A recent story about Afghanistan’s first female driver held me enthralled. The article shares Sara Bahayi’s path, as she first learnt to drive a car – to the disapproval of just about everyone in this patriarchal society. A widow struggling to survive on a teacher’s pay, she then realized that she could earn more money as a taxi driver. She sold land to buy the car which she now uses to ferry her passengers, mostly women. Men refuse to drive with her. She is jeered at, harassed, insulted, and even threatened.
Not every woman has to overcome these severe obstacles to succeed in business. Still, there are common threads in Bahayi’s journey and those of millions of women entrepreneurs.
The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) project provides annual assessments of the entrepreneurial activity, aspirations, and attitudes of individuals around the world. The special GEM 2012 Women’s Report shares its findings about women entrepreneurs. Among them is the importance of identifying women mentors, having local women as role models, and developing support networks for women entrepreneurs.
Mentorship: Bahayi was taught to drive by a sympathetic male neighbor. There were no women drivers who could teach her. Mentors provide support, encouragement, direction. And, as we see with Bahayi, that can come from men, as well as women.
Role Models: Bahayi herself is serving as a role model for the women in her neighborhood. It takes a particularly strong and courageous person to go where no one has dared to go before. How do you even know what is possible – if you’ve never seen it? According to the GEM Report, decades of research have stressed the role of knowing entrepreneurs or having role models in motivating entrepreneurship. Knowing other entrepreneurs can “provide inspiration”. They also are a source of advice and of connections to other entrepreneurs. The article reports that Bahayi has inspired several other women in her town who have learnt to drive and now run private car services for female clients.
Support Networks: Where do you go to find mentors, role models, or answers to the inevitable questions that come up in the course of business? Bahayi’s struggles are undoubtedly made that more difficult because of the absence of strong and positive support networks for women entrepreneurs in Afghanistan. According to the GEM Report, women entrepreneurs have to be encouraged to create or find these support networks. In many societies, women have fewer access to the informal networks on which men often rely – golf or drinks after work come to mind. Try to imagine Bahayi showing up at the local chaikhana or tea house to chat with other business owners.
Women’s organizations provide the support networks which fill that gap for women entrepreneurs. I’m a member of a fabulous group – Organization of Women in International Trade (OWIT). OWIT promotes women doing business in international trade by providing networking and educational opportunities through its local chapters.
Where are you located? What is your network? Is it your local chamber of commerce or a women’s support group? Where do you go to find referrals, mentors, support? Let’s use this space to share our resources.