Caribbean Women in Business: A Trend or Paradigm Shift?

 

Across the globe and through the ages, women have experienced the disadvantages of existing in a patriarchal framework, which has designated them to a homemaker role, and continues to define the sex as a whole. Women in business are breaking that mould across the world and writing new stories for themselves, and in the Caribbean, the Caribbean Export Development Agency (Caribbean Export) is assisting them through a variety of programme-based interventions. In commemoration of International Women’s Day 2014, Caribbean Export wishes to highlight and applaud the tremendous progress of Caribbean women in the business arena. We believe that, in keeping with this year’s theme of “Inspiring Change”, that these women are not only inspiring, but also effecting change in meaningful and lasting ways.

In the professional world women often face many obstacles to advancement in the work place and in entrepreneurship, often referred to as the infamous glass ceiling. Many of these constraints are actually social constructs  “…the propensity of women to start a business may differ from that of men for cultural reasons” states Maria Minniti, a researcher for the UN. Socially the expectation is still for women to have children and to raise them at some point in their careers, whereas the expectation for men is to be successful and to provide for his family.

In a recent study by the World Bank, “female entrepreneurs are more likely to operate in the informal sector or in traditional female sectors. This limitation is likely due to “…a number of reasons… a lack of business connections and networks, few entrepreneurial female role models. Accessing finance is also a challenge, with women often lacking the required collateral to obtain successful financing above the microfinance level from banks”.

These World Bank findings presents a global phenomenon, but the Caribbean has arguably always been a region where, females rarely face disproportionate opportunities or even oppression and discrimination, as is often the case in other parts of the developing world. In fact, across the region women have taken full advantage of the educational avenues that have been made available to them and many have succeeded in rising to positions of influence. However, the proverbial glass ceiling and other social limitations still remain a reality for many of those who wish to venture into the business sector.

Despite these challenges the number of women involved in the business sector has dramatically increased globally.  It is thought that due to the current global economic climate, which has left scores of men and women unemployed, there has arisen a greater impetus for women to enter into entrepreneurial roles in order to survive. According to studies conducted by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, particularly in lesser-developed countries “when it comes to entrepreneurship, males tend to cite ‘opportunity’ as their main motivator, while women more often start or maintain businesses out of ‘necessity’”.  The study cited that there are 187 million registered women-owned and operated businesses worldwide and in some countries; nearly half of all adult women are business-owners. In, for example in Ghana female entrepreneurs actually outnumber their male counterparts.

Caribbean Export has witnessed this rise through the number of female participants across several of its programme-based activities delivered under the 10th European Development Fund (EDF), and is particularly interested in the development of the regional private sector, from the perspective of the women involved in, and driving this area.  Women have not only become progressively more involved in such activities, but account for a significant fraction of overall participation.  To illustrate, seven hundred and seventy-six (776) females were involved in Agency initiatives in 2012, however this increased by 5% to eight hundred and seventeen (817) in 2013.

Fig 1_ Female vs Male

Regional female entrepreneurs are increasingly capitalizing on the opportunities, including training, technical assistance, and support in export promotion (Figure 2), which have been put in place to help them develop their businesses and products for the global market. In fact, between 2012 and 2013, one thousand six hundred and fifty-nine (1659) women participated in Caribbean Export interventions compared to one thousand three hundred and sixty-six (1366) men.

 

Fig 2_Participation in Programmes

 

This demonstrates that not only are women serious about business, but they are also serious about the growth and competitiveness of the Caribbean private sector. Their participation is an effort to grow their small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) into globally competitive brands, and is also indicative of the region’s growth in particular sectors.

There is a new generation of women who have ventured outside of the often thought of as “safe” or “female” designated businesses such as salons and boutiques, into professions that are pushing the envelope and changing the landscape of the Caribbean, thereby contributing to the global economy. These women are involved in a wide range of sectors from agro-processing to specialized tourism. Collectively and individually, these women encapsulate the qualities of creativity, intelligence, tenacity, dynamism and the courage that it takes to enter and survive in the business world, particularly a world that is ordinarily dominated by men.

