Helping women entrepreneurs in Asia and Europe to thrive under lockdown


Opinion by UN Women, Bopinc and The DO School

Photo: UN Women/Ploy Phutpheng

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the critical role of collaboration in creating gender-inclusive ecosystems where women can emerge and thrive. As the European Union, UN Women and its partners Bopinc and The DO School highlight their commitment to helping more women entrepreneurs on the occasion of the World Entrepreneurs Day this year, two initiatives should be recognised for their remarkable progress in providing the space and tools these women need: the Entrepreneurship Accelerator and Industry Disruptor.

The first programme is the Entrepreneurship Accelerator, which aims to support 7,000 women entrepreneurs in the Asia-Pacific Region to turn their projects into investable enterprises. It focuses on the basics of launching and running a start-up, and on emotional wellness. 

The participants pose at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Accelerator online session. Screenshot courtesy of Bopinc.

The challenges faced by women in the workplace can often be even sharper for those in decision-making roles. The actual behaviours can range from harassment to micro-aggressions to well-intended but undermining stereotypes. But the contradictory expectations are consistent, across many cultures: Women in business must be hard-nosed yet kind, confident yet humble.  

The Entrepreneurship Accelerator was launched by UN Women in partnership with Bopinc, an independent foundation designing and delivering socially and commercially viable business models together with people at the base-of-the-pyramid, the low-income population. Entrepreneurs, accelerators and investors worked closely together through virtual workshops to design and build the programme, including gender-smart toolkits.

“What I experienced was true power of collaboration,” said participant Aparna Saxena, chief executive of Indonesia’s textiles social enterprise Torajamelo. “I believe this will go a long way in laying the path towards having a deeper level of gender inclusiveness and awareness across the entrepreneurship ecosystems, as it marries actual insights from the ground with a practical toolkit.”

Entrepreneurs of all genders and fashion brands in India are streamlining innovation to tackle pressing sustainability issues through the Industry Disruptor. Screenshot courtesy of UN Women

Out of the sessions came the design of two toolkits with seven practical tools for ensuring gender-inclusive accelerators and entrepreneurs. The toolkits, now being piloted in Germany, Indonesia and Thailand, cover topics such as access to finance, handling gender bias, ensuring a gender-smart network and steps to becoming a gender equality ambassador. The final toolkits will be published early next year.

The second programme is the Industry Disruptor, which now connects and trains 80 Indian start-ups who are passionate about building a sustainable fashion industry that supports and benefits women. The programme, which UN Women launched in partnership with The DO School, provides virtual capacity building, and supports in particular women start-ups working remotely, including artisans and brand partners. The next stage for the Industry Disruptor programme will be a five-day bootcamp between August and September. Twenty-two selected entrepreneurs will collaborate with leaders from the fashion industry to build scaling strategies for sustainable, female-benefiting fashion enterprises.

“The most valuable part has been the opportunity to learn from and interact with mentors,” said one participant of the Asia Chapter of the Industry Disruptor programme, as well as the chance to “grow with each other as a community.”

Artisans of the Skilled Samaritan Network observe social distancing and use virtual platforms for work meetings. The network is a social enterprise turning plastic and textile waste into eco-home and lifestyle products. Screenshot courtesy of Gauri Gopal Agrawal.

Huge numbers of women in India’s textile, garments and fashion industry have had to leave their place of work following factory closures and lockdowns due to the pandemic, often travelling the full length or breadth of the country to return to their hometowns. As well as entrepreneurs and designers, they include many of India’s 10 million weavers and other artisans. From home, these women are facing a range of competing pressures, including childcare and domestic work, as well as uncertainty about resuming their jobs or finding new work. With an eye on these challenges, the Industry Disruptor is following up its initial phase in India with a second chapter in Europe.  

The Industry Disruptor and Entrepreneurship Accelerator programmes come as the impacts of the pandemic are set to hit women particularly hard. Up to 34 per cent of entrepreneurs may be forced to close their business entirely, according to the UN Women’s Asia-Pacific Needs Assessment for More Gender-Inclusive Entrepreneurship, conducted in April 2020 with Bopinc. And 81 per cent of investors said they would be putting less money into smaller companies under the current pandemic conditions, a move that will disproportionately affect women as they are overrepresented among smaller enterprises. 

These gendered impacts of the current crisis are compounding the effects of structural obstacles women were already facing. Around 29 per cent of respondents said they had faced gender barriers to accessing finance even before the pandemic, according to the same research. And many have reported frequent instances of prejudice, especially in financial matters.  

One Indonesian entrepreneur was asked by an investor where the actual boss was. “He doubted my ability to run the company, knowing that I am a mother with a child,” she said. The experience has made her cut down on posting pictures of her child on social media. 

Another female entrepreneur, from Germany, told a comparable story of making a pitch to investors jointly with her male co-founder. “All the financial people talked to my co-founder,” she said. 

Creating a gender-inclusive ecosystem in entrepreneurship and empowering women entrepreneurs is everyone’s business – when more women work, economies grow. It is up to us to ensure that these women have the resources they need to get through this period and fulfil their potential. These two programmes supported by the EU-funded project ‘WeEmpowerAsia’ of UN Women in Asia and the Pacific leverages partnerships and a whole-of-ecosystem approach for lasting and sustainable change, as well as help us understand how we can rebuild better together, and also what “better” means for these women.

Ugo Astuto, the EU Ambassador to India and Bhutan, highlights the importance of this approach: “In this time of crisis, the EU is happy to support activities and projects that benefit and empower women entrepreneurs individually, but also build collaborative communities and movements that drive innovation and tackle together challenges to sustainability.”

Katja Freiwald, Regional Programme Manager of WeEmpowerAsia, UN Women, said: “World Entrepreneurs Day is a good occasion to highlight importance of such online resources, as well as celebrate the effective resilience of the women involved, and take note of the challenges that persist in ensuring women’s rights and empowerment across the world of work.” 

For women entrepreneurs, the COVID-19 is part of a compound crisis that includes long-standing structural inequities. We must act now to make sure they have the platforms they need to cooperate and rebuild their businesses more justly and sustainably.

Watch the video ‘Celebrating women entrepreneurs in Asia and Europe.’

Read the op-ed on InDepthNews here.

Lotte-Marie Brouwer is Women’s Entrepreneurship Lead of Bopinc.
Phillip Tettenborn is Director of Impact Entrepreneurship at The DO School.
Bovornpong Vathanathanakul, Communications Analyst at WeEmpowerAsia, UN Women. 

The Industry Disruptor project and the Entrepreneurship Accelerator are part of the WeEmpowerAsia, a UN Women programme funded by and in partnership with the European Union that seeks to increase the number of women who lead and participate in business in China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam. A key component of the programme is to mobilize private sector companies to become gender-responsive by committing to and implementing the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs). For more, visit