact me for details.
C.J. Hayden is the best-selling author of Get Clients Now! and Get Hired Now!
Since 1992, she's been helping entrepreneurs build enterprises that make a difference. She is a frequent
speaker on topics of social entrepreneurship, activism, and purposeful careers, and an advisor to social
ventures. Find out more about C.J. at www.socialentrepreneur