Women entrepreneurs' sustenance strategies

DOULOT AKTER MALA | Tuesday, 7 March 2023

World's richest woman, Francoise Bettencourt Meyers, who has amassed net wealth of US$ 81.49 billion, is involved with doing fashion and retail business. The French-born billionaire is vice-chairman of L'Oreal. Two top female billionaires of the world are in fashion and retail business. However, this is not the whole story of the businesswomen in particular.
A latest International Women's Day Study from City Index, scraped from Forbes' billionaires list, reveals the success stories of the duo from the womenfolk.Though the USA topped the list, women in our neighbouring country, India, has ranked fifth.
No doubt, women in Bangladesh are far behind in the world ranking of billionaires. Through the City Index findings, it is visible that women are quite successful in fashion and retail business entrepreneurship. Majority of women entrepreneurs in Bangladesh are also engaged in running fashion and retail business. However, path of the women in business is not smooth here in Bangladesh like in developed countries.
Global financial turmoil due to inflationary pressure, the Russia-Ukraine war and US-China conflicts have compelled many businesses to revisit their operational strategies.
Cost of doing business jumped manifold after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world. Energy prices have surged exorbitantly, too. Manufacturing units have cut down their production, employment, and wages. The government also adopted austerity measures to control expenditures to ease pressure on the country's foreign-exchange reserves. Growing challenges in business operations also forced women entrepreneurs to adopt new coping strategy for survival with the odds.
Old-proven business strategies, in many sectors, are not working as before in the era of digitization and after COVID-induced economic shocks.
In Bangladesh, women businesspeople have to face several hurdles in starting up and continuing business. Women-led businesses face difficulties to grow in full swing and independently due to countless hindrances. Obtaining trade licence and renewal, VAT and income tax-related complexities, extortion in opening and operating outlets and many more could be pointed out as roadblocks.
A study by Women Entrepreneurs Network Development (WEND) found most entrepreneurs register their businesses three to 15 years after the startup to skip burdensome multiple compliance costs even before beginning operations.
During the pandemic, many of the women switched to online business shutting down their outlets. Later, some of them resumed operations while a vast majority of small entrepreneurs dropped out.
Lack of product diversification and innovations is another reason most of the women entrepreneurs remained stuck in conventional business like boutiques, handicrafts, clothing and fabrics, homemade foods and pickles. The volume of such businesses is not that much high like other heavy industries.
Technological revolution has come as boon for many women entrepreneurs while bane for some. Still, women in Bangladesh are technology-shy and hesitant to come under digitization. Digital technology can make the way to entrepreneurship smoother for women. Services and delivery of goods are available at fingertips now -- they just need to adopt the technology.
According to a study by BRAC, one-third of the entrepreneurs had to shut their businesses in pandemic period. However, there is no study as to how many women-led businesses could resume their operations in the post-pandemic period.
Industry-insiders said many disappeared being exhausted with multiple challenges while a good number restarted at full pace and new innovations with the help of ICT.
Around 85 per cent of the women are involved with informal-sector businesses. Policymakers need to give women entrepreneurs space to grow and come under formal channel. Women-friendly policy and service delivery should be ensured for smoothing their path. Its' a welcome step of the registrar of joint stock companies and firms to set up dedicated women desk for providing services. The government is also supporting women entrepreneurs in showcasing their products at SME fair at low cost. It has also offered stimulus package for women businesses to recover from the scar of covid.
The World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2022 shows more women than men continue to be impacted by the pandemic. No doubt, current economic instability has triggered the suffering of women entrepreneurs. They are now facing a fresh challenge like other businesses.
Some of the women businesspeople are compromising on the quality while some on their profitability to survive. Replica of the boutique and substandard fashion fabrics are available at cheaper cost in the market for a lack of awareness.
Humaira Sultana, owner of boutique house Shokherdibba, said the wholesalers have started online retail businesses now posing a threat on women entrepreneurs businesses.
"Women entrepreneurs used to procure products from weavers and sell in the online or in their outlets, but now weavers are showcasing their products directly in online portal," she said.
Many women entrepreneurs forced to give up their businesses in recent time being discouraged on multiple challenges, she added.
She said the businesses dominated by women entrepreneurs remained largely unregulated and lack of proper support to diversify their products.
Women must see success story to proceed on the diversified sectors, she.
Ms Sultana said training on high-end technology could help women entrepreneurs compete and sustain in the digital market.
No doubt, number of women in businesses has increased during the last one decade due to technological revolution.
Women in Bangladesh have personal challenges too. They have to struggle with cultural and religious obligations, take care of children and other household chores along with their professional works. There is insufficient child care home and other social support for women to work outside home for a longer period of time.
Another hindrance on women entrepreneurship development in Bangladesh is women are yet to become tech-savvy here. Global study said women make up only 22 per cent of artificial intelligence workers globally. Though there are countless public and private sector training programmes to deliver ICT literacy to the women professionals, yet women in Bangladesh remain far behind of the ICT skill than that of the neighbouring country India.
A study conducted by Daffodil International University in 2019, found only 16 per cent of women are occupying ICT workforce in Bangladesh.
Women in Bangladesh face shortage of capital and access to loan to start ICT business. Without backing from influential quarters, they hardly get bank loan without collaterals.
ICT-based profession is not a desk work and could be performed from anywhere. A businesswoman can operate and supervise her business activity from home too. Its' definitely an advantage for the woman in this subcontinent who has to spend a considerable time for childcare.
Tech industry in Bangladesh remained largely male-dominated. Though youngsters are recently enrolling in increased number in ICT-based education, presence of them in the workplace is still poor. Overall number of dropouts from profession is high among the women workforce.
Nevertheless, people are not discouraging their daughters, nowadays, from joining computer science or engineering courses in Bangladesh. They have started overcoming the stereotypical concept that ICT is a masculine profession. Workplace safety, cyber-safety has to be ensured to encourage women in taking up tech business. Women need separate ICT policy dedicated for their growth in the challenging sector.
The media have a role to play in highlighting success stories of women in business while the government should frame effective policy and private sector come with investment.
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the UN specialized agency for ICTs, data showed gender divide in South Asian countries is higher where women are 36-percent less likely to use the internet than men. The mobile industry association GSMA also echoed the fact that there is a significant gender gap in mobile-phone ownership in South Asia.
Integrated effort is needed from government and private sector targeting ICT skills development of women entrepreneurs. Adopting digital technology and innovations in business is the only way to keep uninterrupted market access and diversify product basket. The survival strategies for women in business should be framed based on ICT to combat current economic downturn.

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