I started my first business when I was 16 years old, as part of a student entrepreneurship programme. Before then, I never thought I would be an entrepreneur – the thought just never occurred to me. Family and friends would suggest different career options to me, such as lawyer, journalist, etc – but never entrepreneur. Why not? The reasons would become clearer to me as I moved along my entrepreneurship journey.
Back then, I was studying in an all-girls school and around 15 of us formed a team to start a business, and I put myself forward as the CEO. The company was called iLove, which produces customisable, reusable and portable mugs. In the short span of nine months, we had to conceptualise the company’s mission and vision, raise funds and issue shares, come up with a product, go to market, make profits and distribute profits to our shareholders, and eventually wind down the company and produce an annual report. Our company was given the Market Potential Award for our innovative product, and the Corporate Social Responsibility Award for donating 40% of our corporate profits to the Make-a-Wish Foundation and dedicating 5% of our staff time to community services. During that year, I was even invited to speak on a radio show about entrepreneurship!
The swift ability to create change not only for our customers and shareholders, but also society at large, attracted me to entrepreneurship, and I stuck to it ever since. I then entered university to study business, and it was only at university when I started realising that entrepreneurship is actually a very male-dominated field. I mentioned earlier that I studied in an all-girls school, and while the two business mentors assigned to our team were both men, the CEO of Junior Achievement Hong Kong, which organised the student entrepreneurship programme, was female. Yet in my business education at university, I had almost all-male professors, except one female professor focused on marketing. Why is that?
Today, only 1 in 3 businesses are owned by women (The World Bank Gender Data Portal, 2020). Gender inequality manifests itself in various ways in different countries, but the gap is ubiquitous globally. According to Women in the digital age, “during an experiment in which two entrepreneurial pitch videos with randomly assigned voices were watched, 68.3% of participants preferred to invest in ventures pitched by a male voice even though these voices presented identical pitches.” YouGov’s 2016 survey found that 13% of 16-22 year old women with an idea for a start-up said a lack of role models is a barrier to setting up a business, compared to only 7% young men. After learning about these statistics, I then realised the importance of focusing on women’s entrepreneurship.
The current default for entrepreneurship is male, and too many young women still perceive entrepreneurship as out of reach.
In 2013, during the third year of university degree, I started a social enterprise, Lensational, that trains women and girls photography and storytelling, and provides platforms to sell and showcase their work. The idea was partly spurred by a conference I attended with my classmates, during an academic exchange in the United States. We attended a conference for female business students, and there was a competition for start-up ideas focused on women’s empowerment. According to the Rose Review in 2019, 60% of women who have considered starting a business did not do so because they thought that they would fail. Women-focused networks and events provide us with the safe space and courage to pursue entrepreneurship. But getting women to start businesses is only the tip of the iceberg.
As I started to grow my enterprise, I found more structural barriers, especially when it comes to access to finance. The often-quoted statistic is that female founders receive only around 2% of venture capital funding. Women-led enterprises also tend to be smaller in size, and tend to export less. Start-ups struggling to scale is quite common, but this seems to be more the case for women entrepreneurs. Even for those who manage to enter into accelerators programmes, research shows that accelerators may inadvertently exacerbate the financing gap between women and men. Faced with these structural barriers, I turned part of my attention to the field of gender lens investing, which galvanises capital to and for women’s empowerment.
2020 has reinforced the importance of supporting women’s entrepreneurship, as the global economy tries to recover from Covid-19, and to “build back better”. Empowering women drives inclusive economic growth – 90% of income made by female entrepreneurs is distributed to their families and communities. While all entrepreneurs have to break down barriers, women entrepreneurs especially need to break even more barriers. From that perspective I think they make better entrepreneurs, and create better enterprises.
On Women's Entrepreneurship Day 2020, Youth Business International is amplifying the voices of female entrepreneurs and mentors to highlight the importance of supporting women entrepreneurs. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook to be part of the conversation this #GEW2020.