October 2, 2023

Leading the Way

A conversation on the role of mentoring in entrepreneurship programming, especially for young women

Evelyn Sumo received work-readiness training and post-training support through EDC’s USAID Youth Advance Activity.

Globally, women’s entrepreneurship is on the rise, but challenges persist: according to the World Bank, only one out of three businesses are owned by women. The World Economic Forum notes that several obstacles may thwart aspiring women entrepreneurs in developing economies, including legal inequalities, lack of access to finance, and restrictions on property ownership. However, role models and mentors can help young entrepreneurs, especially young women, navigate these barriers and more. Take the case of Evelyn Sumo, a 28-year-old entrepreneur from Liberia. EDC’s USAID Youth Advance Activity provided her with work-readiness training and post-training support, including peer mentorship. These resources enabled Evelyn to start a thriving clothing-import business. Indeed, Evelyn’s success story is one example of many that illustrate the power of mentorship for young women entrepreneurs.

Across the globe, EDC collaborates with a vast network of local service providers—both public and private—to upgrade the skills of young people so they are aligned with current and future market demand. A key feature of this support is the Peer Leader Youth Accompaniment, which empowers youth leaders to help their peers achieve entrepreneurship and employment goals. Recently, EDC has also facilitated women-only groups, offering young women the opportunity to support each other’s business ideas, as well as providing a safe space to discuss other issues or challenges.

On that note, EDC’s Nora Nunn, international technical associate, invited Tran Thi Ngoc Tran, green curriculum and training lead and program manager of the Youth Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) – Mekong Program, and Nalini Chugani, a former EDC international technical advisor, to highlight some of the benefits of mentoring for young women entrepreneurs, whether in group settings or in one-to-one engagements.

Nunn: How would you describe the role of mentorship in entrepreneurship programming, especially for young women? How does it build on or incorporate any of the findings from the research you conducted on women’s entrepreneurship in Vietnam?

Tran: Embarking on an entrepreneurial journey can be exciting and overwhelming at the same time as it is often filled with uncertainty, risk, and challenges. Despite their great ideas and the drive to succeed, young women find this journey even rougher due to gender-specific barriers such as unfavorable environments, inadequate business knowledge and skills, limited business networks, limited access to finance, fear of failure, and biased stereotypes. This is where mentorship comes in, having an experienced mentor to motivate, inspire, impart knowledge, and guide an entrepreneur through the ups and downs of starting and growing a company. In my research about the learning needs and preferences of women entrepreneurs in Vietnam, the majority of respondents highly valued mentorship, as they strongly believed that a mentor could point out knowledge gaps for improvement, give them real-world insights, and help them avoid common pitfalls.

Nunn: Could you please tell us a bit about the benefits of different mentorship models, including how and when to engage men as mentors for women entrepreneurs? Also, what are some of the changes in these approaches?

Tran: There is more than one way to create a mentorship program in women’s entrepreneurship, and each type has its own unique benefits. For example, peer mentoring is helpful not only for relevant advice and motivation but also for great collaboration opportunities, as it involves people at similar stages of their entrepreneurial journey. When women are mentored by other women, participants may feel a stronger connection and greater interpersonal comfort. However, mentoring between men and women enables women entrepreneurs to learn and see things from a different perspective.

However, from my observation and experience, mentors who are men tend to be reluctant to engage in a mentoring relationship with women due to the fear of misconduct allegations and lack of gender awareness. Therefore, in our YSEALI-Mekong Program, to engage men as mentors, we planned to ensure that men mentors will receive training around topics on gender roles, unpaid care, domestic violence, and sexual harassment to promote greater awareness of and empathy toward gender issues. Clear guidance for men mentors to support the safety and success of women mentees will be also circulated. Evidence that demonstrates the benefits of mentoring, the challenges of women’s entrepreneurship, and how diversity will improve socioeconomic growth will also be shared among men mentors to increase their awareness and willingness to offer this support.

Nunn: What are some of the best practices or promising approaches you are seeing across EDC’s projects when it comes to mentorship for young women entrepreneurs? Where are there still opportunities or needs to fill gaps?

Chugani: Women benefit from both formal and informal mentoring programs. EDC has implemented peer mentoring programs and industry mentoring programs in a variety of contexts. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), EDC conducted a pilot of mentoring vulnerable young women. We identified 12 women champions to be mentors. These were successful women who agreed to be mentors on a voluntary basis. The project provided regular refresher training for mentors, and project staff supported mentors to ensure mentors understood their roles. Mentoring sessions were structured around youth entrepreneurship training topics, and mentors would review youth’s weekly personal goals. The role models were a source of motivation, linking formal learning to practice.

In Liberia, group mentoring has produced tremendous results over time in EDC’s programs. Our project leverages village savings and loan associations (VSLAs) and introduces group mentoring models in these existing women’s groups. Women feel more comfortable being mentored in their women-only groups (as opposed to mixed groups). They see these as safe spaces to voice their concerns and share their thoughts, ideas, and feelings without judgment. Moreover, the VSLAs create space for women to be leaders, and by providing mentoring for members of the association, women can support one another and learn from each other. Mentors share both successes and challenges that they have encountered along the way so that mentees have opportunities to learn from their mentor’s experiences, accomplishments, and mistakes. They also feel empowered knowing that others face similar barriers, and that if their mentors and businesswomen in the communities can overcome them, maybe they can, too.

Nunn: What advice would you give implementers looking to employ a gender-transformative approach to mentorship and entrepreneurship?

Chugani: We need to strengthen post-training support to emphasize the importance of mentorships and role models, specifically for young women. Trainers, mentors, community members, and volunteers can serve as role models. Young women are inspired by role models in their community—we need to create and facilitate these opportunities for young women and young men to assume roles as peer leaders, mentors, and role models, and for industry leaders to be mentors. The importance of role models cannot be underestimated, especially when we are working to improve social norms toward women in nontraditional sectors and nontraditional roles.