Preparing women entrepreneurs for tomorrow’s reality

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In October 2014, UN Women Executive Director proposed 2030 to be the expiry date for gender inequality (UN Women). How can we make this bold goal a reality? Where do we start? Let’s start by envisioning the world in 2030. How will it look like? At a recent Aspen Institute conference Chiara Giovenzana, Singularity University in Silicon Valley said: “In ten years, illiteracy will no longer be about the ability to read and write, but about the ability to code”.

Let’s take another look into the future through the lens of “The Internet of Things”. It is about linking physical objects or “things” with electronics, software, sensors and connectivity. For example, a business produces a pair of shoes with built-in sensors to help them track the whole process throughout the value chain all the way to the final customers and even second-hand buyers. It is expected that these sensors can report back to the manufacturer on information such as who bought the shoes, how many times the shoes were used, and how long they were used for before they were discarded. The same concept could be applied to fabrics, clothing, furniture and other consumer goods. It is expected that the Enterprise Internet of Things will account for almost 40 per cent or 9.1 billion devices by 2019 (Wikipedia, Survey Analytics).


The knowledge and technology society as an equal playing field?

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Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have become indispensable for effective participation in the economy. Many women’s businesses around the world are using (ICTs to connect with their customers, sell products to new markets, forge business contacts and obtain market prices. With ICTs many women entrepreneurs access key sources of information, opportunities to build networks and taking advantage of the increasing number of online mentoring programmes and web-based and mobile-assisted learning tools.

However, in this world where modern ICTs seem to be everywhere to some, and exponentially so in the future, it is not to everyone. Only some 2.7 billion people (around 39% of the world population) were online in 2013: approximately 1.3 billion women and 1.5 billion men. This gender gap is more prominent in developing countries where 16% fewer women than men use the Internet—with up to 40% in some regions—compared to 2% in developed countries (ITU 2013).

These gaps—in addition to the fact that 300 million women in low and middle-income countries do not yet own mobile phones—are an indication that internet service providers and mobile operators have not yet fully realized this huge untapped market of potential customers. Why otherwise would they accept a potential revenue loss of US$13 billion? (GSMA Development Fund, Cherie Blair Foundation 2010). The global explosion of smartphone subscriptions to some 5.6 billion by 2019 (Ericsson 2013) provides an enormous potential for accelerating women and girls access to global online communities.

ITU (2012) has estimated that 90 per cent of future jobs will require ICT skills. And, as the world is moving towards an ICT-based knowledge society that demands new skills and new ways of working, interacting and learning, women entrepreneurs need to take advantage of this trend and not only use technologies in their businesses but also become the technology creators and innovators of the future.

However, technology in many countries is still a domain associated with men and boys, and prejudice and stereotypes remain towards women’s and girls’ ability to understand and use modern technology. This has made women and girls trailing behind and has already resulted in fewer opportunities to engage and acquire relevant know-how and skills and to seek employment and entrepreneurial opportunities in this field. For instance, less than 15 per cent of managers and decision-makers in the ICT sector are female (ITU 2012).

Clearly, we need more women and girls with ICT skills. Its benefits go beyond women’s economic empowerment, elimination of prejudice and stereotypes and the advancement of gender equality.


Women in the ICT pipeline

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Technology companies have realized that these benefits could help them with their bottom line and ensure diversity in the workplace. While the education system has yet to fully incorporate ICTs into the curricula after-school programmes, clubs and hackathon events are mushrooming throughout the world to prepare today’s girls for tomorrow’s realities. They get to work with engineers, product designers, project managers and other hackers to come up with ICT solutions to problems in their communities.

Technology companies, such as Microsoft with the Big Dream Movement, are making strides in getting more women and girls into the future pipeline of women in technology. Mozilla’s Web Makers involves youth in building and protecting the open web, and Intel’s She Will Connect is working on women’s and girls’ digital literacy.

As these girls and young women are getting ready for tomorrow’s market, they also need to be equipped with entrepreneurial and business skills so that they can also become the business leaders of tomorrow.


UN Women, technology and women’s economic empowerment

At UN Women, we are promoting and advocating for women’s entry into the ICT workforce through new partnerships with the technology sector, programming in developing countries, and through sponsoring hackathons. We are also developing entrepreneurship training modules to make this happen.

These initiatives will be combined with our existing mobile-learning platform, iLearn, which has been developed specifically for feature phones (i.e. phones with voice, text and basic internet capabilities) through our collaboration with Facebook’s iLearn is a platform for and by women entrepreneurs. Women tell their “story behind the business plan” and provide business tips for other entrepreneurs.

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Several SEED Winners have already contributed their stories to iLearn, such as Orikiriza Rusia Bariho, Founder of Oribags Innovations Ltd, Uganda; Joyce Kyalema, Founder of Josmak International Ltd, Uganda; Asmaa Benachir, Founder of Au Grain de Sesame, Morocco; Bilha Maina, Founder of Kenya Promotions and Marketing Company Ltd; and Adisa Lansah Yakubu, The Shea Economic Empowerment Programme, Ghana. More stories will be featured as iLearn rolls out to millions of women across Africa, Asia and Latin America in 2015. So far, 7 million Tigo users in Colombia, and women in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, and the Maharashtra State in India have access to iLearn through the app.

We are also working with partners on a series of social media for business tools and workshops to raise awareness of women entrepreneurs on how they can utilize social media and to reach potential clients, update them on new products and services and for broader marketing efforts.


How to contribute

Do you have a successful business story to tell? How are you using the internet and social media to promote your business? Are you a technology entrepreneur? If so, we would like to hear from you. Join us! And email us your story: Empower [dot] Womenatunwomen [dot] org (Empower[dot]Women[at]unwomen[dot]org).