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[Contribution] The buck stops with all of us, not women

Banks can play a role to boost women-led businesses

By Im Eun-byel

Published : March 6, 2024 - 15:36

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Judy Hsu, chief executive officer for consumer, private and business banking at Standard Chartered Bank. (Standard Chartered Bank) Judy Hsu, chief executive officer for consumer, private and business banking at Standard Chartered Bank. (Standard Chartered Bank)

By Judy Hsu

This year, for International Women’s Day, the United Nations has called for countries around the world to “Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress”. This crucial call underlines the need to address the deficit in gender equality measures as economies continue to grow.

The call also emphasizes the imperative of prioritizing women’s economic empowerment because a stark reality persists: There continues to be a wide economic disparity between men and women in many parts of the world. This disparity includes the commonly discussed wage gap, and a lack of access to capital and other critical financial resources. According to the World Economic Forum, the funding gap for women in the overall micro, small, or medium enterprise sector amounts to $1.7 trillion. Despite constituting 22 percent participation in micro ventures and 32 percent in small and medium enterprises, women entrepreneurs remain severely underbanked -- prompting us to question how financial institutions can help close this gap and contribute to the solution.

A call for financial empowerment

Investing in women-owned and women-led enterprises holds the key to sustainable socio-economic growth. There is an urgent need to address the imbalance in gender diversity in corporations (although we are seeing some overall positive actions), obstacles to accessing financing options, and the lack of support for female business founders.

Growing awareness and prioritization of women’s financial needs is one thing, taking concrete actions to help achieve equitable financing is the real calling.

Financial institutions can play a pivotal role in empowering women entrepreneurs – by providing tailored financial solutions, insights, education and upskilling, and opportunities to connect with a global network of like-minded entrepreneurs. These are just some of the ways banks can help women unleash their potential as successful business owners in the marketplace. The Standard Chartered Women’s International Network, a program that addresses the funding gap of women-led businesses and foster economic participation, exemplifies this approach.

Access to funding and upskilling

Access to credit and timely training are paramount in supporting women-owned businesses in their growth. By offering incentives and financing options, including but not limited to flexible repayment options on business loans, preferential time deposit rates, reduction in loan interest rates, faster disbursement of loan amounts, priority banking, and so on can go a long way in empowering women founders to take the plunge to start, grow, or expand their ventures.

Financial institutions can also leverage their diverse expertise and resources to provide tailored support, helping to elevate women-owned businesses into competitive arenas where they are currently underrepresented. These could include upskilling initiatives such as incubator programs which provide training, mentoring, and seeding support to female entrepreneurs.

Fostering an international network of women entrepreneurs

They say in business, it’s all about the network. Financial institutions can tap into their regional or global networks to catalyze the growth of women-led businesses. By establishing local or international networks of women entrepreneurs, they can enable connections between women entrepreneurs with like-minded entrepreneurs worldwide. Facilitating networking opportunities, making cross-border business opportunities available to them, and curating advisory services on expanding ventures overseas -- all contribute to overseas expansion ambitions.

Moreover, these networks provide opportunities to understand and navigate different regulatory frameworks and cultural nuances (for instance, perceived inferiority of women-led businesses) in overseas markets, which further enhances women entrepreneurs' capabilities to scale their ventures successfully on a global stage.

It's on all of us

Through collaborations with government agencies, non-profit organizations and industry associations, financial institutions can amplify their efforts in supporting women-owned SMEs as integral components of the financial landscape as well as advocating for policy changes toward gender equality and economic empowerment. By the same token, business partners and customers of women-led enterprises, through their individual and informal ways, can also join the rally call to “invest in women."

Banks, as integral players of society, have the privilege and opportunity to pave the way towards a future where all entrepreneurs, regardless of gender, have equal opportunities for success. The time is now, to invest in women and lift economic participation to accelerate progress.

Judy Hsu is chief executive officer for consumer, private and business banking at Standard Chartered Bank. The views in this column are her own. -- Ed.