BSR Conference 2012: Fast Forward / October 23-26 / New York

Women Entrepreneurs and the Scaling Dilemma

One-Hour Conversation Session / October 24, 2012


  • Wenchi Yu, Senior Advisor, Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, U.S. Department of State
  • Meg Jones, Women and Trade Programme Manager, International Trade Centre
  • Sarah Thorn, Senior Director of Government Relations and International Trade, Walmart
  • Nancy Wildfeir-Field, Director, Global Partnership Development, BSR (Moderator)


  • The biggest barriers to scaling up women-owned businesses in developing countries are a lack of information, access to markets, and potential business partners.
  • Sustainable solutions to women’s economic empowerment should be market-based rather than dependent on aid.
  • Partnerships among governments, trade associations, and companies can provide women-owned businesses with the market access, training, infrastructure, and regulatory environment they need to become globally competitive.

Memorable Quotes

“In the women’s economic empowerment space, we’re almost starting from scratch. The proven models aren’t really there; we’re still figuring it out. It’s going to take time—you can’t really rush it.” —Sarah Thorn, Walmart

“If you want to measure your results, you need to measure the impact on women’s income. It’s not about an increase in volume [of goods or services].” —Meg Jones, International Trade Centre

“We need to consult with the groups that we’re trying to work with because they are the ones that will know what will actually work or not. They truly need to have ownership.” —Wenchi Yu, U.S. Department of State

“How can business, through its imagination and innovation, help women ensure that their goods and services are market-based and are stimulating growth and employment?” —Nancy Wildfeir-Field, BSR


Wildfeir-Field opened the session by introducing each of the speakers and providing the context for the discussion. Women have been called the emerging market of the emerging markets. Women own about 10 million small businesses in the world, accounting for more than 50 percent of the micro-enterprises, yet they represent less than 1 percent of corporate procurement spending globally. And although women-owned businesses are growing faster than those owned by men, they have limited access to skills development and networks, they lack sufficient financial resources to grow their business, and they have limited access to global markets to sell their goods and services.

Next, Thorn explained Walmart’s women’s empowerment program, which is based on three key pillars. The first pillar focuses on sourcing from women-owned businesses in the United States and in international markets. This pillar also includes plans to launch a women-owned and -produced product marketplace on a new e-commerce platform. The second pillar includes empowerment training for women in factories and in the agricultural value chain, as well as workforce readiness training for women in the United States. The final pillar involves working with major professional service firms and prime merchandise suppliers to increase women and minority representation on Walmart accounts. To power these goals, Walmart awards US$100 million globally in philanthropic support.

Jones then described the International Trade Centre’s (ITC) initiatives to build partnerships to address some of the challenges to scaling women’s economic empowerment programs. Her efforts are instrumental in helping women-owned small- to medium-sized enterprises achieve export success by connecting them with the private sector. ITC works toward this goal by helping exporters achieve global competitiveness, ensuring that trade support institutions extend services to women as well as men, and working with policymakers to create a favorable regulatory environment for women entrepreneurs.

Finally, Yu introduced the U.S. State Department’s efforts to identify effective models for scaling women’s economic empowerment programs. She cited both Walmart and Coca-Cola as good examples, since both of their programs are aligned with the company’s internal strategies. She then described the U.S. government’s framework for empowering women, which includes increasing access to capital and markets, capacity building and skills training, and leadership development. She emphasized that it’s not just about providing finance.

All of the panelists agreed that partnerships are critical to scaling economic empowerment programs aimed at women. Partnerships with governments, NGOs, and multilateral institutions are particularly critical to providing capacity building and skills training. Jones emphasized this point by saying that corporations can play a role here by providing guidance on what women-owned SMEs need to do to become preferred suppliers for companies.

Partnerships are also important to building the infrastructure needed in some countries to support female entrepreneurs. More specifically, partnerships with trade associations can help women get their products to market and overcome other growth impediments such as a lack of access to finance and inheritance rights. Associations also give women a platform to interact with the government and tackle the issues themselves. Through associations, female business leaders have often entered into politics, giving them the chance to influence regulations that can positively change the environment in which other women work.

The panelists all agreed that economic empowerment programs aimed at women need to be scaled in a deliberate manner to ensure that they have the greatest impact and do not create any additional harm. For example, the women that a new program targets need to be consulted before that program is put in place. Yu provided the example of a program that encouraged women to grow trees. However, these women lived in an environment with insufficient water to support the trees they grew; so in the end, the women lost the time, energy, and money they had invested in the trees.

Thorn added that for Walmart, taking a careful approach to program expansion often requires scaling down some of the company’s normal procurement processes in order to give women the room to scale up their businesses.

During the Q&A session, a participant asked about the best ways to consult with indigenous populations. The panelists stressed the importance of identifying entry points in a given community—such as NGOs or religious leaders—that can provide the community perspective to inform program development. The same participant asked about how to include men in these programs as well. The panelists cautioned that focusing solely on women could tip the power balance in some communities, which could lead to unintended consequences in the community and within families. Men have to be engaged as well.

Thank You, Sponsors

Executive Sponsors

Cisco Hitachi PwC Target UL Responsible Sourcing

Associate Sponsors

Anheuser-Busch InBev

Supporting Sponsors

Adobe AT&T ExxonMobil Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Inc.

Participating Sponsors

American Express Baker & McKenzie LLP Best Buy BNY Mellon Ford Hyatt Hotels Corporation The Walt Disney Company UPS Vale

Contributing Sponsors

Chevron icix Levi Strauss & Co.

Convening Media

Bloomberg Business Week Weber Shandwick

Marketing and Media

3BL Media BEF Caixin Media Corporate Knights Globescan GreenBiz Group Inc. Hemlock Responsible-Investor Sina Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) Tomorrow Partners