Women in business: how a Ukrainian project helps entrepreneurs succeed
Women in business are becoming increasingly active even in the face of the pandemic and lockdowns. Statistics are on the side of this fact: businesswomen in Ukraine have twice the index of entrepreneurial mood (58%) compared to the general community of entrepreneurs (27%). We explain how the Ukrainian initiative, Women Biz Days, helps women in business to stand on their own two feet.
Researchers from Bank of America estimate that the lack of equality in women's and men's access to economic opportunities has cost the world more than $70 trillion since 1990; it's more than 1,800 of Ukraine's current annual budgets.
"At the current pace of achieving gender equality in the economy, we'll have to wait another 257 years. Do you like this prospect? I definitely don't," says Iryna Tytarchuk, executive director of the Ukrainian Investment and Trade Facilitation Center (ITFC) and founder of the Women Biz Days initiative.
Women Biz Days combines business boot camp—intensive multi-day training with professional trainers and famous businesswomen—and the business community, where entrepreneurs are helped to find themselves, reinvent their business and pilot in a new field.
Iryna, who's been advising businesses on finance since 2006 and working with international projects in the public sector since 2017, says she has always noticed how women react differently to business opportunities.
"During various business seminars, I saw how open women are to development opportunities compared to men. The businessman is more inclined to business as usual, confident that everything will work as he intended. A businesswoman is more proactive, more likely to clarify and ask questions. Apparently, she feels she has no second chance to be successful in our business climate and wants to do everything right the first time," Iryna shares her observations.
"In a crisis, businesswomen are on the move, and don't wait for manna from heaven"
Women Biz Days were born out of a longing to satisfy the thirst of Ukrainian businesswomen for knowledge and change. Having attracted a grant from USAID Ukraine's Competitive Economy program, Iryna and a small team began planning the first series of seminars in 2019.
"We worked as a startup, constantly changing and improving the program according to the insights we received from our participants. We developed a special WorkBook to make it easier for entrepreneurs to learn and repeat the material. Together with the Ministry of Digital Transformation, we launched an educational series '10 steps to start your own business.' Our familiar business consultants and businesswomen became our first speakers. They then helped us find trainers for the next waves of workshops. As a result, no series of Women Biz Days is similar to the previous one," says the founder.
Since then, 350 businesswomen, selected from almost 3,300 applicants, have graduated from 4 waves of the program. In 2020, the planned seminars had to be urgently transferred into online and VR formats due to the pandemic, but the number of women entrepreneurs willing to study continued to exceed the number of spots at Women Biz Days.
"In a crisis, businesswomen are on the move, and don't wait for manna from heaven, but look for opportunities, study, engage in networking. It's very inspiring," says Iryna.
However, training is only the first step for women entrepreneurs. After the seminars, they become part of the Women Biz Days community. In a special closed alumni program group, they continue to communicate with each other, exchange advice, create unexpected partnerships. Iryna says that the main magic happens inside the community.
"Our task is to see a promising partnership and create the right match between businesswomen. Sometimes it doesn't work out, but when the puzzle is put together and we see the synergy of our graduates, we understand that everything was not in vain," says the project's inspirator.
Yulia Buhlak from "Aquaculture of Ukraine"
Yulia Buhlak, the owner of Aquaculture of Ukraine LLC, which develops a business portal for fish farmers, and her own aqua farm, has long wanted to add fishskin accessories, such an unusual direction for her business. It turns out that the skin of salmon, for example, doesn't differ in its properties from the calf's one when properly treated. It's strong and doesn't smell. And the use of fish skins actually turns fish farming into waste-free production.
Yulia studied the technology and found suppliers of skin. The only thing that was missing is a partner who'd help create products from such unique raw materials for Ukraine. Participation in Women Biz Days, where Yulia met another graduate, Maryna Bankovska, who creates accessories from exotic leathers, helped to move forward. Together, the entrepreneurs have developed several test products made of fish skin. Yulia is currently looking for grant funds to launch a line of accessories for men and women, and will further develop a partnership in this direction.
Portrait of a businesswoman. Who is she?
In the spring of 2021, besides the next series of seminars, Women Biz Days conducted a large-scale survey "Portrait of a Ukrainian woman entrepreneur," where more than 500 businesswomen shared their experiences of doing business in Ukraine.
"We wanted to get a representative picture of Ukrainian businesswomen's problems and needs to respond even more accurately to their requests in their educational activities and provide analytical information and recommendations on the women entrepreneurs' needs to partners, donors, and authorities," Iryna explains.
The study results confirm Iryna's personal observations: a businesswoman in Ukraine has twice the index of entrepreneurial mood (58%) compared to the general community of entrepreneurs (27%). This index is based on three components: the urge to start a business, resilience to obstacles, and the business project's feasibility assessment. Women are significantly ahead of the general sample in their wish to do business and are almost twice as confident in the realism of their ideas.
The women entrepreneurs' realism is manifested in their attitude to doing business in Ukraine. 62% of businesswomen say that in recent years it has become more difficult to do business. 73% of businesswomen consider unpredictability and constant change of rules to be the main feature of doing business in Ukraine.
At the same time, 47% of women entrepreneurs believe that positive changes have taken place for women in business recently. 63% of respondents see that their business has paid off, and they don't regret that they spent time and effort on business.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has severely affected women's business; the negative impact of lockdown on the economy is mentioned by 92% of respondents.
