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Female Entrepreneurship in Singapore and Hong Kong

Whilst women owned businesses in both HK and SG have succeeded in a wide range of industries, there is still a gender imbalance often three to one, with women owned businesses under-represented.

In Singapore they constitute 27% of all businesses – 71,047 out of 263,000 SMEs are female owned and represent 13% of total sales (c$57bn). (source: Business Times, Mastercard Index, Accenture). In Hongkong, there are c 340,000 SMEs of which 119,000 are female owned.

Gender disaggregated data is limited in HK – what we know is that SMEs contribute 41% of GDP. HK’s GDP in 2020 was $275m. (source: Economic report and business statistics HK gov).

So what are the barriers, what’s stopping these businesses from optimising their growth potential and what are the key components for mobilising growth.


Read the speech script below to find out more …

Full script of talk given at the WEALTHiHER,  ‘She’s got this virtual global summit’ on 23 March 2021 by Sabila Din.

Good morning, good afternoon and good evening ladies and gentlemen.  An absolute pleasure to be participating in this forum and thank you for the kind introduction.

Whilst women owned businesses in both HK and SG have succeeded in a wide range of industries, there is still a gender imbalance often three to one, with women owned businesses under-represented.

In Singapore they constitute 27% of all businesses – 71,047 out of 263,000 SMEs are female owned and represent 13% of total sales (c$57bn). (source: Business Times, Mastercard Index, Accenture).  In Hongkong, there are c 340,000 SMEs of which 119,000 are female owned.

Gender disaggregated data is limited in HK – what we know is that SMEs contribute 41% of GDP. HK’s GDP in 2020 was $275m. (source:  Economic report and business statistics HK gov)

So, what are the barriers and what’s stopping these businesses from optimising their growth potential. In addition to the barriers as outlined by our earlier speaker, cultural norms also lie at the root of preventing female entrepreneurs from flourishing.   These biases permeate in various ways.

  • Firstly, women founders are less accepted as business leaders and partners. Careers in law, finance and medicine are favoured by parents although this is changing in the millennial segment.
  • They face time poverty as they are also carers and look after the family, so they are unable to spend time networking, creating opportunity and connectivity.
  • They face the family first syndrome and with household resources scarce as a result of covid, capital used for women’s businesses is likely to be allocated for other purpose.

Whilst I am not making light of these challenges, women also have to develop a growth mindset and confidence has a role to play too.

Most female SMEs have a lower appetite for risk. Fear of failure and loss of face can also hold them back from innovating, pursuing ideas and taking risks.

Covid has disproportionately impacted women owned business.  Now is our chance to build back better placing ‘Getting too Equal’ at the heart. This means helping to scale up existing businesses, help start up, build and scale a high growth business pipeline.

Today, I am going to address the three components for mobilising this contribution: Entrepreneurial Environment, Entrepreneurial Ecosystem and Gender parity in Frontier Growth opportunities.

Let me start with Entrepreneurial Environment ……

Polices and environment that governments create are critical for ensuring that women have equitable access and benefit.

Whilst HK and SG have a rich set of initiative for SME’s, these need to be enhanced so they more directly support women-owned businesses.  These include applying a gender lens to a slew of funding schemes.

Examples of schemes include supporting business upgrading, digital rebooting, research and development, resources to support and strengthen emerging industries.

Another initiative that can more directly support women-owned businesses is the BSB platform in SG.   The platform allows SMEs to diversify sales opportunities, access various supply chains, source relevant digital and financial solutions.

At government level, both countries have offices for women’s development (Office for women’s development SG and HK women’s council). What could strengthen this effort is a department or body like the US office of women entrepreneurship, to co-ordinate and implement.

I know that the SG Home Minister has a proposed white paper that seeks feedback from the public, as part of the review of women’s issues.

In addition to the above, based on developments around the globe, both governments could consider some of the initiatives to improve access to finance and opportunity. These include

  • Developing an ‘investing in women owned business code’, setting lending quotas for supporting female SMEs. This includes reporting funding allocation by both the public and private sector.
  • Policies ensuring that female SME’s have equal access to procurement and trade opportunities. For instance, The US has a commitment that the Federal government and MNO’s need to award 5% of contracts to female SMEs.

Such a policy would encourage large businesses to leverage their buying needs to provide women owned businesses with greater access to markets, networks and industry experiences.

To scale, because of the small home market, these businesses have to look to export across ASEAN, China and other international markets. 

Currently c 10% of female owned business are involved in trade.  To boost women owned business participation in trade, gender sensitive FTA’s such as those developed by Canada-Chile could be considered. 

These developments help send out a strong message to society about the value of female entrepreneurship. This can help address the cultural norms and biases that I talked about earlier. 

The second consideration that I mentioned was the entrepreneurial ecosystem and in this section I discuss ideas for improving equal access to finance across all segments and non- financial services e.g., mentors, skills,  

In the finance sector, it means creating solutions to ensure that women owned businesses across the different segments have equal access to finance, providing non-financial solutions and having gender balanced leadership teams.

