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Female Founders:
Navigating the Realities Faced by Female Entrepreneurs

Published on 17 June 2020

“Believe in yourself and negotiate for yourself. Own your own success.” – Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO

Many people aspire to become successful entrepreneurs, especially those who are tired of the corporate rat race and want to navigate their own paths. But running a company takes drive, courage and tenacity. It comes with a unique set of challenges – even more so for females, who face significant constraints that their male counterparts do not have to deal with.

Despite this, women are blazing ahead and starting their own companies at a faster pace. In the past few years, more than 163 million female entrepreneurs launched or led businesses in 74 economies around the world. Total entrepreneurial activity by women rose 10 percent between 2014 and 2016, which has brought the gender gap down by 5 percent, according to the Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs 2018.

This encouraging trend is reflected in Southeast Asia, with Singapore and the Philippines among the top 10 markets boasting the strongest supporting conditions and the best opportunities for women to thrive as entrepreneurs. Vietnam is among the top 10 markets with the highest percentage of female business owners.

Eeling Lew, a Singaporean entrepreneur, started her firm, Eilumina Resources, in 2009 in the wake of the financial crisis. She was living in China at the time and called it “a survival move”. When she quit her job, Eeling had just US$20,000 in her bank account to launch a sourcing company for luxury bathroom products and fixtures. She gave herself two years to “make or break” before the money ran out. It was a turning point.

“That first year alone, I managed to grow from working on my own to having five staff under me. We made US$200,000,” Ms Lew said. Since then, the company has doubled in size and even owns a brand of designer bathroom products that is sold across the region.

But this achievement was no easy task.

“Back then, China was very much a chauvinistic society. I was running to a lot of back lane factories,” she said. “I had a male secretary check out all the factories prior to me going in. Some of the bosses looked at my secretary while speaking to me [even though] I was right in front of them!”

Ms Lew said that the people she deals with in China are mainly men in their 50s and 60s. “They see me like a little girl, unsure if I would give them orders,” she added. “But after a while, when they learn about me as a person and how I work, they naturally give me respect.”

Another challenge many female founders face is the lack of access to family care. Caring for children, ageing parents or family members with special needs requires female business owners to have flexible schedules or access to help. Those unable to make such arrangements sometimes end up bringing their children along to work.

“The next challenge I faced as a woman was when I became a mother,” Ms Lew said. “I literally travelled the world with my young son in tow – sometimes having meetings with my clients while he snuggled up in the baby bag I was carrying. Most of my clients and suppliers know my little prince as they have seen him growing up.”

By the time Ms Lew’s son was two, he had already visited 13 countries and attended major trade shows around the world.

Championing Female Entrepreneurs

Maybank recognises the important role that female entrepreneurs play in powering small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Southeast Asia since 1960. The bank has created various programmes, such as the Sahabats (Entrepreneurs) initiative, to provide business mentoring and skills-upgrading to selected small business owners, many of whom are women.

Despite women’s strength in the workforce in terms of sheer numbers, they still face significant barriers to realising their potential as contributors and leaders of economic growth. Maybank is strongly committed to promoting diversity in business.

Jolene Seow has been with Maybank since she founded Antea Social, a specialist tea brand, in 2017.

“The features of the corporate banking account were very attractive to us as a new start-up,” she says. “With an efficient and reliable banking partner, we were able to focus on other aspects of the business.”

This support was hugely valuable to Ms Seow, who found it a challenge in the early days to juggle many different roles. 

“We are a small and lean company,” she explains. “[Initially] I had to do almost everything, and the learning curve was really steep. I soon realised, we should be open to asking for help when needed.”

Ms Lew attributes some of her success to the one-on-one help given by Maybank’s relationship manager.

“My relationship manager has helped me through a lot of growth. Maybank listens to my needs. If it wasn’t for Maybank, I think financing my business might have been tougher.”

When asked what advice she would give to aspiring female entrepreneurs, Ms Lew said that the right attitude will take you a long way. “Always think positively, no matter how bad the situation is. That’s the very first step everyone needs to have in order to solve any problems.”

The world is realising that gender balance is a valuable asset to any business. Maybank believes in sharing the fruits of its business with the communities it serves. Regardless of gender, helping all founders navigate the inherent challenges is one of the ways Maybank humanises financial services.

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