"This is not surprising, because women in Ukraine are drivers of small and medium enterprises, especially in the field of trade and services. These sectors proved to be the most vulnerable to quarantine restrictions, and lockdown and telecommuting didn't allow women to change roles from mother and wife to businesswoman. Instead, these roles were combined and balanced, and it had a profound effect on the morale of many women," Iryna comments.
According to the "Portrait of Ukrainian Women Entrepreneurs" during the lockdown, 40% of businesswomen suspended business, 20% dropped turnover, 13% noted lower customer solvency, and another 12% reduced customer base. Such systemic influences pushed women's businesses to change, often quite creative.
Tatiana Usenko from ProMICE
Tetiana Usenko, the owner of the ProMICE event agency, recalls the shock of the spring of 2020, as the company, she loved as her third child, was left almost without work. The prospect of sending the team on "vacation" or closing her favorite office didn't please the businesswoman, so she began to look for the hidden potential within the company. And she found it!
The small catering, which was a tiny part of ProMICE, became the growth point that Tatiana's business needed in the toughest times. In a few months, they managed to turn it into Friendly Food; besides B2B-events, the company began to deliver food for private events and just to order. Having successfully used the new niche created by the pandemic, Tatiana managed to get out of a strict lockdown with a more diversified and stable business model.
"There have been some positive developments during the pandemic. For example, it pushed women entrepreneurs to digitalize; the share of those selling products or services online has risen to almost 50%. Also, half of the owners of offline businesses make purchases on online platforms or marketplaces," Iryna shares.
The figures also indicate that Ukrainian businesswomen are mostly accustomed to coping with the crisis on their own. Only a third of businesswomen applied for financial assistance, half of whom sought government support and another half took out a loan. Only 5% of respondents attracted grant funding.
"Entrepreneurs rarely pluck the fruits that are "hanging low" because they don't tend to trust the state, financial institutions, or grantors. During the training, we explain to entrepreneurs how certain proven business support programs work, how to apply for grants. It helps to dispel stereotypes that everything is bad and nothing will work out," says the head of the initiative.
Olha Hurhula from Gurgula Furniture
Women Biz Days graduate Olha Hurhula decided to take advantage of the opportunities created by the pandemic. Together with her husband Mykhailo, they produce and sell chairs under the Gurgula furniture brand. When the pandemic started, they were just planning to open their own shop. One of the major problems was that about UAH 400,000 was needed to supply electricity.
Previously, they'd have to take a loan at high market interest rates or raise funds for a long time. But during the pandemic, the 5-7-9% available loan program became popular. Olha managed to get a soft loan at the 7% rate, which was then reduced to 6% when they hired another employee. The loan helped to start production much faster.
An important area of Women Biz Days is the acquaintance of Ukrainian businesswomen with the practices of corporate social responsibility (CSR). It's mainly manifested in helping vulnerable groups, staff support programs, care for the environment.
"According to our research, only 37% of women entrepreneurs now implement CSR principles in their business. This is a figure that needs to be worked on, because CSR is not only ethically correct but also a tangible advantage for businesses that want to attract grant funding or find a partner abroad," Iryna advises.
Tatiana Chernikova and Valentyna Denysenko from GreenForYou
GreenForYou, a farm in the Kharkiv region that grows microgreens, extremely organically includes social responsibility in their activities. The company owners are two sisters Tetiana Chernikova and Valentyna Denysenko, who were forced to leave their native Horlivka and Donetsk in 2014, and start a new life and business from scratch. GreenForYou now offers more than 20 types of microgreens and cooperates with restaurants and supermarket chains. During the pandemic, when sales fell, they began developing their own online farm marketplace in a farm-to-table format.
Sister entrepreneurs, who know from their own experience what life's difficulties are, support their social projects. For example, they work with the Caritas Kharkiv Charitable Foundation as part of the Sprouts of the Future project, which teaches children with Down syndrome how to grow microgreens and introduces them to the basics of healthy eating. They also founded their own social project, "Agency for Creative Ideas," for women and girls who want to become entrepreneurs.
Iryna is most happy when participating in Women Biz Days pushes businesswomen to think "How can I help other businesswomen?"
"Our project has its limitations, both financial and human. Therefore, our goal is to "infect" our graduates with the desire to help other entrepreneurs, so that mutual assistance continues and expands long after the end of the next wave of Women Biz Days," says Iryna.
Nadia Chepaikina from "TSYPA specialty coffee"
Despite her serious profession as a financier and experience in large enterprises, Nadia Chepaikina's business has always been born of her passions. At first, it was the sale of goods for choreography because she loved to dance. In 2014, she was forced to move from Mariupol to Dnipro, where, after the birth of her third child, she decided to start a business based on another of her long-standing hobbies, coffee.
So, in December 2019, a coffee shop "TSYPA specialty coffee" opened in Dnipro. And in three months the pandemic and lockdown began. Nadia's financial well-being helped to withstand this storm; she was able to agree on preferential rental conditions and optimize the costs of the cafe. But she has seen other businesses often suffer from low financial awareness. She heard many such stories during her participation in Women Biz Days. It was the training on the project that inspired Nadia to start developing her financial consulting and helping other entrepreneurs work more efficiently.
According to international estimates, during the pandemic year of 2020 alone, women around the world lost about $1 trillion in income due to gender inequality.
"I want to hope that our work has helped some Ukrainian businesswomen not to get into this sad statistic," Iryna shared.
The Women Biz Days team is currently planning new business support projects based on their research, which you can follow on the initiative's Facebook page.