Success for women entrepreneurs in poor countries means enlisting men: activists

September 15, 2016 3:56 AM EDT

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By Ellen Wulfhorst

SAN FRANCISCO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Efforts to help women build small businesses in developing countries risk failure unless husbands, fathers and other men are convinced to be supportive and involved, activists said.

Without the backing of men, women entrepreneurs are likely to quit, receive threats and even suffer violence, groups working in Asia, Africa and Central America said on Wednesday at SOCAP, an annual conference of social entrepreneurs and investors.

The groups included the British-based Value for Women, which promotes women's economic participation, and Oxfam America, which launched an initiative called Women in Small Enterprise (WISE) to support women entrepreneurs.

"Without men's involvement, you definitely see a lot higher drop out rates," said Alicia Robinson, chief investment officer for WISE, based in Guatemala.

Women entrepreneurs there often need their husband's permission to launch a business, Robinson said.

"Men need to feel like they are allowing their wives to participate," she said. "Men need to feel like they are deriving some kind of benefit from it."

Value for Women appeals to men's attitude of "what's in it for me?" said Rebecca Fries, the group's global managing director.

"Our programs are more effective and the impact is more effective if I'm engaging male family members," she said.

Women entrepreneurs need to be trained not only in solid business skills but also soft skills of communication and negotiation, the activists said.

The soft skills help women navigate resistance by husbands or fathers as they defy traditional roles or become breadwinners, they said.

The need for those soft skills arose when Agora Partnerships, which supports entrepreneurs in Latin America, recently distributed $1 million among women running businesses, some with their husbands, said Maria Denise Duarte, program development manager.

"One woman came to me and she said, 'How do I explain to my husband that we need to pay each other a salary? We have to decide how much to pay each other,'" she said.

"That's a negotiation that's really, really hard," she said. "You cannot just teach hard skills. You must complement it with soft skills."

Resistance to female entrepreneurship can come from husbands, fathers, brothers, sons and even other women, said Fries.

"That backlash is sometimes taking the form of violence," she said.

Such violence is a very real concern in Guatemala, which has one of the highest rates of femicide in Central America, Robinson said.

At least two women are killed violently each day in Guatemala, according to the United Nations.

As women in Guatemala challenge the traditions of a patriarchal society, "it's really important that we understand the environments that they're operating in," Robinson said.

Girls in East Africa and South Asia who benefit from Spring Accelerator, a project aimed at improving the lives of girls in developing countries, can find themselves facing trouble from men, said Spring investment director Suzanne Biegel.

"Now this girl is empowered and she breaks up with her boyfriend, or now she's starting to make money and now she's more of a target," Biegel said.

Spring is funded by Britain's Department for International Development (DFID), the Nike Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

SOCAP's annual conference is aimed at bringing together investors and entrepreneurs to address issues such as poverty, climate change, job creation and food supplies.

Some 2,500 people are attending SOCAP this week in San Francisco.

(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, editing by Alisa Tang. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, land rights and climate change. Visit

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