Being a woman of strong will and the one who likes to challenge her own limits, I have always been inclined towards advocacy for women’s economic empowerment and inclusive growth opportunities for women. People usually come up to me and ask what can be done to accelerate the process of empowering women in our society. Being a social entrepreneur myself and having worked on the subject extensively through both advocacy and action, I have always come to the same solution every time: social entrepreneurship is the embodiment of what an empowered woman looks like.
In simple terms, social enterprises are enterprises that have a social purpose, but are run on business principles, and reinvest any surplus into the social purpose of the entity. Social entrepreneurs are true leaders in the sense that they carry their environment fearlessly and instead of being imposed with conditions, they create conditions for themselves. They run the show and in broader terms, they impact social change.
While there are many primary drivers for a social entrepreneur, the overwhelming aim of almost all social entrepreneurs is to produce social and environmental value that diffuses through the realms of a society. Pakistan and especially women can immensely benefit from the development of the social enterprise sector considering that women have lack of alternative options on the plate.
The significance of social entrepreneurship as engine of growth for women is reflected in empirical research. Recently, a study was conducted by the British Council in five countries: ‘Activist to entrepreneur: The role of social enterprise in supporting women’s empowerment’. There are more opportunities for women’s leadership in social entrepreneurship than in the for-profit sector. For example, in Pakistan, there are 5% women leaders in for-profit organisations as compared to 20% women leaders running social enterprises. The study also found that the social enterprise sector in Pakistan is growing leading to an immense impact.
The social impact of women-led enterprises in Pakistan is that they have four times as many female staff as their mainstream counterparts. Psychologically, running a social enterprise gives a boost to women’s self-esteem and self-confidence. The same study reports that 75% of the women social entrepreneurs interviewed admitted that it increases their sense of self-worth. This impact is particularly crucial considering the lack of relevant female role models whom other women can look up to for hope and inspiration.
If social entrepreneurship catalyses action for women’s economic empowerment, why do we still see a lack of global initiatives for growth of this sector? According to various studies and also in my experience, access to funding and finance is the main barrier that women launching social enterprises face today.
Working as a social entrepreneur for almost a decade, I have come across various methods of financing which can result in impactful investment. I believe that the most effective method in triggering the ripple effect is innovative cross-sector partnerships between the private sector, government and the social enterprises. Further, the trending use of social media can be used as a tool to encourage angels’ investment and crowd funding, targeting innovative social models and capacity-building of the women entrepreneurs.
Other multiple options of funding include venture philanthropy, micro-finance, government grants and private funds customised for social impact. I also strongly feel that traditional banks have the potential to play a significant role in accelerating growth of women-led social enterprises by not only financing the social sector but also by using the gender lens to carry out need-assessment surveys to identify the needs of women social entrepreneurs and the barriers that they face. In Pakistan, the Small and Medium Enterprises Development Authority (Smeda) has already set a precedent for this by organising two workshops on `Women Business Need Assessment`.
Financing methods need to be complemented with supporting components for achieving accelerated impact. Other steps to increase the rate of start-up and scale amongst women-led social enterprises include introducing gender-sensitive reforms especially for childcare, introducing targeted support-packages and capacity-building programmes and setting up and reinforcing the schemes that grow female social entrepreneurs’ professional networks of business and finance contacts. Obviously, all the above efforts cannot materialise well if efforts are not made towards bringing significant positive change in the existing social norms and eradicating gender stereotyping.
Pakistan has set great examples for best practices in accelerating women social entrepreneurship. The Hatchery, a social enterprise incubator, can be used as an inspiration for setting up incubators and programmes that can connect investors to women who are willing to start their own social enterprise and to provide them with workspace, network-building, training and mentorship. The First Women Bank, Karandaaz and Kashf Foundation have also set a precedent for such initiatives. HBL, a traditional commercial bank, introduced HBL Nisa to cater to the financial needs of women. More of such initiatives must be directed towards supporting women who want to relentlessly pursue their passion.
At the end of the day, social enterprises not only reflect gender inequalities, they also challenge and break through the existing societal barriers. With availability of enabling platforms, women, as individuals, also need to stop seeing themselves as the weaker gender and must realise that by unleashing their potential, they can outreach even their self-defined limits.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 4th, 2017.