The Role of Entrepreneurship in Closing Gender Gaps in Myanmar

by NICOLE DENHOLDER|28 September 2020

The Role of Entrepreneurship in Closing Gender Gaps in Myanmar

Startups in Myanmar remain largely under-researched, particularly those addressing gender gaps. A report was completed recently to specifically address this issue. Below are excerpts from the executive summary.

Joining me now to discuss the report in more detail is Next Chapter Raise founder, Nicole Denholder.


Who commissioned the study?

This is an independent report commissioned by three main parties:

Sasakawa Peace Foundation (SPF) – SPF is one of the largest foundations in Japan. SPF has five priority goals, of which “empowering women to achieve gender equality in society” is one.

Second, the Emerging Markets Entrepreneurs (EME) which invests between US50-250K into early-stage Myanmar startups.

And finally, Support Her Enterprise (SHE) – SHE is a social enterprise based in Cambodia, and working in the South Asia region. It designs and delivers Cambodia’s first and only business incubator and accelerator programs for women-led MSMEs using a gender and cultural lens.


What was the purpose of the study?

The idea was to examine innovative enterprises in Myanmar, with particular attention to startups that focus on women and girls. At the end, they wanted to have a clearer understanding of the approach and challenges of female entrepreneurs to determine ways to support them.

What was good about this study is that also reached further into rural Myanmar to investigate female owner-operated businesses.


Who did they specifically look at?

They looked at companies with fewer than 10 employees and annual turnover growth of 10-20%, also known as small growing businesses or “SGBs”, as well as a smaller number of companies with 20-99 employees and lower than 20% annual turnover growth.

They ended up doing interviews with 23 startup men and women founders whose businesses are contributing to the closing of Myanmar’s gender gaps.


How did they go about making the assessment?

First up, they wanted to develop a framework for Women’s Empowerment in the region and then they looked at what they term, seven dimensions for a more gender-inclusive Southeast Asia. Then it was about using those gender based dimensions to assess Women-Focused Startups in Myanmar. Let’s go through them:

  • Economic Empowerment  – or the Ability to achieve economic success and stay financially secure
  • Personal Safety and mobility – that meant freedom from violence and other harmful practices that undermine the bodily autonomy and mobility of women
  • Formal Representation – Representation within political governance and formal employment in positions to drive key decisions
  • Education – Access to knowledge and education opportunities in order to cultivate learning and expand possibilities in life
  • Health –  Freedom from disease and pain, with adequate access to healthcare and the ability to lead a fulfilled and flourishing life
  • Time – Freedom from the unequal burden of unpaid work and the prerogative to use that free time for study, paid work and/or personal needs
  • Decision Making – Agency to make important decisions relating to a woman’s life; across the dimensions of her personhood, family, community and work


So, what were the findings?

  • Both women and men believe that having a focus on women within their business is to their advantage, in relation to sales, branding and marketing representation.
  • Businesses tend to be founded on personal or family funds, while follow-on capital comes from grants and equity. Men receive a disproportionate amount of equity funding compared to women. One case study founder reported that she found that when talking to investors, mostly men, they trained their attention on her family plans over her business plans
  • A correlation exists between the type of funding received and the commercial or social focus of the business. Those companies founded with personal, friend or family money that went on to raise equity, grants, or both, tended to be better organised and more commercially oriented than those without formal follow-on funding. This likely indicates that formal financing tends to contribute to business organisation or conversely that better organisation helps access formal funding.
  • While startups benefit from a lack of legacy costs and structures, they are creating companies from nothing and this has its own challenges. When asking survey respondents about their biggest challenge, it was “execution”, broadly defined as the day-to-day operation of the business.
  • Founders value mentorship and, specifically, from someone who is able to support them for an extended period and who understands the Myanmar market.
  • Impact measurement is varied and often informal.
  • Women recognised that they need training to achieve growth within their business, financial management and business management ranked highly
  • Women who had received loans showed greater agency and personal development.


What are the recommendations for closing the gender gap?

  • Startups need to be purposeful about their strategy and how they communicate this to find mentors and investors.  In the case of startups targeting gender gaps, this means identifying and measuring social and financial performance from the start. Understanding the company’s mission and its commercial value proposition is key, and having women in decision-making positions will better prepare the company to think about solutions that target women.
  • Investors should recognise gender gaps as market opportunities and provide support beyond funding to startups closing gender gaps, particularly those at an early stage or who have recently experienced rapid growth.
  • Other ecosystem participants should help revise accelerator programs for greater gender diversity. The overly popular “pitch day” is well-suited to English speaking, well-educated men who are used to speaking in front of large audiences, while the Myanmar culture does not prepare women in the same way for such occasions. Plus, creating a formal mentor network by working closely with a local Myanmar coordination partner may also provide entrepreneurs with the support they desire outside of or alongside existing accelerator programmes.


For the full summary, click on the link below:


At Next Chapter Raise, we fully support the work of organisations such as the one involved in this study as it provides a much needed focus on the work of female founders in the region.