Education and Skills

Built by a woman: supporting the dreams of mum entrepreneurs

A mother and her children play with a tablet.

Mothers have skills to offer that we aren't capitalizing on. Image: Unsplash

Zubaida Bai
President and Chief Executive Officer, Grameen Foundation
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This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit

As my husband and I sat on our porch on my 37th birthday, watching the sprinklers come on, I relived the last decade of our entrepreneurial journey to address the adversities faced by women. It felt comforting to look back at our accomplishments: establishing a sustainable company in a space driven by charity, impacting more than 1.5 million people and delivering half a million products to over 14 countries. An idea was now a fully functional machine. It also made me sad. It reminded me of questions and challenges I had faced from potential investors as I traveled over 700,000 miles to build my company. The questions would be either way too personal – regarding how many kids I had and who takes care of them, where I lived, my position in the household – or take the form of difficult challenges: could I cut the budget down to a half, reduce manpower or bring matching funds? I guess we are conditioned to think that women have to put more in to get less out.

By writing about my experiences as an entrepreneur and a mother, I hope I can help women (and men) see that there is a way, and that it doesn't have to be this hard. We can create an ecosystem in which women who decide to pursue a career or an entrepreneurial journey are be surrounded by mindsets and policies that provide them with the support they need. This becomes more critical when it’s a woman of colour, and especially if she has chosen to make motherhood a part of her life.

2 billion mothers

There are approximately 2 billion mothers in the world. According to estimates, only 10 million of them are entrepreneurs, which makes it half of 1% – baffling! Most of these women are self-employed by choice, to help them fulfil their household obligations and/ or to pass the time after those responsibilities have been completed. The real number of women entrepreneurs is much lower and therefore not recorded. This is the one of the inequalities I want to help start conversations around. To boost these numbers by any significant amount, it is important that we make the path easier for women and mothers.

The proportion of women leaders in business and government deserves our attention. Just Actions recently published the results from the Motherhood + Public Power Index, which measures the representation of mothers among our most powerful leaders. Of the most influential positions across the USA, Russia, India and China (countries with the greatest economic power and global influence), only 6% are held by women with children, in comparison with more than 80% that are held by men with children. The index reveals that no country does a good job of getting mothers into power – only 11% of US leaders are mothers, to go with India’s 6%, China’s 4% and Russia’s 4% – while individual sectors don’t do any better: universities post a dismal 9% of leaders as mothers, while governments offer 8%, and business 4%.

My hope is that we come to view womanhood and motherhood not as a hindrance to leadership and entrepreneurship, but as essential to creating a healthier, wealthier and more equitable world. Clearly, we still have a long way to go and the question remains: why are women not becoming leaders and entrepreneurs? Globally, we don't have the ecosystems to support all women in broadening their possibilities and taking risks. This is about equity, about valuing women not only as wives, mothers, caregivers, helpers and supporters but also as leaders, builders, owners and thinkers. Today, in most US cities and globally, two salaries have become a necessity for a family to succeed. It is difficult for both men and women to adjust to the relatively rapid societal and cultural change of women leaving traditional roles to join the workforce. How do we navigate this new reality?

Let's face it: the world would be a better place if more women leaders were able to make decisions for their constituents and mothers were able to launch, grow and scale their own businesses. Our society views women as naturally talented at caring for children and thought to be best at this complex job – yet they are not trusted to balance that job with launching or running a company. I am an engineer turned entrepreneur, a mother of three, a Muslim and a woman of colour; despite being recognized as a global expert, I have struggled my way up through all the conscious and unconscious biases that women face both in the developing and the developed world. Reflecting on my journey, I see that these biases are blinding us to an untapped source of power. We are all busy in our silos, not recognizing or engaging with this huge unfulfilled potential.

Society is just beginning to realize that having women in leadership roles helps businesses thrive in unprecedented ways. A University of California Davis study revealed that large companies in that state with at least some women at the top performed considerably better than ones with mostly male boards and executives. Among the 25 firms with the highest percentage of women execs and board members, researchers found that median returns on assets and equity in 2015 were at least 74% higher than among the overall group of companies surveyed.

The roadblocks

Gender inequality is a hot topic, but what does it really mean in the world of entrepreneurship? The roots of inequality are complex, deep and touch every aspect of our societies:

• Young women lack role models in schools and universities, and have few women in their first work experience placements to serve as mentors.

• A young woman gains belief and acceptance that she can do it – only to be asked about children when getting start-up money. Being ambitious is not as valued in women as it is in men – especially mothers – and women are therefore not viewed potential candidates for investment. It is assumed that a woman will not stick with a venture, using her cultural responsibilities as an excuse.

• Men's (and women's) views on gender roles emerge at work, where people often want things the way they have always been. It will take collaboration with the men in our lives and the men in power to level the playing field for all.

Supreme people managers: a mother and child.
Supreme people managers: a mother and child. Image: Unsplash

Happy Woman Foundation

Change is happening, and it can be nurtured and accelerated. We want more women in business and in power because it will be good for the world and because it is fair, right and beneficial. Motherhood is scary, powerful and creates infinite resilience; mothers will bring new perspectives and life experiences to bear on their work life. We invite men to join us in creating a new way – and an equitable system, so that women do not have to struggle as much as many other women and I have. My contribution to the future and this new way forward is the Happy Woman Foundation.

Priority beneficiaries

The foremost beneficiaries will be women and mothers who are pregnant, homeless, veterans, senior citizens or women of colour.

Women – especially mothers – are underrepresented in the world of entrepreneurship. Yet womanhood and motherhood are assets to the economy, and to society. We need more than empowerment and celebration of women. We must overcome both internalized and institutionalized bias with real resources and financial support that remove barriers. We need to normalize a new narrative demonstrating the powerful truth that, while women are currently underestimated, they're among the best start-up founders today, doing more with less. The Happy Woman Foundation proposes to:

Elevate by offering a platform to raise the profile of women entrepreneurs through storytelling and speaking opportunities, giving visibility to their unique successes, challenges and learnings.

Educate through ongoing leadership and skill training for funding recipients, as well as larger-scale convenings to "bring happiness to entrepreneurship”. We aim to build deep social capital and foster individual resilience and persistence for female entrepreneurs whose journeys foster dignity and equality in the world.

Endow grants and entrepreneurship insurance for women, so they can take the risks needed to show a return on investment. We aim to prove that such investments can enable women to help themselves, their families and their communities become stronger, wealthier and healthier.

Have you read?

Equal contributors, not caretaking machines

Allison Sagraves, Chief Data Officer and Senior Vice President at M&T Bank, connected mothers and the Fourth Industrial Revolution when she wrote: "What mother does not engage in complex problem solving every day, critical thinking, creativity, people management, and coordinating with others – the top five skills required for the future of work?"

We need all the talent and passion we can unleash at work and at home, in capacities large and small, to make our world work for all. We are at the leading edge of a new technological wave that will fundamentally affect how we live and work: artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology and more. It is time for us to look beyond gender and unfairly making women pay a price for choosing motherhood. If anything, we all exist because our mothers decide to embrace that essential role.

We need to look at mothers not as caretaking machines but as equal contributors to the society and the world, especially the business world. A quote attributed to the feminist activist Dorothy Canfield Fisher tells us: “Mother is a verb. It's something you do. Not just who you are.” As the human race, we have all done the impossible because of our mothers. Now it’s time for us to trust them to do the impossible.

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Education and SkillsEquity, Diversity and Inclusion
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