Women in emerging markets are leveraging the digital economy to become entrepreneurs, recent graduates of a training program created by Alibaba Group shared.
Innovation and technology for gender equality is the United Nations’ theme for International Women’s Day 2023, which falls on March 8 and is both a celebration of women’s rights and a reminder of persisting inequalities.
Worldwide, women are 12% less likely to own a mobile phone and 6% fewer have internet access than men, the UN reports. The absolute gap in access to digital tools between the genders has increased by 20 million over the past two years.
“It’s all about opportunities. At some point in your life, there might not be many opportunities available, especially for women in Pakistan,” Sunbul Sameen, a Karachi-based entrepreneur who participated in the Alibaba Netpreneur Training last year, told Alizila.
Barriers, from insufficient funding to a lack of access to a computer, take a toll. In Asia, women are four times more likely to report an intention to start a business than to report taking action to do so, according to a Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) report.
The Alibaba Netpreneur Training program, a suite of classes to support digital entrepreneurship, is working to change this by offering training sessions to upskill entrepreneurs, women and youths in over 60 markets.
Nearly a quarter of program graduates are women, with over 500 female founders counting themselves as Netpreneur alumna.
“The program helped me learn how to think big and set my mission, vision and values,” said Temfah Krisanayuth, founder of Thai women’s clothing brand Tiana and graduate of the Netpreneur Asia Program 2022.
In emerging markets, the digital economy creates opportunities for women to start their own businesses by bridging gender and income inequality.
Since the pandemic, female early-stage entrepreneurs in lower-income countries are 17% more likely than men to report using new technologies, according to the GEM report.
Digital tools, from instant messaging to video conferencing, allow women to work outside offices, balancing traditional caretaker duties with business aspirations.
“Most therapists we have are women and they often work from home, so that is an opportunity for them as well,” said Sameen, who was part of Krisanayuth’s Netpreneur Asia cohort.
Her mental health start-up, Opportunities, launched in 2017 as a WhatsApp-based service for over 1 million users – mostly young women– to connect anonymously with therapists. She is now using her learnings from the Netpreneur training to expand into a web-based platform to meet demand.
As an online-based program, Netpreneur training bridges oceans and allows experts to teach entrepreneurs halfway around the world.
“The program provided us access to a vast network of business partners,” said Ritalee Monde, a Zimbabwean entrepreneur in the medical sector.
Women and men often start businesses for different reasons. In 2021, women globally were more likely than men to report that making a difference or job scarcity were key motives for starting a business, according to GEM.
“We aim to improve the health care system by providing high-quality equipment and supplies to underserved communities, with a particular focus on women and children’s health,” Monde told Alizila.
Monde, a public health officer by training and graduate of the Netpreneur Africa Program 2022, founded a start-up building a plant to manufacture medical oxygen, an essential tool to treat lung diseases that often afflict women in Sub-Saharan Africa who cook over open fires.
For Women, By Women
In addition to improving their communities, many female founders are making a living by serving a significant consumer group with growing spending power – themselves.
“Before I started the company, I worked in finance and I had problems finding work clothing that made me feel confident,” said Bangkok-based Krisanayuth.
Her experience led her in 2020 to start Tiana, a clothing brand with workwear and loungewear lines for the next generation of female business leaders in Southeast Asia.
Globally, women control more than 60% of consumer spending on average, according to a report by consultancy group the International Center for Research on Women, and up to 80% in emerging markets.
While household expenses occupy the vast majority of spending by this group, economic growth and the ease of digital platforms mean more women can buy discretionary items for themselves as well.
“Nowadays, people are more accepting. So I think it’s a very good time for us to enter the field and grow our own businesses,” said the financier-turned-entrepreneur.
Tiana operates as a direct-to-consumer business. Shoppers can also find it on e-commerce sites like Alibaba’s Southeast Asia-focused subsidiary Lazada, which accounts for more than half of its sales.
Visit Alizila’s entrepreneurship hub to discover more stories from business founders around the world