“Caribbean women, have something very unique to contribute to the regional and global markets,” Pamela Coke-Hamilton, the Executive Director of Caribbean Export remarked, “They have been afforded quality educational opportunities which, coupled with the well-rounded perspective that comes from living in a regional village, have made them naturally inclined to think outside of conventional parameters.” Mrs. Coke-Hamilton added that, “At Caribbean Export, we have seen remarkable advancement in the status of women within the private sector which makes me proud as a woman. Women are not just running businesses: they are pioneering ecologically-conscious, sustainable industries in a host of sectors that are constantly looking forward; constantly innovating. The Caribbean businesswoman is no longer trying to survive, she is trying to fashion a stronger future for the region.”

But with all that is being said, does this represent a paradigm shift in the professional focus of females in the region? Some argue that women have not transitioned away from traditional service sectors such as cosmetology, especially given the recent rise in these types of micro-businesses,, particularly in islands such as Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad as a result of the “naturalista” movement. This occurrence evolved out of an interest in wearing ones hair in its unaltered state and in using cosmetic products that are branded as “all-natural” or contain ingredients, which are derived from natural sources.

However, Caribbean Export has seen an increased involvement of women in increasingly expanding industries, such as specialized tourism and renewable energy. Like the cosmetology industry, specialized tourism responds to the demands of consumers with very specific interests. Women have been chiefly involved in responding to these demands in innovative and competitive ways. Another burgeoning sector is renewable energy, which has become a priority in many Caribbean territories, following initiatives taken by developed nations. As a result, the sector attracts a great deal of investment and support from foreign and regional entities alike, and has been pegged as a major growth industry by organizations such as the European Union (EU), Inter-American Development Bank, (IADB) and the Organisation of American States (OAS).

In 2013, Caribbean Export’s, awarded funding to fifty-four (54) women through the Direct Assistance Grant Scheme (DAGS), facilitated under the EU-funded 10th EDF. These beneficiaries represented a range of sectors (Figure 3), however, most notable were the recipients from the agro-processing and manufacturing sectors, which accounted collectively for 51% of the female beneficiaries. This substantial fraction alludes to a much greater female involvement in these traditionally male-dominated areas than might have previously been perceived. These women are not only driving this industry into a new age with pioneering products and methodologies, but, they are also harvesting the resources to position themselves as viable global competitors, with support from Caribbean Export.

Fig 3_Females Awarded Grants

Of these fifty-four awardees, three of the female-owned firms actively take an eco-friendly approach to their businesses. Their stories have been captured and produced into a short documentary entitled The Green Initiative. These women, Barbara Walker and Shireen Aga of Jamaica, Ruth Spencer of Antigua and Barbuda, and Joanna Edgehill of Barbados can be considered trailblazers in regional renewable energy agenda.

Walker and Aga’s Hotel Mockingbird Hill is run on solar energy harnessed by solar panels. These panels were replaced with the funds received in the Grant Scheme. Their establishment is one of the only hotels in the region, which, according to Aga “operates on a completely holistic principle” and has been recognised as such. Ruth’s Place, owned by Spencer also operates exclusively on solar power. As a result of their efforts, these women have established the model for an economically viable and sustainable ecological business system. Undoubtedly, with these initiatives, the regional tourism industry has undergone a rebirth.

Edgehill of MegaPower has jump-started the use of solar-powered electric cars in her home Island, and refers to herself as an “ambassador for the Nissan Leaf and for electric cars”. Her business is the sole dealership of the Nissan Leaf, the first electric motor, and lithium-ion battery-powered car on the island. This is certainly considered a catalyst in the regional automotive industry.

These illustrations validate that this generation of Caribbean businesswomen have demonstrated a dedication to the growth and development of not only their enterprises, but also the sector as a whole. The female entrepreneurs of the region are an essential component of the future of the private sector, a future that is symbolized by growth, innovation and competitiveness. Caribbean Export anticipates that women will continue to be at the forefront of emerging sectors, regionally and globally, and capitalize on the opportunities for capacity-building interventions, which the Agency provides. Caribbean Export is optimistic that there will be an exponential increase in the number of female participating in initiatives as the Agency endeavors to create more effective and tangible support mechanisms for the advancement of the regional private sector.