Despite it being 27 years since the dawn of a democratic South Africa, the country remains one of the most unequal societies in the world[i]. With high unemployment rates and economic stagnation exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more people are finding themselves beneath the poverty line[ii]. This is no different in Stellenbosch, with recent reports pointing to growing joblessness and limited skills development as two key issues affecting the town’s growth and development[iii]. Yet, hope is on the horizon, with one area of historic inequality showing positive signs of improvement: women-led entrepreneurship.
In fact, women-owned businesses might just be the key to the region’s growth. With this year’s Women’s Month focusing on realising women’s right for an equal future, Hanli Brink – the operation’s manager for Stellenbosch Network – sat down with three of the community’s leading champions of female entrepreneurship to unpack the ins and outs of women-led entrepreneurship and what it means for the future of Stellenbosch and surrounds.
Women run better-performing businesses
“When it comes to understanding the potential of women-led businesses and their impact, you’ve got to begin by qualifying what they bring to the table,” says Monica Musiya from Future Females Winelands – the local chapter of a global movement to inspire and support female entrepreneurs.
“And in this regard, it’s important to acknowledge that – while all businesses struggle in the early phases – those that are founded or co-founded by women perform better over time. They tend to produce more income overall, are less likely to default on loans, and, according to our research, are able to generate almost double the revenue than those founded by men. And women entrepreneurs in Stellenbosch are no different.”
As such, investors are slowly starting to invest more heavily in local women-owned businesses – a trend which Alvira Fisher says is being replicated by foundations, industries and government groups around the Cape.
As the Incubation Director for Launchlab – the official business incubator of Stellenbosch University – she shares that, “More people are interested in elevating opportunities for women entrepreneurship because they bring fresh solutions to traditional sectors which are in desperate need of innovation. At the same time, women have big gaps to fill across various industries. This brings an opportunity for them to rise to the challenge and introduce unique, socially inclusive ideas to the market.”
For Anita Nel, the Chief Director for Innovation and Business Development at Innovus – the industry interaction and innovation company for Stellenbosch University – this move towards empowering women-owned businesses is resulting in more female-led startups in Stellenbosch.
“Over the past while, we’ve seen a steady increase in female involvement in our spinout companies, not only at shareholder level, but also at senior management level. An example of such is a local biotech company called BioCODE, where three of the four shareholders are women. The company is also managed by a young female entrepreneur,” says Nel.
Female entrepreneurship will lead to more inclusive societies
By running stronger businesses, female entrepreneurship provides a solid platform from which to support socio-economic development. This is reinforced by the fact that women are generally more interested in pushing an inclusive narrative in their decision-making.
According to Fisher, “From our experience, this is because women usually put engagement with others at the top of their minds when it comes to realising objectives and reducing risks. While men tend to focus on the larger issues relating to profit margins, women are often closer to the customer and spend long periods of time understanding the problem through their eyes. This bottom-up approach has a tremendous advantage as you then have real power to bring change to the lives of others. But it all begins with building empathy and training yourself to listen to and observe others.”
In addition to focusing on the needs of people, Musiya says that, in her experience, women are also more likely to invest in their local communities, as well as causes that are making a positive social impact. In doing so, they are leading the charge to help elevate families out of poverty, which in turn, stimulates the development of the next round of socially-minded female founders.
Building a community starts with a network
But for this to happen, women-led entrepreneurship needs a conducive environment where personal skills can be nurtured, and opportunities gained for business growth and development.
As Fisher puts it, “Building a business is hard, it requires grit, resilience, and focused commitment. To make it, entrepreneurs need the support of a community, especially one with a diverse range of people and ideas. This network becomes a vital supply for input on how to build your business and gives the entrepreneur a head start on what is quite a long journey to success.”
The ability of communities to empower women-led entrepreneurship is echoed by Muyisa, who adds that, “Peers and mentors are crucial for support, inspiration, and motivation, and a network is a good way of finding them. These people can help you develop your practical abilities – like how to budget effectively, test your market, or pitch to investors – as well as your intangible abilities such as communication, problem-solving, leadership, and confidence.”
Nel echoes this sentiment, saying that “We need to create more female entrepreneur role models, especially for younger women. We need to promote the idea and grow aspirations for them to own their own business – on campuses and further afield.”
Fisher, Muyisa and Nel believe that Stellenbosch is a prime location and home to a strong community that affords many of these benefits. And for this reason, the town is quickly becoming a hub for women-led entrepreneurship, a testing ground for new and inclusive ideas, and a potential champion of positive social change.
“Ultimately, the women of Stellenbosch are key to creating an equal future for locals in town, considering their propensity for building strong, empathetic, and people-minded businesses, but first they need a community” says Brink.
“To this end, we invite all women either running their own business or interested in pursuing entrepreneurship to join Stellenbosch Network. We are a cross sector and inter-disciplinary organisation that brings people together – from industry, government, society and academia – to share ideas, make connections, and create opportunities for partnerships and collaboration. In doing so, we aim to foster a stronger environment for all businesses in support of inclusive economic growth for the greater Stellenbosch area,” concludes Brink.
To find out more, go to www.stellenboschnetwork.co.za