The CN Tower in Toronto.
Photograph by Carlos Osorio — Toronto Star via Getty Images
By Donna Fenn
June 30, 2015

It turns out that that old real estate maxim—location, location, location—also applies to starting a business. According to a new study from Dell, the U.S., Canada and Australia are the best countries for female entrepreneurs. At the bottom of the list: Bangladesh, Pakistan and India.

However, the company’s Global Women Entrepreneur Leaders Scorecard report also shows just how challenging it can be for women to succeed in launching their own ventures, even in the top-rated nations. The study gave each of the 31 countries evaluated an overall score, based on its business environment, access to resources, the pipeline for female entrepreneurship, and several other metrics. The best grade, earned by the U.S., was only a 71 out of 100 possible points. More than 70% of the countries scored less than 50.

Fortune spoke to Dr. Ruta Aidis, the project director for the study, about some of the most surprising findings.

Modest aspirations?

Only 21% said entrepreneurs included in the study said they intend to grow their companies by 50%. “We’ve identified that there is a gender growth cap,” says Aidis. “If we don’t have women participating in the innovation of starting and scaling businesses, we’re going to miss out.”

Undercapitalization may be part of the reason female entrepreneurs reported such modest growth aspirations: Even in strong business environments, access to capital remains a huge barrier for women who want to scale their companies. Women-owned companies are 50% less capitalized than their male-owned counterparts and only 3% of startups that received venture capital funding in 2014 have female CEOs.

 

The hurdles of emerging economies

According to the study, the biggest problems for female entrepreneurs in emerging economies are the lack of basic business resources and, in some cases, cultural restrictions. Nigeria, for instance, had the highest percentage of women who see business opportunities and think they have the skills to start a business, but the country’s business environment and high corruption level is a severe impediment to growth.

In countries such as India and Pakistan, women are likely to start micro businesses, says Aidis. However, she notes that social norms limit the number of large businesses run by women. Plus, these nations often curtail women’s access to basic resources. In Pakistan, for instance, only 10% of women have access to the Internet and only 3% have a bank account, according to Dell.

Finding role models

Another key factor: the percentage of women in top jobs. China, Brazil, Malaysia and Nigeria report more women (5%) in the CEO seat of publicly-traded companies than the U.S. (4.8%). And in Poland, Jamaica, and Russia, women make up 35% or more of senior managers, compared to 25% in America.

Aidis says female role models in business and government are critically important. “We still see so few women at the top,” she says. “Companies are not actively engaging in diversity despite evidence that’s come out on the benefits of having diversified leadership. In Finland, they elected their first female president in 2000 and during the next election, children were asking their parents if a man could be president. The more we see it, the more it opens the way.”

A lack of female role models impacts what Aidis calls the “entrepreneurial pipeline. In the U.S., only 22% of the female population knows an entrepreneur and just 46% of women believe they have the skills necessary to start a business. In 68% of countries, women see significantly less opportunity to start a business than men.

 

The role of government

While public procurement accounts for 30% to 40% of GDP in developing countries and 10% to 15% of GDP in developed nations, only 1% of those contracts go to women-owned companies. Of the 31 counties in the study, only the U.S. and South Africa have public procurement programs that actively promote female entrepreneurs. Only four countries (including the U.S.) track the growth of women-owned companies via an annual census, and only one country—Chile—does both a general census and specific tracking of gendered data of all government-funded entrepreneurship programs.

Data collection is important, says Aidis, because it provides a strategic roadmap for governments. “Chile collected data on male and female participants in their Startup Chile program and found that only 20% of participants were women,” she says. “Now, they’re proactively trying to attract more women.” But the bottom line, says Aidis, is that “no country has it 100% right and there is room for improvement everywhere.

 

 

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