Perhaps we can all agree that knowledge is a key that unlocks many doors, but we’ve also heard that “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” Certainly entrepreneurship research can be said to agree with both sides of that argument, as both human capital (what we know) and social capital (who we know) are found to be strongly related to entrepreneurial success. Research also finds that women frequently enter into business ownership with lower levels of human and social capital.
The importance of building both business skills and entrepreneurial networks was driven home to me once again recently as I traveled to Rwanda, to meet with government officials, the international donor community, entrepreneurial support organizations and women business owners themselves to assess what systems of support are in place, what aspects are missing or under-resourced, and – ultimately – what investments the US government could consider making to spur the growth and increase the chances of success of women-owned businesses in the country.
What did we find? An abundance of political will and enthusiasm for progress, along with zero tolerance for corruption. Many policies and frameworks being put into place. Growing interest in women’s enterprise development in particular. Many pockets of activity focused on cooperatives, focused in some communities, and the beginnings of capacity-building among growth-oriented, English-speaking women business owners. We also found a lack of connection: within government, among NGOs and donor-funded activities, and – sadly – among women business owners themselves. When we met with Thérèse Bibonobono, head of the Chamber of Women Entrepreneurs (here we are meeting with her – from left to right, Anne Simmons-Benton from Booz Allen Hamilton, Bibonobono, myself, Jennifer Pawlowski from BAH, and Stephanie Le from BAH), she told us that her staff consisted of “Thérèse, Thérèse, and Thérèse.” We learned that what networking and conferences there had been for women business owners in the country (just 2 seminars over the past two years) drew primarily the owners of formal sector businesses in the Kigali area. We found that there are currently very few opportunities for business skill-building outside of Kigali. While there is an umbrella organization of women’s groups from around the country, Profemmes Twese Hamwe, neither the chamber nor this group currently has the monetary or human resources to begin “connecting the dots.”
We also found that many women, when we asked where they’ve gone for support and guidance, spoke solely or predominately of their own persistence and perseverance. They’ve had few role models, nor did many speak of sharing experiences on an ongoing basis with fellow business owners. While there is undoubtedly still some lingering hesitancy and fear of openness left over from the period of conflict and genocide in the country’s recent past, the absence of business networks and opportunities for sharing experiences and ideas is also a factor in women having to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.
Happily, things are changing. There is a new Gender Monitoring Office, which will coordinate and oversee government efforts focused on women. The Private Sector Federation, Rwanda’s Chamber of Commerce, has very ambitious plans to open business development centers in all 30 districts in the country. Indeed, 17 are open already. There are plans to offer classes and access to ICT at these centers. But, while the physical infrastructure of these centers will be a beacon to many seeking specific assistance for their nascent or new businesses, they will not begin to build an entrepreneurial community without some very specific, focused activities that go beyond classroom training. Over the years, I’ve learned that women business owners crave much more than textbook business learning. They desire:
- a “safe” atmosphere where they can ask questions and speak openly about the unique challenges that women business owners face – such as juggling work and family responsibilities,
- a more relational, less transactional environment, where they can feel free to return for more information and follow-up,
- support that focuses on personal leadership development as well as on business skills, such as counseling and mentoring support, and
- learning and sharing with other women business owners – discovering what to do and NOT to do in certain situations, and gaining comfort from learning that one is not alone.
These elements are often not found in typical small business development centers, but they are integral to the DNA of women’s business centers. So, while learning the ABCs of starting and running a business is essential for the development of individual businesses, it is not sufficient for weaving a web of support that will enhance growth and build an entrepreneurial ecosystem. All business owners – but women especially – need the power of community, whether they know it today or not.
Here are a few women’s business-focused initiatives now operating in Rwanda:
The Business Council for Peace (BPeace)
Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women initiative
The Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women‘s “Peace Through Business” initiative