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International Women’s Day - Interview with our CEO, Anita Tiessen

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International Women’s Day (IWD) is an annual event to celebrate women’s achievements and spread the message of female empowerment and gender equality across the world. It has been recognised for over a century and continues to grow in reach every year. Youth Business International (YBI) is running a week-long campaign leading up to the day itself (8 March) to showcase female entrepreneurs and those helping them to succeed. To celebrate our campaign for IWD this year, we spoke to our CEO, Anita Tiessen, about YBI’s work and what gender equality means to her.

Why is it important for YBI to celebrate International Women’s Day?

We recognise the success of every single young entrepreneur who starts or grows their business. But this week we are taking extra time to celebrate the achievements of the female entrepreneurs that our members support. In many countries around the world the journey for a young woman to start a business can be that bit harder and so it is important for us to join in with International Women’s Day celebrations and share the stories of the women who do succeed so we can inspire other young women and encourage young men that it is possible for everyone to turn their dreams into reality.

The theme this year is #BalanceforBetter; how does YBI address gender imbalances in its work?

The evidence is very clear that when women are economically independent and empowered, it makes a big difference, not just in their lives but also for their families and their communities. Success for women is beneficial for society as a whole. Most countries still have laws and observe traditions that mean women have to work harder to gain the same success as men. They face additional barriers when it comes to setting up businesses - these could be practical barriers like not being able to get a loan or cultural barriers like expectations of women’s role in the family. By showcasing and celebrating female entrepreneurship, we can start to change the way people think and by providing positive female role models we can encourage more women to start their own businesses.

How is YBI developing its support for female entrepreneurs?

YBI is dedicated to tackling youth unemployment and empowering young people to succeed in running their own business is part of the solution. A female entrepreneur or young woman who wants to be an entrepreneur does not always start off from a level playing field compared to a young man from the same community. She may not have access to the start-up capital (land, house, money) she needs to start her business and she may also have other time commitments like childcare. Our commitment to supporting all underserved young entrepreneurs means we have to make sure all our support is equally accessible to both men and women and that their different needs are taken into account. This year, based on best practices and positive experiences from across our network, we are developing practical guidance to support our members in their work with young female entrepreneurs. This will be an evidence-based, rigorous and supportive approach to allow our members to adapt or adjust their programmes to better support women. This could be everything from encouraging them to adapting their training materials to profile more women in non-traditional jobs, to delivering training around childcare needs or working closely with financial institutes to help women entrepreneurs access loans.

Why is it important for women to start their own businesses?

The nature of the world’s economy is changing and the idea of a job for life is certainly not the reality for many people. I think it’s really important for young people as a whole to have an entrepreneurial mindset and to have the initiative to think that they can actually make their own way in the world. This is particularly important for women who haven’t been encouraged to do that in the past, who may face additional barriers to getting into employment and being able to establish a business. Being able to generate their own income both helps increase their self-esteem and economic independence and for those with children improves their ability to support their family.

How can we encourage more women to pursue entrepreneurship as a career?

I think there are two critical elements to encouraging more women to pursue entrepreneurship. The first is inclusive programming, everything from recognising that women may have childcare needs to the additional challenges they may face in getting access to finance. The second aspect is role models. The more people see women running businesses and having overcome challenges to do so, the more they will believe that it’s possible. I’ve been particularly inspired by the four female entrepreneurs whose success stories we are sharing for our IWD campaign. Daniela, Farida, Shenelle and Olivia all had to overcome obstacles and find support to get to where they are today and I hope they can serve as inspiration to other women looking to make the first step in their entrepreneurial journeys.

Have you encountered any related challenges in your career along the way to becoming a CEO?

Although I’m not an entrepreneur myself, I have worked in both the private and public sector and I suppose the challenges that I have faced as a woman are some of the issues which also relate to female entrepreneurs. Firstly, finding the confidence along the way to believe that I could progress and make the jump to becoming a CEO, which involved quite a lot of self-belief and the support of fantastic mentors along the way. I think sometimes it takes a while for women to develop this. Like many people, I have children, and balancing family and work commitments is something that I’ve always borne in mind. I speak openly about my family commitments because it is important to recognise that we all have life beyond work.

What would you say to any young woman who is thinking about starting their own business?

I’d say two things; firstly, believe in yourself - if you’ve got an idea, pursue it - the first one may not work, the second one may not work, but the third one may. Just believe in yourself and go for it. Secondly, get a mentor. It is hugely important for anybody but particularly important to get female role models to help support you through the various challenges that you’ll face.

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In June 2019, YBI will be hosting its flagship event, the Global Youth Entrepreneurship Summit (GYES) in Cartagena, Colombia bringing together YBI members, leading experts, influencers and decision makers in the youth entrepreneurship space. Our theme for 2019, Innovation for Impact is designed to identify and provide solutions for the challenges faced by youth entrepreneurship organisations across the world. You can find out more about speakers, programme and how to register by visiting the GYES 2019 website.

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