Businesswomen Learn to Get "Real"
By Carrol McCarren
Photo: World Bank/Flickr
Women entrepreneurs are often motivated by different factors than men when they create a business. For many women, the decision to start a business venture is borne out of financial need, rather than a consciously chosen career path. Without enough income to support the family, a woman might begin by sewing clothes, growing tomatoes, or selling school supplies to her neighbors. Businesses start at the kitchen table and grow organically, and business results are focused on helping the family and the community.
I have noticed this phenomenon over the course of a long career, including many years as a volunteer expert for IESC, where I worked on assignment with firms across a range of industries at various points in their development. In all my time, I never worked with a female client who was primarily motivated by the desire to create a high visibility job for herself.
The fact is, these women business owners do not see their efforts as having an impact beyond their own circle. They employ their sisters and neighbors. They cook each other’s lunch and care for each other’s children. And they cultivate a sense of camaraderie and shared destiny, and there is little, if any, of the typical class hierarchy that distinguishes owner and worker. This spirit may have been the single largest contributor to success. During times, and in places where the economy was all but destroyed, I saw small, women-run businesses prosper where so many others failed.
The downside to blurring the line between employer and employee—and there is a downside—is that decisions are made based on relationships rather than sound business principles. For example, businesses that should relocate stay in place because the employees can’t travel to the new location. Essential functions such as planning and personnel management take a back seat to maintaining an egalitarian structure, and as with any company, this failure to manage has negative effects in the long term.
I recall one business in Accra, Ghana that prepared vegetables—mostly potatoes—for use by restaurants, schools, and other food service businesses. The prepped and bagged vegetables were delivered on a motor scooter by a cousin of one of the workers. Over time, production increased, but profits were declining. As it turned out, the lack of adequate bookkeeping and inventory control, combined with the assumption of goodwill on the part of everyone involved, obscured the fact that the delivery man was skimming off product and selling it on the side.
Despite the informal nature of their businesses, these women had a profound sense of purpose and demonstrable pride in their venture and accomplishments. Still, the arrival of a foreign “expert” generally provoked a certain amount of apprehension and anxiety. How would this American, accustomed to giant corporations like Coca-Cola and Nike, view her tiny enterprise as anything worth investing time and effort in?
Before we could work effectively together, one of my key challenges was to assure the owner that her endeavor was, in fact, a real business as worthy as any other.
I consulted for a woman I will call “Elena.” Elena was a pharmacist in Tiblisi, Georgia, and she was embarrassed by the small size of her shop and inventory. Among the products for sale was a small line of cleansers, moisturizers, and other skin care products that she made in her own kitchen. Elena had two key constraints to growth: limitations on production due to her manufacturing space and the lack of waterproof containers available in Georgia at the time.
So I introduced Elena to another client who was making cognac in a huge facility where he was only using 20 percent of the available space. They made a deal, and Elena was able to get up and running in the facility in less than a week. To solve the container problem, I connected Elena with another IESC client who manufactured specialty jars. With the assistance of that client’s own IESC volunteer consultant, he developed an inexpensive line that met Elena’s needs.
I treasure the consulting jobs where I have had the opportunity to truly partner with business owners, working together to arrive at effective and lasting solutions. I have been further blessed to have those kinds of experience with a number of women entrepreneurs, where matters of propriety and societal gender norms—which are simply a limitation and a distraction—become irrelevant, and we can simply solve the business problem.
And Elena? She finally came to believe not only that she had a real business, but that the business had a future. There is no better outcome than that.
Carrol McCarren has been a management consultant for more than 30 years, specializing in small and medium enterprises and NGOs. She has been an IESC volunteer expert since 1992, a role which has taken her around the world. Today, she supports IESC a bit closer to home, at the home office in Washington, DC.
This blog was written as part of IESC's International Women's Day 2016 campaign. To view all posts related to this campaign, click here.