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Women-led social enterprises generally outnumber those in conventional businesses. Vanessa Schummer, Head of the Social and Solidarity Economy Department at the Ministry of Labour, discusses this trend and the challenges women entrepreneurs face, as well as support actions required.

The United Nations defines the Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) as a set of actors that are engaged in economic, social and environmental activities to serve the collective and/or general interest. People and planet come first before profit. The SSE encompasses entities such as cooperatives, mutual societies, associations (including charities), foundations or social enterprises, as well as other legal forms.

Vanessa Schummer, the Head of the Social and Solidarity Economy Department at the Luxembourg Ministry of Labour, sheds light on a compelling global phenomenon: the prominence of women in the realm of social entrepreneurship - nearly half of the world's social entrepreneurs are female according to the recently published “State of Social Enterprise” report.

In this insightful interview, Ms Schummer also explores the general challenges faced by women entrepreneurs, shifting societal perceptions of working mothers, and the need to reevaluate long standing stereotypes and pursue targeted actions to bolster support for women founders.

Are women founders in the Social and Solidarity Economy a noticeable trend in Luxembourg, and if so, why do you believe this is happening?

Although entrepreneurship is still seen as a male-dominated field, there is a global trend of women entrepreneurship that can be observed. Globally, we also see a trend that women are more engaged in the social economy than elsewhere. In fact, one in two social enterprises are led by women according to the recent data published by the World Economic Forum in January 2024 whereas only one in five are women entrepreneurs when it comes to mainstream businesses.

Luxembourg is no exception. In my view, the values and principles inherent to the social economy are the main reason why women tend to engage even more in a commercial activity where people and planet matter most.

What unique challenges do women entrepreneurs face in today's business landscape?

Vanessa Schummer (1)Women still face multiple challenges: especially when it comes to combining professional life with their families. This of course does not mean that men do not face similar challenges when trying to juggle between family and a career. Nevertheless, it is extremely difficult to be a mother and run a business. You have to be passionate about what you are doing because entrepreneurship is time-intensive – it can take more than 40 hours (so a full-time job) although you gain more flexibility. Of course, when starting a business, lack of funding is also a great hurdle we need to overcome in the social economy and in the startup world in general.

The mumpreneur trend has been predominant for some time now. In your opinion, what impact does this have on shifting societal perceptions of working mothers?

Society has huge expectations from women: they still need to work twice as hard today to gain recognition from male, and sometimes even female counterparts. We must however admit that women have come a long way and they have achieved significant success in bridging the gender gap.

40 years ago, wives were perceived as mothers and housekeepers who were dependent on their husbands and his income. Luckily for my generation and the next ones, we can observe a shift from women aiming to be housewives to being working mothers and/or businesswomen.

Mumpreneurs can succeed in a men-dominated areas such as entrepreneurship, which in turn might have an impact on further shifting societal perceptions.

What initiatives or changes do you think are needed at a systemic level to encourage more women to pursue entrepreneurship and address gender disparities?

In my view, we need to start raising awareness at a young age because our lives are still full of stereotypes: girls need to play with barbies and wear dresses whereas boys need to be tough and play with cars or go out and play football…

Why should a woman not engage in business compared to men? Or be a successful investment banker, tech player or scientist? There are still so many men-dominated fields of activity and in my view, we need to combat these stereotypes first. If we do not manage to change these stereotypes, I think that it will be difficult to get more women engaged in entrepreneurship.

Specific support programmes also need to be developed focusing on specific issues that women face. Programmes to boost women’s confidence in business is one example.

The International Women's Day 2024 campaign theme is 'Inspire Inclusion'. How is the Social Business Incubator (SBI) actively promoting diversity and inclusion within its programmes and initiatives?

The SBI offers tailor-made trainings and coaching to social businesses that aspire for diversity and inclusion in their activities. So any programme and initiative of the SBI actively promotes, amongst others, diversity and inclusion. The “touch Base” programme managed by the Social Business Incubator in Luxembourg specifically supports prospective social entrepreneurs. A call for applications is open until 15 March 2024.

In addition, we want to host themed workshop sessions at the SBI in the future, and a day dedicated to promoting diversity and inclusion could be an idea.

As a society, what key actions are required to support aspiring women entrepreneurs?

We should foster networking opportunities because powerful networks in business are of utmost importance and still one of the major challenges. Strategic relationships contribute to the success of a business.

As women tend to be too modest in business, I believe that the development of specific support programmes for women should focus on building self-confident because this is paramount when pitching to potential clients, partners and investors.

Finally, as the lack of adequate funding makes it difficult to start and scale up a business, more should be done by potential investors to facilitate access to funding - but that is not a gender-related issue, every startup struggles in getting funding nowadays.

Photo credit: Alex Anyfandakis



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