Special Report Economy - Part 3: Women and Social Entrepreneurship



"Women in the Economy: Looking for New Business Models"


Part 3: Women and Social Entrepreneurship


When the topic turns to “new business models”, a discussion of entrepreneurship cannot be far behind. Entrepreneurship is all about innovation. Entrepreneurs invent technologies, create new sectors, open new markets, make new stuff for us to buy and sell. They also develop new ways to protect our environment and to improve our lives.

When entrepreneurs go into business expressly to solve social problems, with the stated aim of creating social value rather than personal wealth, we label them ‘social entrepreneurs’. Perhaps the most famous living social entrepreneur is Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and a featured speaker at the inaugural Women’s Forum Global Meeting in October 2005. As Dr. Yunus pointed out during that Women’s Forum session, women from under-served communities have been in the vast majority (96%) of recipients of Grameen Bank’s micro-credit loans, which have been instrumental in helping these women start businesses and raise themselves from poverty.


Muhammad Yunus, Global Meeting, Deauville, France


While many women around the world have directly benefitted from the work of Muhammad Yunus and other social entrepreneurs, it’s easy to overlook the fact that many women are themselves changing the world as social entrepreneurs. And they have been doing so for a long time. One early example is Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), who opened Britain’s first official school for nurses and crusaded to improve hospital conditions and healthcare as well as to increase the number of women in the workforce. Another is Maria Montessori (1870-1952), the Italian physician who re-thought early childhood education and developed the teaching method that is named after her and has been put into practice around the world.

In recent times India has been a particularly rich source of talented female social entrepreneurs. Ela Bhatt founded SEWA, the world’s first and largest trade union for undocumented women workers, as well as Women’s World Banking. Hina Shah, founder of the International Centre for Entrepreneurship and Career Development (ICECD), has worked to help micro-, small- and medium-sized businesses in 21 states of India.

Are women more inclined to become social entrepreneurs – and to be better at it than men? That’s a question that came up when an international panel of women business leaders and social entrepreneurs convened at the 2008 Women’s Forum Global Meeting. "Entrepreneurial women are motivated by 'social' power instead of the 'personal, hierarchical power' that motivates men,” declared Françoise Gri, who at the time was head of Manpower France. “For a woman it is not rewarding to have impact on another individual through power. When someone they have been leading tells them, 'I learned this from you,' that is often the reward they are looking for."


Françoise Gri, Global Meeting 2008, Deauville, France


During that same session, Brazilian physician Vera Cordeiro argued that social entrepreneurs can be instrumental in nursing sick economies back to health. "Social entrepreneurs are restless people who want a different world,” she said. “They don't want to teach people to fish, they want to change the whole fishing industry. They are creating businesses to tackle social problems, in a spirit of 'enriching the poor'. NGO's are often too far from the people and quickly become very bureaucratic. Social entrepreneurs live amidst the problem and know how to bring innovative solutions."


Vera Cordeiro, Global Meeting 2008, Deauville, France



The Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, an international business plan competition created in 2006 by Cartier, the Women's Forum, McKinsey & Company and INSEAD business school, supports and encourages projects by women entrepreneurs.       

The Rising Talents initiative aims to distinguish highly talented young women under the age of 40 who are on their way to becoming influential figures in our economies and societies. This initiative is a commitment to promote women leaders and bring the vision of rising generations to the Women’s Forum.