Investing in women’s entrepreneurship has become common wisdom. But to give credit where it is due, one of the first major institutions to initiate a substantial program aimed at stimulating this promising area of the world economy was the Goldman Sachs Foundation.
In 2008, this giant investment bank announced a global outreach effort that would train 10,000 underserved women in developing nations, so that they could build their own businesses. At one point, I remember asking Deepak Jayaraman the question everyone wanted to ask: “Why would Goldman Sachs be interested in women’s entrepreneurship—especially the ‘underserved’ in developing nations?” I will admit his response surprised me: it was, from my perspective, the right answer.
Goldman’s had already discovered something that most others would notice only several years later: the most leverage in helping the world economy to grow, alleviating poverty, and building human capital is in women’s economic empowerment. And, Deepak added, women would have trouble in some countries succeeding in the formal economy, not because they weren’t good enough, but because custom and prejudice would make it too difficult for them. So, Goldman Sachs had, quite logically, decided to put its foundation’s resources behind women’s entrepreneurship.
The effort was massive. GS partnered with the world’s top business schools to formulate training modules. The Saïd Business School was, I am happy to say, one of the first to join the effort. My colleague, Elizabeth Paris, has worked tirelessly to make the course successful in China, enlisting willing faculty, like Dr. Marc Ventresca and Dr. Eric Thun (as well as myself) to teach the classes. Like other leading schools, we joined forces with local universities in the countries where we were paired to tailor the training requirements to circumstances on the ground. (As part of that, I was invited to develop some local teaching cases, which are posted on this site.)
Women were carefully recruited as “scholars” for the courses. From the beginning, Goldman faced a challenge that is now well recognized among foundations and international agencies working on women’s entrepreneurship. It is often difficult to determine whether the woman who presents herself for admission is, in fact, an entrepreneur running her own business (or wanting to start one) or whether she is just “fronting” for the males in her family. It is also difficult to discern who is really “underserved”: sometimes even women from wealthy families have had no business training, have no control over household assets, yet have great ideas and need help developing them. So, Goldman Sachs, along with the faculties in each country, had to develop methods to discern who really needed the help—and who was best suited to benefit from it.
The years since the institution of the 10,000 Women program have brought a lot of challenges, some of which have required a responsive attitude, willingness to change, and patience to persevere. This aspect is what I admire most about the way it has been managed. It is easy enough to just throw together a teaching course, run it in front of a few women, and walk away crowing about your contribution to society. GS did not do that. Instead, they have focused the same kind of intense attention and exacting discipline for which they are famous in their core business on helping the women in their entrepreneurship program succeed. This has meant repeated follow up, measurement of progress, and ongoing mentoring. Very few government or charity programs have the depth and willingness—or, indeed, the resources–to stay with it like that.
So, we at Oxford are very pleased that a milestone event is about to occur on the Sunday before the Oxford Forum for Women in the World Economy. A group of women entrepreneurs from the Oxford-Zhejiang 10,000 Women programme at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, led by Professor Zhongming Wang, will arrive in Oxford and will meet with graduates of Goldman’s 10,000 Small Businesses programme from the United Kingdom.
The Saïd School also participates in the UK effort, which is open to both men and women, in partnership with a network of British universities. Several of the faculty who have taught on that course will also be speaking at the Forum, including Mark Hart and Lynn Martin.
We are especially honored to be visited by Professor Wang, who is the premier academic expert on entrepreneurship in China and the leader of the Zhejiang Global Entrepreneurship Research Centre. I have worked with Professor Wang in conjunction with the GS 10,000 Women effort. He and his assistant, Andy Lee, arranged for me to interview several of the program’s graduates, as well as three female doctoral students studying women’s entrepreneurship.
It has been fascinating for me to be able to talk to Chinese women entrepreneurs, as well as Chinese academics, about the whole question of female economic empowerment. I have learned through this experience, as well as my research in other countries, that the challenges facing women in business have some local variation (as well as some major differences between the developed and developing world), but also that there are patterns that are common everywhere.
The challenges of creating the right environment and materials for the different audiences will the topic of one of the sessions at the Forum, led by Noa Meyer and Deepak Jayaraman, who will represent the learning from both the 10,000 Women and the 10,000 Small Businesses UK initiatives.