I went to a demo day recently hosted by a leading incubator. Not a single woman was pitching," says Elli Yiannakaris, director of the Raymond Ackerman Academy of Entrepreneurial Development (RAA) at UCT GSB. Our own experience at the Solution Space supports Yiannakaris's observation. Of the more than 90 applications we receive to our Venture Incubation Program each year, only 23% are from female founders.
Where are the women? Why do they not appear to be as widely represented in the entrepreneurial ecosystem? And what can we do to support those who are?
"While there has been a groundswell towards entrepreneurship, as a society, we're not yet at the point where entrepreneurialism is a natural way of thinking," says Yiannakaris. Building a business "is a brave and courageous step, a leap of faith that requires patience, respect and encouragement. We don't often stop to acknowledge that." There is, she says, a need to engender cultural support for entrepreneurs in general, rather than fostering entrepreneurialism simply as a means to overcome unemployment.
Yiannakaris suggests that another key issue is the inherent cultural and gender biases in societies, which often see women's roles in business challenged by expectations and perceptions of their traditional 'womanly' roles. These norms can hamper women from taking that step towards an entrepreneurial journey, she says.
That said, Mishinga Seyuba Kombo, who manages the Enterprise Development Academy at Pick n Pay, says: "Women are doing amazing things every day to provide solutions to the challenges in their society and their community — even with the discrimination they face as they climb the ladder."
Kombo cites just three examples of women who are building successful businesses outside of the tech arena. Ntombenhle Khwathwane is transforming women's beauty regimes with her range of Afrobotanics natural hair and health care products. Jo Galloway of SA Rice Mills is disrupting the maize meal industry with her maize products that contain no genetically modified crops, providing a healthier staple meal for millions. Julia Edwards, of Mojome, has found a sustainable niche providing pre-mixed ingredients packages for followers of the low-carb, high fat food movement.
There are thousands of stories like theirs. Each has a different product, and a different journey to the success they're experiencing today. Group GM SME at MTN, Omotayo Ojutalayo, says it's important to remember that even global conglomerates started out as small businesses. Some of the women she most admires in business include an architect who became a hairdresser and now runs a small salon.
Other founders and entrepreneurs can support each other by offering inspiring stories about their own successes. They can also empathise with the common challenges of building a business, such as being able to establish effective networks, understanding customers and accessing a competitive marketplace.
"Policy and regulations have their place and many are intact enough to support women — particularly in a retail environment," says Kombo, but, she says, "access to funding and access to market are key. This is why it's important to tap into extended networks and other support mechanisms." These mechanisms include mentoring, incubation, training and strong networks. Edwards, Khwathwane and Galloway have all credited these as levers that accelerated their businesses.
Community is critical, too, says Ojutalayo. "In Nigeria, for example, there are thousands of small businesses but they were barely interacting with each other. Technology can be a great enabler for economic activity. It is also a great connector. We have created an online community that facilitates connections that would not have been possible previously. The SMEs in the network trade with and promote each other."
However, great market access and highly connected networks don't necessarily guarantee success. Other factors can and do have an impact. Business giants like Google, Uber and others, particularly in the tech sector, have come under fire recently for widely documented cases of behaviours and attitudes that have side-lined and alienated women. How do women overcome that status quo? Ojutalayo suggests that there shouldn't be any distinction between a man and a woman in business. "We all have a role to play in the local and global economy. Every individual has a contribution to make and that contribution shouldn't depend on that individual's gender."
"Men and women starting out as entrepreneurs are in the same place, doing the best they can," says Yiannakaris. "Men also have an important role in treating women with equal respect, and to acknowledge women's efforts in the same way they would acknowledge the efforts of their male peers."
This is where confidence becomes a factor, says Yiannakaris. This, she explains, is the confidence to 'play big'. "We have an amazing opportunity to build our signature presence, to play big in the world we operate in. And yet we are our own biggest critics, challenging ourselves more than others do when working towards the goals that will drive our success."
That said, Yiannakaris points out that "there is a movement to define success differently." Traditionally, she says, success was defined as the amount of money made, or number of jobs created. This has shifted: "Success is now also seen as the ability to thrive; to have time to do what you want to do; to make a contribution to society and to your community. It's about looking after your well-being."
Kombo agrees, concluding that "we all have a role to play in finding solutions to challenges and contributing those solutions to our community."