Focus on women business owners to unlock growth

The latest Global Gender Gap report from the World Economic Forum makes clear that around the world, from Bangladesh to the United States, the impact of the pandemic has disproportionately hit those most vulnerable or in need. In Bangladesh, this has included large numbers of now unemployed women workers as lockdowns have hit garment factories.

Around the world, the economic impact of Covid-19 has created new barriers to building inclusive and prosperous societies. With women often at the forefront of the hardest-hit sectors—such as garments, food service and personal care—recovery strategies must include closing the ever-widening gender gap. This is critical to long-term economic growth in every country.

To its credit, Bangladesh has been able to increase women’s participation in the readymade garments (RMG) industry over the last few years. Yet, women’s roles in this workforce remain restricted to generally low-paying jobs—a failure of job diversification.

In the recently released World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2021 rankings, Bangladesh dropped 15 places in just one year, coming in at number 65 of 156 economies. The nation did, however, rank far ahead of South Asian neighbours Nepal (106th), Sri Lanka (116th), Bhutan (130th), India (140th) and Pakistan (153rd).

Bangladesh has much to gain by redoubling post-pandemic efforts to close the gender gap. Advancing women’s equality in Bangladesh could achieve an eight percent increase over business-as-usual GDP, or USD 30 billion, according to a report by consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

Yet, despite strong evidence that women business owners can transform local economies and contribute significantly to the global economy, their involvement in business remains miserably low. In Bangladesh, women comprise only 4.5 percent of all businesses owners, according to the Mastercard International Index of Women Entrepreneurs 2020. That is slightly behind India, where 5.2 percent of all business owners are women.

The vast majority of these women-owned businesses are micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), and their success is critical to the growth of Bangladesh, as it is in almost every economy around the world.

Bangladesh would benefit from a specific focus on women business owners. The good news is that Bangladesh can benefit from lessons learned at home and abroad, as well as from initiatives of global organisations investing in women-owned businesses. One such effort is that of WEConnect International, a global network that connects women-owned businesses to qualified buyers around the world.

The Washington, DC-based, global non-profit organisation’s mission is to help drive money into the hands of women business owners so as to enable them to better compete in the global marketplace. Working with the World Bank Group (WBG), WEConnect International offers local women-owned businesses the opportunity to connect and conduct business with local and multinational corporations in Bangladesh. This initiative is one of the first of its kind in Bangladesh to assess the potential for market linkages and greater market opportunities for Bangladeshi women.

In partnership with the Ministry of Commerce of Bangladesh, the WBG and WEConnect International established the first Supplier Diversity Advisory Committee with representatives from Apex Footwear, BRAC Bank, DBL Group, Gemcon Group, Knit Asia Limited, Marriott International and Walmart India. The committee discussed how to scale up gender-inclusive sourcing, as well as set gender-inclusive-sourcing goals and how to formulate lessons to share with the broader business community.

By registering their businesses with the organisation, Bangladeshi women business leaders, such as Taslima Miji, CEO, Leatherina Pvt Ltd; Ahktar Afrin, Director, Opus Technology; and Nawshin Khair, CEO, Aranya Crafts Ltd, strengthen their capacity to pitch and sell to potential investors and large corporations. They also gain the opportunity to connect with domestic and international businesses with an interest in buying from women-owned businesses.

To raise awareness and accelerate change, WEConnect International recently issued the one-year “Rise to the Challenge” to its more than 110 global members. Large multinational organisations, including Intel, Unilever, Logitech and Moody’s, have stepped up, making significant commitments to increase their spending with women-owned businesses. Companies have until March 8, 2022, to make a pledge.

As with other environment, social and governance commitments, such public pledges to support women-owned businesses must also be quantified to ensure the reality of action follows the “ESG rhetoric.”

According to the International Finance Corporation, roughly 30 percent of all privately owned businesses worldwide are owned by women. Yet, the CEO and Co-Founder of WEConnect International, Elizabeth A Vazquez says, women-owned businesses on average receive less than one percent of the supply chain spending from large multinational corporations and governments.

By increasing their spending, large, global corporations, as well as multilateral institutions and governments, could collectively have a multi-billion dollar impact on women-owned enterprises worldwide, including those in Bangladesh.

Leaders in Bangladesh have an opportunity to build a more resilient and gender equal economy by focusing on women business owners to unlock growth.

Curtis S Chin, a former US Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Stacie Nevadomski Berdan, an award-winning author and advocate for women and international careers, is also an advisor to WEConnect International.