A 3-pronged approach to meet the needs of aspiring women entrepreneurs in Vietnam

A Vietnamese woman wears traditional "ao dai" dress and a conical hat in downtown's Vietnam's central city of Da Nang.  A Vietnamese woman wears traditional "ao dai" dress and a conical hat in downtown Vietnam's central city of Da Nang March 8, 2005. 40 years after the first American troops arrived in Da Nang on March 8, 1965 to fight in the Vietnam War which cost 58,000 American and 3,000,000 Vietnamese lives, a U.S. military team of about 100 flew into Da Nang early this month as part of continuing U.S. efforts to locate about 1,800 soldiers still listed as missing. REUTERS/Kham

As the Vietnam government looks to help the economy recover from the COVID-19 crisis, the need to increase the viability of women-owned businesses has never been more urgent. In response to this, the National Strategy on Gender Equality 2021-30 aims for women-owned businesses to account for 27 percent of all enterprises by 2025 and 30 percent by 2030 (up from 26.5 percent in 2020).

While Vietnam was ranked 10th in Asia and 25th globally in 2020 for the proportion of female participation in entrepreneurial activities, these numbers only tell part of the story. Vietnamese women entrepreneurs are still struggling to survive and thrive with 98 percent running micro-, small-, and medium-sized businesses in low-productivity sectors. To support and encourage women entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship training programs for women have been developed in recent years. However, their effectiveness has been questioned because they do not adequately recognize the distinct needs and unique challenges of women entrepreneurs such as lack of social networks and limited access to financing.

By taking demand-driven and gender-responsive policies and practices for promoting entrepreneurship among women into account, Vietnam can better achieve its national targets for women’s entrepreneurship, which will shape a more sustainable and inclusive economy and society.

Because understanding women entrepreneurs’ needs is so critical to establishing more effective policies and practices, I conducted a study as an Echidna Global Scholar in July and August of 2021 to provide better insight into what aspiring women entrepreneurs need and expect from the policies and programs targeting them. I obtained data and insights from in-depth interviews with members of the Future for Women (FFW) program*, who are aspiring female entrepreneurs; individual interviews with government officials and leaders from the private sector; a focus group discussion with practicing women entrepreneurs who have participated in FFW; and extensive review of research and policy documents. Beyond examining the perceived needs and expectations of women entrepreneurs, qualitative data analysis helps provide a more nuanced understanding of the underlying reasons behind women’s perceptions, offering a sound rationale for policy recommendations.

What do aspiring women entrepreneurs in Vietnam want and need?

My data analysis revealed the following about women entrepreneurs’ wants and needs from capacity-building assistance.

  • The women entrepreneurs wanted to acquire business management skills and knowledge for their immediate desire to start a business. The fact that they tended to overlook other competencies for long-term growth such as technology, innovative thinking, problem-solving, risk taking, and leadership capabilities demonstrated their incomplete view of what it means to be an entrepreneur.
  • While women pointed to the advantages of what they saw as “feminine” leadership traits, they felt they needed to learn about “masculine” leadership approaches to become more successful. They expressed a lack of self-efficacy and felt a gender identity conflict between being a woman and being an entrepreneur; thus, it is important to help them leverage both so-called masculine and feminine strengths, while still embracing their authentic selves.
  • Pointing to the small size of their business networks and lack of role models, these women valued program elements that offered the opportunity to make real-world connections through mentoring, panel talks, site visits, and peer exchanges. In addition, with their strong preference for trainings, the women were more likely to prioritize depth of learning over logistics. For example, they were not as much concerned about a training program’s length but its intensity of interaction so they could fully immerse themselves in the knowledge and skills needed.
  • Study participants had little knowledge of public policies and programs designed for women entrepreneurs. This has impeded their ability to leverage existing support to start and sustain a business and may be preventing them from developing a broader understanding of entrepreneurship. However, they did identify how the government could better support female entrepreneurs, including by making information more accessible and by implementing more family-friendly policies, such as better child care policies, so they could devote more time to their entrepreneurial endeavors.

How can policies and practices better address women’s needs?

Based on these findings, I recommend women’s entrepreneurship policymakers and advocates use the following three-pronged approach focusing on program context, participants, and characteristics to address current gaps in policies and practices.

  1. The government should create a supportive context for female entrepreneurs by centering women in national efforts to enhance women’s entrepreneurship. This would mean producing high-quality data on women’s entrepreneurship, integrating gender into each phase of the policy process, and promoting an entrepreneurial culture that positively values female entrepreneurs.
  2. Women’s entrepreneurship advocates need to place women entrepreneurs at the center of their learning process. It is critical for program designers to comprehensively consider all possible factors to differentiate programs based on the diverse range of learners’ needs, including but not limited to gender, motivation, education, experience, stages of business life, and most importantly, unconscious biases rooted in gender stereotypes that may influence women entrepreneurs.
  3. Entrepreneurship program designers should create a program that balances the immediate needs of women entrepreneurs with their long-term business growth needs. For example, a program might include the knowledge and skills needed for women to launch their businesses, but should also forecast future trends and requirements, so women entrepreneurs can be more confident and successful.

By taking these demand-driven and gender-responsive policies and practices for promoting entrepreneurship among women into account, Vietnam can better achieve its national targets for women’s entrepreneurship, which will shape a more sustainable and inclusive economy and society.

I will present more detailed findings and recommendations at the “Girls’ education research and policy symposium: Protecting rights and future in times of crisis” beginning November 30, 2021. To register for the virtual plenary session and / or my workshop, please click here.

* The FFW Program is an entrepreneurship training and mentoring program initiated by Tran Thi Ngoc Tran and her team. This one-year program, funded by the the U.S government, was launched in Vietnam in December 2020.