The Covid-induced lockdowns in India – and around the world – have demonstrated how important ‘connection’ is. As many of us have learned, we need business connections with industry colleagues, suppliers, customers, and financiers. This professional network is a critical lifeline that enables entrepreneurs to sustain and succeed in business.
Regardless of size, corporate executives and micro-entrepreneurs alike lean on their business connections for support. Vibrant business networks make running a successful business easier because they are sources of collective information. Tapping into business contacts can offer new ideas, help find the right talent, unlock additional markets, and access funding opportunities. Through business networks, participants develop relationships that can translate into professional collaborations and build knowledge through the exchange of best practices.
For micro-entrepreneurs, however, professional networks are not always as robust as their corporate counterparts. This disparity is worse for women business owners, particularly those based outside of urban centres.
Greater equity and inclusion must
For many micro and small business owners, which represent 63 million Indian businesses, access to professional networks is fragmented. Sometimes asymmetry of information and lack of connection is due to geography, socio-economic status, or gender. For example, a small business owner in Satara or Kohlapur has less knowledge about nation-wide market trends than a similar small business in Mumbai.
Less robust business networks are especially true for female entrepreneurs from low-income communities. Women own and run only about 5 per cent of businesses in India, 90 per cent of which are micro-enterprises, with a majority operating within the informal economy (as per MasterCard Women Small Business Global Insights). The informality of their operations can frequently exclude them from mainstream networking opportunities. For example, women in rural India are less likely to interact outside the family, get formal education, and access the internet. As a result, they are restricted from being part of traditional alumni and professional networks that provide the relationships and know-how to build a professional identity and fuel business growth.
Instead, many women business leaders have relied on self-help groups (SHGs), cooperatives, and local chambers of commerce to find networks that value and accept women in the unorganized sector. These grassroots communities lie at the heart of the village economy and are critical to bridging gender gaps that prevent women from becoming economically self-sufficient. For instance, village associations often run local farmers’ markets and crafts exhibitions, which enable female artisans and producers to capitalise on the growing market for organic, medicinal, and sustainable goods.
As new female entrepreneurs learn the basics of bookkeeping, profit-making, digital marketing, online banking, and customer relations, business networks enable them with the connections to transform their skills into professions. More importantly, professional networks offer chances for women to seek advice and knowledge without judgement, as well as develop the sense of security and belongingness that comes with being part of a group. Women in professional networks become role models for their peers and inspiration for young women.
Inclusive growth with technology
With the expansive and innovative use of technology, fragmented business networks no longer must be the default. Small business owners – women and men – can leverage technology platforms to create connections and build robust business networks. In other words, technology can supercharge the growth of small businesses if used to drive inclusive growth.
In response to Covid-19, Mann Deshi Foundation has taken its Rural Women Chamber of Commerce digital by using messaging services to connect members, identify available suppliers, and collaborate to fulfil work orders. For instance, when the pandemic hit, tailors and seamstresses in Maharashtra were deprived of their main sources of income. These entrepreneurs quickly pivoted from producing school uniforms to masks, tapping into the network offered through the Rural Women Chamber of Commerce, to hire and train others who were out of work. The collective effort resulted in one million masks being dispatched to market, including a large order from the State’s police force.
When women have equitable access to networks that power the modern economy, they transcend stereotypes of gender, caste, and class to achieve their full productive potential. This has a powerful multiplier effect on women’s economic agency by inspiring and grooming the next generation of women to achieve their professional dreams.
India could create 170 million new jobs if men and women had the same access to business ownership. This untapped entrepreneurial potential can be geared up with the use of technology and produce real economic gains.
The writer is Vice President, Asia Pacific, Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth