When Women Take the Lead

Women reinvest 90 percent of what they earn in their families, according to the World Bank. This statistic is global, and of all the thousands of reports on women's economic empowerment, this statistic is, in my opinion, the most powerful one.

Women are the ultimate economic accelerators: when they work, whole families benefit. Children are better fed, better educated and have longer life expectancies. Women also tend to maintain close relations with their extended families and build solid networks within their communities. They bond, they share, they help.

It's not surprising then that the social enterprise model is so appealing to women. It puts people at the heart of the business plan and it attracts individuals who have identified the root causes of problems within their communities.

According to the Global Monitor Report on Social Enterprises there is a relatively high prevalence of young women in the sector. Overall, men are more likely to start a social venture, but the gender gap is not as high as with traditional commercial entrepreneurship.


In fact, in countries such as Malaysia, Lebanon, Israel and Argentina, more women than men are launching and leading successful social ventures. Most of these women entrepreneurs are young, aged 25-44, and most have completed post-secondary education. They have seen opportunities and seized them.

In the UK alone, 38 percent of social enterprises are led by women, compared with just three percent of FTSE 100 companies. In addition, 91 percent of social ventures have at least one woman on the leadership team.

Social enterprise is becoming a natural home for the female entrepreneur. Some argue that this is the result of pragmatism: women find it too hard to break through the corporate glass ceiling, so they look elsewhere, to a sector that allows them to make a difference by creating tangible results. But I believe that while this might be partly the case, there is much more to it.


We are witnessing a generational shift that is placing women at the forefront of change. These women are increasingly embracing technology, are confident and show strong entrepreneurial spirit.

A report recently published by Deloitte shows that the majority of people under the age of 30 believe the number one purpose of business is to benefit society and to solve critical issues such as income inequality, climate change, and corruption. Fifty per cent of the world's young adults want to work for a business with ethical practices and are convinced traditional politics is not doing enough to achieve social change.

This generational desire for change happens at a time when global attitudes towards business are also shifting. The traditional for-profit sector is increasingly called to create value not just for shareholders, but also for society at large. At the same time, charities and the aid sector are increasingly scrutinized and asked to run more efficiently by applying business principles. We have seen entrepreneurs adopting a broader value-based agenda, and the NGO sector opening up to the concept of impact investing.

Social enterprises, increasingly led by women, have a crucial role to play in fulfilling these high expectations. This explains the steady growth of the sector: its economic and social contribution is being increasingly recognized by governments, funders and individuals alike. Tax incentives are being offered, and strong indicators of optimism and innovation point to healthy growth in the future.

There is of course an issue of resources. In Africa and Southeast Asia, 75 percent of women have no formal access to finance. In India only 26 percent of women have bank accounts; in Egypt, only 7 percent have them. In many countries, access to capital is almost impossible. Those women who have the tenacity to get funding and to get started then face administrative, legal and operational costs which -- if not managed properly -- risk bankrupting their ventures even before they take off.


At the Thomson Reuters Foundation, we help social enterprises by offering access to free legal assistance. Through TrustLaw, we connect them with 420 top law firms and corporate legal teams working pro bono in more than 170 countries. Worldwide, TrustLaw serves more than 1400 social enterprises and NGOs.

Since its inception, TrustLaw generated the equivalent more than $35 million in pro bono legal support. The network continues to grow, serving the surge of women entrepreneurs.

It is uplifting to be in contact with so many of these entrepreneurs. They are the real change-makers, and it's wonderful to amplify their skills and talents, providing concrete solutions to key social issues.

Women and access to finance is one of the topics that will be discussed at the forthcoming Trust Women Conference in London, November 18-19, 2014. For more information visit www.trustwomenconf.com.