Pathfinders, Influencers, Gatekeepers: Women & Entrepreneurship in Developing Markets

By Carol Marie Tuite

Women and Their Trillions

Advancing women’s equality is not only an issue of fairness but also a global economic imperative. Bringing women to parity with men in terms of access to education, employment, and the tools necessary to be an entrepreneur could add $12 trillion to global gross domestic product over the next decade, with the largest relative gains in India, Latin America, China, and sub-Saharan Africa. The factors that contribute to women’s economic empowerment are complex and varied. These include both measurable factors, such as equal access to education, as well as social attitudes, such as those toward women’s traditional roles as caretakers and homemakers. But there is no doubt that communities experience a consistent increase in economic growth as gender equality improves. 

The lack of women’s full participation across all sectors of society has consequences that go beyond economics and are a matter of life and death. For instance, the gender gap in areas such as medical training results in millions of unnecessary deaths from surgically treatable conditions. Karina Nagin, executive director of Mission: Restore, argues that bringing more women into the surgical field would help to address gender inequality in the medical field and save the lives of millions of people. It’s not just about equality but about addressing a global need.

For developing countries, increasing women’s participation in the economy, especially entrepreneurship, is a key factor in driving innovation, job creation, and growth, and is a path out of poverty for many women and their families. Indeed, in developing countries women are three times more likely to start a business out of necessity than in more developed regions — 36% in sub-Saharan Africa versus 13% in North America. In growing sectors, such as energy provision, there are opportunities for women to build businesses while contributing to the sustainable growth of their communities. For instance, the social enterprise Solar Sister has helped thousands of women across Tanzania, Uganda, and Nigeria become entrepreneurs by selling solar lights, mobile phone chargers, and clean cookstoves to off-grid communities in the ‘last mile’ that larger retailers can’t access.

The value of women’s economic participation goes beyond the dry statistics of GDP growth — women are the influencers, gatekeepers, and caretakers of the community. In emerging markets, women reinvest a staggering 90 cents of every additional dollar of income in their families’ education, health, nutrition — compared to only 30–40% for men. These investments pay dividends later as higher education levels and better health outcomes increase productive economic activity and earnings, enabling the economic empowerment of whole communities.

What Women Want

Women entrepreneurs stress that they don’t want handouts: they need leadership training to grow and role models to emulate. Victoria Foster, co-founder and managing partner of the U.S. office of global leadership consultancy Better Future, says the number one issue for women entrepreneurs in the developing world is having a sisterhood of professional peers, role models, and mentors.

Victoria is leading Better Future’s Women United platform, and has worked in over 40 countries. It is clear that many business women, particularly female entrepreneurs, do not have a safe space — in their social or entrepreneurial environment — to openly discuss their challenges as female leaders and to get feedback from peers who understand their position and the specific issues they face as women in business.

Core to Victoria’s work is facilitating journeys that bring successful women from the corporate and finance world together with entrepreneurial women in developing countries. The entrepreneurs stress that they don’t need charity, they need leadership skills and business development opportunities. By bridging different worlds, their perspectives are expanded and they are emboldened to grow, with a tribe of other successful women standing behind them. These journeys also shine a light for corporate and financial leaders, who obtain deep insights into what’s needed on the ground to help them in their roles as an impact catalysts.

Moral support from family is also crucial, especially from a spouse. A pioneering Ghanaian entrepreneur and one of West Africa's most successful businesswomen noted an inconvenient truth for many women: the man you marry will determine how successful you are. Women are still responsible for most household maintenance, child-rearing, and elder care, performing 75% of the world’s total unpaid care, which is not counted in traditional GDP measures. Even other women can be the toughest obstacle, for instance, a grandmother admonishing her daughter to stay home taking care of the family rather than working outside the home.

Emboldened from attending Buzz India academy, an Indian micro-entrepreneur was able to have an honest conversation with her husband about his level of support. Initially he not supportive of her endeavors, but he realized that he did not want to be the force holding her back from being successful.

Show Me The Money

A key challenge women entrepreneurs face in making money is getting money, specifically the financing they need to start and grow their businesses. Despite the growth of microcredit, financing options are still limited. Bank lending rates can be extremely high, even up to 30%. Many women-owned ventures are small businesses in the consumer sector. In Africa and Asia, about 75% of women entrepreneurs are focused on retail, beauty, and food service, which tend to be smaller and less profitable than traditionally male-dominated industries, such as mining, construction, and technology. 

Women-owned businesses tend to fall into the ‘missing middle’ range, meaning they are too large to qualify for micro-finance loans and too small for standard business loans. Cultural norms can also hinder women’s access to funding due to outright limitations on lending to women, lack of assets in the woman’s name, or gender bias of loan officers. However, commercial banks have begun to recognize the business case for lending to women-owned businesses and a number of banks have explicitly initiated programs to not only tap into this market but also to provide resources. 

One of the most exciting developments discussed at the U.N. General Assembly in New York last month was the creation of the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative. This program marshals more than $1 billion to advance women’s entrepreneurship and help women in developing countries gain increased access to the finance, markets, and networks necessary to start and grow a business.

More good news is that many financial institutions, venture capital funds, and other public and private sector organizations now recognize the broader benefits of promoting women. There are more resources available in the form of professional networks, consortiums, training programs, and finance vehicles dedicated to supporting women’s entrepreneurship globally.

Learn More and Take Action

Want to be part of Better Future’s Women United movement? Better Future is partnering with leading development banks and corporates to co-create customized women’s leadership programs. The organization is also running invitation-only programs around the world for bold female leaders who want to make an impact. Contact Victoria Foster at to discuss further.

Want to help close the gender gap in health care? Check out Mission Restore’s recently launched Women in Surgery Campaign to raise awareness around gender inequality and to address the global scarcity of surgeons. The campaign will raise funds to support the training and mentoring of female surgeons in Africa. For more information, contact Karina Nagin at


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