Starting Out Smart: Gender-Smart Strategies for Start-up Success

When pandemic restrictions locked down Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea’s capital), many women absorbed additional unpaid care work, making it more difficult to do food shopping during the safer daylight hours. Shalom Warrey saw an opportunity and created “At Your Doorstep” (AYD), a grocery ordering and delivery service. AYD not only addresses the additional responsibilities, which fall disproportionately on women, and time demands heightened by the pandemic, but also enables fresh produce and fish sellers (many of whom are also women) to connect with their regular customers.

Start-ups like AYD face a host of challenges in their first years — carving out their business model and value proposition, attracting customers, overcoming legal and regulatory hurdles, and, recently, coping with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. GSMA’s “Scaling Innovation & Supporting Entrepreneurship across the Indo-Pacific” with The Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is a pilot accelerator programme to help start-ups overcome the challenges of these COVID-19 times. This year, the programme included gender-smart technical assistance from Value for Women as part of the technical assistance (TA) provided to the start-ups to help them grow sustainably and to achieve positive impacts.

The gender-smart TA looked to illuminate business opportunities that respond to women’s needs, thereby advancing gender inclusion and women’s empowerment and building more profitable, resilient businesses. In this blog post, we share the ways gender-smart support contributed to business growth for participating start-ups in the Indo-Pacific, what we learned, and recommended initial steps for early-stage enterprises.

“[We are] seeing a lot of opportunities despite the challenging times we are in right now. A lot of progress in our agriculture work has been happening. Part of this has come from the conversation with our coach and from gender sessions.” Shauna, Co-Founder, Traseable

Here are the 3 ways in which gender-smart TA can contribute to business growth:

  • Revealing product design insights: Inclusive design ensures that end users find the product valuable and illuminates the different ways that men and women use a product. For example, understanding that women are the majority users of their cook-stoves provided insight for ATEC into how best to design and market these for their target audience. Understanding the needs of women customers is critical because women control a majority of consumer purchasing decisions.
  • Attracting funding and investment: Globally, funders are becoming more interested in responsible and gender-inclusive investments. Gender-smart start-ups can unlock this funding through demonstrating their gendered impact. In Myanmar, the agricultural inputs and market access platform Tun Yat realised that their women customers faced limited access to finance, and this was hindering them in accessing Tun Yat’s services. A UNDP programme focused on addressing gendered gaps in access to finance helped bridge this financing gap through discounts on seeds, inputs, and other planting materials for up to 5,000 farmers in Tun Yat’s target areas.
  • Attracting more customers and suppliers: Intentionally targeting women diversifies and strengthens value chains. Additionally, leadership commitment to gender equality can position companies as inclusive and more attractive. SkyEye, an IT and geospatial company from Samoa, knows that their women employees are important to the quality of their customer service and to their relationships with women suppliers. The company realised that a work environment that is designed around the needs of women not only as workers, but also as mothers and caregivers, will allow women employees to perform better and to provide the best service to their supply chain partners and customers. With a sharpened gender lens on enhancing work performance by women in its workforce, SkyEye has strengthened its HR policies to ensure balance in recruitment, flexible working arrangements where necessary and capacity building. On the tangible side SkyEye looks forward to incorporating a crèche in its new office design and outfitting the women’s bathrooms with a diaper changing table and sanitary pads.

“We have gone from strength to strength because of the valuable assistance by GSMA. There’s a lot of things we didn’t know, or were already doing but didn’t realize we were already implementing gender based strategies until this session [with Value for Women]. It has put terminology to some of what we’ve been doing, and has gone on to show us better ways to do them, allowing us to see the difference if done properly and consistently. We are excited to utilize the templates shared with us and improving on what is already there. There is always room for improvement.” – Agnes, COO and Director, SkyEye

To achieve maximum positive impact from gender-smart strategies, it is vital to meet businesses where they are at. This is particularly true for start-ups, which, by virtue of their business stage, operate very differently from —and have vastly different business priorities than— their more mature counterparts. For start-ups, this means incorporating gender awareness into the core business areas of market research, product-market fit, branding, and the setting up of initial operations.

Today, participating start-ups from GSMA’s cohort are seeing benefits from integrating gender-smart practices early on. It can open a pathway to scalable growth, identifying new opportunities, expanding potential markets, and set the stage for sustainable, inclusive growth throughout the later stages of a business.

Start-ups interested in becoming more gender-smart should begin with steps that are feasible with their resources at hand. We recommend the following:

  • Harness data on differences: Conduct sex-disaggregated market research on your customers, value chain, and employees. Clarifying gendered differences will reveal opportunities, from validating specific product or service offerings to refining the business value proposition, in turn strengthening business fundamentals and cash flow.
  • Make a gender commitment: Specify what it means for your company to be gender-smart, what your ultimate target is, and how you intend to get there. For example, an AgTech business may want to ensure that the yield of their women users is equal to that of their men users and therefore should commit to ensuring their solution is designed with the digital gender gap in mind. This step will give you clarity on the product and market opportunities you can and will pursue.
  • Make it public: Position yourself as a gender-smart business by communicating your gender commitment both internally (among your staff) and externally (among peers, stakeholders, and your market).
  • Make women visible: Celebrate your women senior managers and give them opportunities to represent the business publicly. In marketing material, include images of women using your product. Hire women across diverse business functions, such as: women distributors and delivery people where it is safe to do so.
  • Get your house in order: Review your HR policies and practices. While this might not seem to be a priority for a start-up, it can be very beneficial to support your growth and to sustain inclusive values from the beginning.

“All of these areas [of technical and gender assistance] … are giving us more to drive us towards some of our targets and goals.” Shauna, Co-Founder, Traseable

About Value for Women

Across our gender lens technical assistance projects, Value for Women begins with a diagnostic assessment using the suite of tools housed on our dedicated platform, the Gender Smart Nexus. This facilitates fresh analysis of the business model and identifies areas of opportunity across business functions. From there, the business and Value for Women co-develop strategies to align with business priorities and stimulate inclusive growth.

Start-ups at all stages can benefit from gender-smart technical assistance to understand business opportunities and make their internal teams and operations more inclusive and effective. The start-ups in this program have already seen these strategies open up new opportunities, networks, and solutions. Rather than distracting from the core of the business, gender is part of it. If you are interested in finding out more, contact us at:

The Ecosystem Accelerator programme is supported by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), the Australian Government, German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the GSMA and its members.

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