Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are crucial to transformative growth and job creation for any economy. While capital and access to finance are frequently regarded as the most obstructive impediments to the full realization of SMEs, we oftentimes forget that the invisible yet critical missing link is the further participation of women in this impressionable sector. In the recent past, women have claimed their rightful stake as successful leaders in the microbusiness arena. Yet SMEs continue to lag in numbers in terms of women participation and women leadership.
In Cambodia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), and Vietnam - three countries that are part of the dynamic and rapidly growing East Asia and Pacific region – women are taking on leadership roles across a variety of sectors and rivaling men in literacy rates and school enrollments. However, women still lack access to wages comparable to that of men and lag behind in opportunities to start businesses or grow existing ones.
With funding from the government of Finland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs (FORMIN), infoDev of the World Bank Group’s Trade and Competitiveness Global Practice launched the Mekong Women’s Entrepreneurship Challenge (MWEC) to facilitate the expansion of women-owned businesses in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The Challenge provides the necessary tools to improve and grow women-led businesses through innovation, creativity, peer-learning, and one-on-one support.
The report Growing Women-led Enterprises in the Mekong: Testing a Methodology for Accelerating Growth is a knowledge product that discusses the design, outcomes, and lessons of MWEC and provides a few preliminary recommendations for the design of future programs targeting the growth of women-owned enterprises.
The results of MWEC proved to be eye-opening despite a moderate program size (68 women entrepreneurs were administered the program) and a short span of time. A majority of the women in all three countries expanded their networks, which provided these women access to mentorship from other established women entrepreneurs and opened up a wealth of knowledge for business expansion. On average, more than 91 percent of the women stated that they considered new products or services for their businesses. The program material was centered on locally relevant concepts, facilitated by a locally attuned facilitator, and extolled local ownership of the program and activities. More than grant funding, participating women entrepreneurs cherished opportunities to network and learn from experienced counterparts.
Although MWEC may have varying impact as it is scaled, replicated, or adapted in different contexts, there is a greater need for these types of light-scale interventions as the development community emphasizes on shared prosperity, expanding the size of the pie and bringing sustained growth while lowering income disparities.