What women want

In July – November 2021, I participated in a research project to identify the financial needs of women entrepreneurs in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In this post, I share some personal impressions that complement the figures and conclusions in the official reports.

Personas and priorities

Focus groups and interviews were the most rewarding  of the work on the Central Asia project. Participants were enthusiastic in giving answers to our questions and engaging with each other.

“Would you be interested in a broader variety of banking services? … training? networking?” Our guests laughed: “How can we not be interested? We have been here for two hours and do not want to leave! We are certainly interested.”

My task was to collect material and describe three main entrepreneurial groups. The first group is start-ups, i.e. companies that exist for less than two years; the second group was supposed to be stable companies founded more than two years ago; the third group comprised growing businesses, presumably in a larger need for financing than others and therefore most attractive for banks.

However, three personas did not seem enough to fully represent the three groups, so the imaginary gallery features six portraits.

Starting businesses

A young mother providing for her children and an IT company owner who “wants to be her own boss”, as she says, had very different reasons to start a business. “Breadwinner” and “Own Boss”, as they will be called further on, are also different in the way they interact with the world and process information. However, they have similar priorities.

First of all, to start to get a stable profit. Their main challenge is building relationships with partners, clients and internal clients. At an early stage, business owners are tempted to employ friends or family members; they gradually learn the pros and cons of such a policy. Drafting contracts with suppliers also poses questions and calls for professional advice. In addition, owners of start-up businesses learn to deal with disappointments: suppliers can let one down, employees are capable of cheating, customers can choose to quit not leaving any feedback comments. In short, both “breadwinner” and “own boss” re-discover that the world is not an ideal place.

“Own boss” is big friends with her smartphone; the device offers her some quick solutions. She tends to expect the same quick response to her asks from people as well!.. Many of these young educated women entrepreneurs are involved in tech and digital businesses, or use e-commerce opportunities.

“Breadwinner” may also be very much tech-savvy; however, she is more traditional and down-to-earth. Her business is about people’s everyday needs – food, clothing, pre-school education, fitness, beauty, professional services… The “breadwinner” is fantastically resourceful in overcoming challenges. Both types of start-up business leaders appear calm and flexible if serious problems occur: they will close the enterprise and start thinking of a new one. This is normal. Not every business leaves the harbour to cross oceans.

Stability-oriented businesses

Looking at companies older than two years, one also sees two different types of owners. I suggest the names: “Marathon Runner” and “Digital Artisan”.

The “marathoner” runs along with a huge burden of responsibility on her shoulders – family, employees, products quality, contracts, deadlines…

The life of  the “digital artisan” is perhaps less stressful, but busy as well. She sells her work (clothes, accessories, exclusive culinary products) online. If it weren’t for e-commerce and media, the business would not take off. These women pursue a profession they got before marriage, or a hobby. “Digital Artisan” often has to deal with a shadow cast by her family, or, sometimes, husbands or parents-in-law disapprove what she does. Therefore, the “kelin” (daughter-in-law) has to defend her right to do what she loves. “I socialise on my own, earn my own money and make savings just for myself, and my husband does not like that. I try not to annoy him. So I get up at four in the morning, lay out the patterns on the floor and, while everyone is asleep, do all my creative work.”

Rebellious young women, self-employed professionals, often single and self-reliant, are also in this group of ‘digital artisans’.

Growing companies

Growing companies are run by “Rising Stars” and “Matriarchs”.

A “Rising Star” is that young woman who saw an opportunity for a business and grasped it, a former “Own Boss”. By now, she has found stability and reliable partners. “Rising stars” often rely on their post graduation experience of working with international and donor organisations. They know how to set “s.m.a.r.t” goals, keep documents in good order; they guide their employees to do things the same way. My Tajik colleague and friend said: “These girls are the ‘first echelon’. They started earning good money when they were young, so they gained respect from family, and a certain freedom of action.”

The “Matriarch” has done her marathons and collected her rewards. While she was on her running track, she had no time for new alliances. She was the main pillar and the chief engineer of her business, building, fine-tuning and polishing various parts of the mechanism. Now everything works, it is possible to delegate some of the responsibility to people she trusts – mature colleagues, or grown-up children.

Delegating responsibility is a characteristic feature of a growth-oriented company. Such businesses often have several owners working well as a team, each one responsible for one’s area. Process automation is the priority for both growth-oriented groups. “Rising Stars” are in their natural habitat; they are often mathematicians and IT specialists. The “Matriarchs”, even with STEM background, rely mostly on outsourced IT services.

Growing businesses have big plans, they know that financing is crucial and banks’ interest rates is not a decisive factor if credit can accelerate business growth.

Banks in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have yet to come up with offers that “matriarchs” and “stars” will be interested in. “It is us who call for a casting now, not the banks”, the representatives of the group say, “we are carefully studying what the banks have to offer. Bankers working with us are nice, no doubt, but they do not seem to know the solutions to our problems.”

How to get them interested?

When it comes to attracting attention to products and services, “own bosses”, “digital artisans” and “stars” will respond well to a dynamic and fact-packed video clip, while more conservative “breadwinners”, “marathoners” and “matriarchs” will want to hear from people they trust and then do their own online research.

Start-up enterprises definitely deserve attention. They often use the owner’s personal bank account to receive and sent payments. Banks do not welcome this, although in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan the law does not yet prohibit such a thing. The challenge for the bank is to convince clients that a separate account for business will bring more opportunities.

To convince entrepreneurs to open up, banks and insurance companies should take this as a separate task, creating an environment that would stimulate a dialogue between business people and banks employees. This means, first and foremost, appointing inquisitive employees with a high level of emotional intelligence to reach and engage potential clients.

All women entrepreneurs will appreciate industry-focused fairs, receptions and events offering a learning opportunity – for example, a panel discussion with financiers, economists, lawyers involved in state regulation. Such events might include an art exhibition, screening of a documentary, or a fashion show.

Women are a very appreciative audience. They are sensitive and can easily tell a genuine interest towards themselves from political games, a well thought-out approach from hastily made arrangements. Organisers should plan  an events’s place and timing in such a way as to make it easy and interesting for invitees to be with each other. Perhaps time should be allocated for a preliminary study of the potential audience – who will come, for what purpose, what are they most interested in, do they prefer to see men among the guests too, or would they rather have only women, and only those whom they know or have heard of?..

When the world lives by men’s rules, only those women succeed who learn to play by these rules (“be tough”, “defend yourself”, “act and attack”, “ask for more”…). Isn’t there a better way? Men can be strong and rigid but that often means fragile; women are more flexible. Men suffer when environment is repressive towards intelligence, energy and free spirit of an individual; my country, Russia, has the highest number of men suicides in the world. Women, however, get to suffer in any country and any environment, just because women’s bodies and souls are more vulnerable and the women’s wounds take a long time heal. Taking this into account, there is nothing strange or unnatural in special offers and programmes for women.

To engage female audience, banks should include promotion of universal human values into their agendas. Women are enthusiastic about projects that protect nature and bring about tangible improvements in the life of the community. At every market, there are banks pioneering educational initiatives and partnership programmes for women. By attracting female clients, business organisations invest in a better future.