Finance solutions are better geared for the upper small and medium businesses. Globally the missing middle is often where the issue is most acute.

The missing middle sits at the bottom and lower middle end of the pyramid. These female business owners have probably used their own savings or borrowed from friends and family to start-up and need a helping hand to get to the next level.

Based on a global average where 80% of female businesses are micro, 15% are small and 5% are medium businesses – that’s approximately 90% of female owned businesses that need catering for.

I outline some of the solutions that can target needs of various segments.

Gender bonds can increase liquidity in the market – lessen the severe impact on female SMEs, providing emergency liquidity, working capital and trade finance to address supply chain disruptions.

These bonds can be issued by Commercial Banks in partnership with governments and DFI’s.  They can be placed via public markets or privately distributed.  We’ve seen this gathering momentum in many emerging markets.

Impact investing is gaining heightened interest in both HK and Singapore.  Foundations can help  catalyse the women’s impact investment sector for take-off and fill the funding gaps with patient capital.

This requires leadership by big players to drive dialogue and interest, share information and seek partnerships to build capacity and deliver venture philanthropy.

With the growing female wealth in the region, female HNW’s and entrepreneurs can also set up vehicles such as ‘Business Angels networks’ to invest in and support female owned business

Whilst the gender lens investing solutions outlined are focussed on businesses that are women owned, the wider remit of gender lens investing also includes companies that support gender equality in the workplace and companies that develop product and service that impact women’s lives.

Gender Lens investing is gaining traction in Asia.   Asia is the 2nd largest growth market for public market vehicles and third in terms of private market vehicles.

The banking industry too has a role.  To date the industry has focussed on needs of individual clients, creating a blind-spot and missing the wider industry dynamics that affect the success of their clients.

Banks can move beyond individual transaction to strengthening a cross sector ecosystem of actors to create cluster of industries.  AI and big data can be leveraged to make it more cost effective to serve.

For all providers of capital equally important is offering non-financial solutions that help grow capacity, capability, links to opportunities across the supply chain and mentors.

Partnerships is the way to go and examples of some organisations include: We Connect International offering women owned business greater access to buyers locally and globally, skills development and networking.

AmCham Singapore’s SME Accelerate aims to provide a curated package of offerings between MNC members and SME’s.  Hong Kong’s Women Foundation addresses the environment.

Another issue is the lack of women in leadership positions in the investment management sector.  Over 90% of senior positions in private equity and vc’s globally are held by men.

This creates unconscious biases. The leaders are unable to fully understand the value of addressing women owned business needs in supply chains, policies and practices

In conclusion to this section, leadership, increasing breadth of and depth of financial and non- financial solutions and collaboration and is key if we are to build back equal.

The last consideration but not least is ensuring gender parity in frontier businesses

If you assume that these frontier businesses sit in the business sector description of info and comms, IT in HK comprise 4% of business and IT in SG is approximately 12%.  What this is telling us is the lack of women owned businesses in frontier businesses.

Capital as we know chases frontier businesses.

It’s really important to increase awareness of new frontiers and the components that drive a high potential business, provide help with innovation and market expanding drivers.

Today because of time constraints, I am focussing on two new frontiers – Green + the Greater Bay area. With the threat of climate change and the commitment under the Paris Agreement, the sustainability agenda is taking on an added emergency and broader dimension.

Both countries are developing strategies to reduce the long-term carbon emissions and develop a platform for action to accelerate and scale climate solutions.  Climate change and gender equality need to be seen as an integrated approach.

As both countries develop their national adaptation plans there is a need to ensure that gender differences are addressed and participation in decision making equitable so all social groups benefit.

Positioning women as adaptation stakeholders and including them in the creation of legal and policy environments is key for the developing gender responsive national responses.

As the country shifts towards cleaner energy sources and low carbon technologies, female owned SME’s can look to innovate and develop solutions to solve problems of ramping up solar energy, recycling rainwater, real-time data collection solutions and waste management solutions.

The other frontier opportunity is the Greater Bay Area that links the cities of Hong Kong, Macau, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and 7 other cities.

Compromising a total population of 71 m people and an economy worth an estimated US $1.6trn with the principal goal of easing the flow of good, people and capital within the region opens up many possibilities.

The financial reform of this area and encouragement of cross-border business activities opens up opportunities for fintech, blockchain, big data AI.  The government is also keen to promote the use of new technology and business models to facilitate the growth of emerging industries.

So, in conclusion, we need to accelerate addressing the barriers to ensure that women can realise the full potential to help build back equal and green. The three I outlined today include Environment, Ecosystem and gender parity in frontier businesses to ensure women do not get left behind.

Getting to equal matters – it could add c$95bn to SG’s GDP, create new jobs, improve livelihoods. and economic progress.  In HK, it could triple the contribution made by female SMEs to GDP..

If you would like to discuss the contents of this talk and implications for your organisation, please contact: Sabila Din, CEO and founder, Din Consultants sd@dinconsultants.com

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