Unleashing black women’s entrepreneurial power


Entrepreneurship can be a lonely journey at times, but it has the potential to be a very fulfilling career. As much as entrepreneurship is fast becoming the first choice for economic and social development across the world(1), South Africa is still facing challenges in growing this much-needed sector of the economy as a contributor towards job creation and poverty alleviation. Here, entrepreneurship is often not celebrated as a viable career, but is, rather, considered a back-up plan in case of unemployment, particularly for and by women and youths, who face the highest unemployment in the country(2).

The significance of the progressive impact of female entrepreneurship on economic development is widely recognised and supported by research(3). Sadly, women more often resort to necessity entrepreneurship rather than opportunistic entrepreneurship, mainly to survive, without much preparation or knowledge about the intricacies of business and the managerial competencies required to run a successful enterprise. The choice of necessity entrepreneurship is exacerbated by the universal cultural and historical inheritance challenges surrounding women, which resulted in the United Nations adopting Sustainable Development Goal Number 5 (SDGs #5)(4), which advocates gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls. It has therefore become paramount to engage government and private-sector organisations in supporting various forms of business training for black women entrepreneurs, who still account for the largest self-employed segment of the population(5) in South Africa(6).

The insights in this article are based on academic, evidence-based information and reflections by women, some of whom I have worked with, and others who have received accolades for their achievements. These insights are important in shaping how we understand, support, and enable the growth of women entrepreneurship and the journeys of these women, particularly black women, who are continually hampered by gender inequality and business management challenges(7). Some of the insights shared may be useful to entrepreneurs, and HR practitioners could apply these as part of their change management and social responsibility initiatives.

What is an entrepreneur?

For the purposes of this article, an entrepreneur is considered “a person who perceives an opportunity and creates an organisation to follow it”(8), while a woman entrepreneur is defined as “a confident, innovative and creative woman capable of achieving self-economic independence, individually or in collaboration, who generates employment opportunities for others through initiating, establishing and running the enterprise(9).” This definition is aligned with the scholarly definition of entrepreneurship as “the process of creating something different that has value by devoting the necessary time and effort, assuming the accompanying financial, psychological, and social risks, and receiving the resulting monetary rewards and personal satisfaction”(10). Mbhele notes that factors that distinguish entrepreneurs from other businesses include “recognition, opportunity, innovation, process, and growth in a business through the employment of strategic management practices in the business”(11).

Scholarly research has identified another form of entrepreneurship, known as intrapreneurship, which is employees of an organisation exploiting opportunities by creating new ventures within existing organisations. These employees identify challenges, gaps, and opportunities, and respond with innovativeness, proactiveness, and risk-taking(12).

Entrepreneurship mindset shift

Our education system is not equipped to support entrepreneurial growth. Universities still offer highly theoretical degree programmes in an economy that is experiencing high unemployment, especially of black women. Mindset is one of the challenges faced by black women entrepreneurs, which, I believe, requires foundational programmes to support their transition of thought from entrepreneurship being a back-up plan to one of employment that creates jobs and contributes to the country’s economic growth. This would entail the integration of social and emotional skills(13) critical in building a reputable entrepreneurial brand, including competencies such as financial and resource management.

The entrepreneurial landscape

Vuyisa Qabaka, a tech entrepreneur and co-founder of the South African Black Entrepreneurs Forum (Sabef), believes more angel investors are needed, particularly investment in talented black entrepreneurs. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), women entrepreneurs account for between a quarter and a third of all businesses in the formal economy worldwide, with a larger representation in developed economies. Formal businesses are more structured, have specific goals, and aim to make a profit, while informal businesses are more orientated towards human psychological needs, and are responsive to market changes that could arise from necessity or opportunity, with less structure, often emerging as self-employment(14).

In South Africa, formal entrepreneurship is on the increase through programmes focused on encouraging black women to take on entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial initiatives. According to a survey conducted by Facebook in partnership with the World Bank and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), only 34% of small to medium enterprises in South Africa are led by women(15), implying the need for more awareness, including HR practices within the workplace that are more inclusive and innovative in nurturing intra- and entrepreneurship. This, supported by various models of business incubation, could ignite the development of this sector. It could also contribute towards women’s self-confidence to enter previously male-dominated sectors such as construction, medicine, and engineering, to name but a few(16).

One success story is that of Nneile Nkholise, founder of iMED Tech Group. She founded the group in 2015 while studying engineering, and today is a member of Harambee, a group of entrepreneurs leading ventures to unlock the full potential of African people(17). As part of the entrepreneurial journey, black women are making great inroads, and are taking it upon themselves to create networking groups such as Black Women in Science (BWIS), which aims to deliver capacity development interventions that target young black women scientists and researchers. Another example is Women in Science and Engineering in Africa (WISE Africa), which provides leadership role models for young people wishing to enter the fields of science and technology(18). Such mentoring and coaching initiatives are emerging because of the lack of programmes offering formal entrepreneurship-specific support, while others are embedded in cultural or social contexts, within webs of personal and institutional networks. South Africa thus requires social relations that allow enlargement of new entrepreneurs’ access to opportunities, resources, and aid in overcoming challenges(19).

Some private-sector companies have strategically positioned entrepreneurship as an access-to-market strategy that allows their core human capital to focus on the mainstream business while leveraging innovations and disruptions brought by entrepreneurs, by onboarding them as employees. They then become intrapreneurs and make a career of taking the company through innovative developments. Other intrapreneurs are developed within the company, through the company encouraging innovative thinking within business processes by those responsible for executing the tasks, with employees identifying opportunities for development to the benefit of the employing organisation.

Businesses streamlining and retrenchment may offer employees the option to provide outsourced services to the company. This tends to have positive downstream effects, with some employees enjoying the rewards of having become necessity- or opportunity entrepreneurs. Some private-sector companies have implemented planned business streamlining for employees closer to retirement, whom they assist in starting entrepreneurial careers in, e.g., consulting. With the global Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and technology demands, large innovative organisations have adopted intrapreneurship as a concept that allows them to integrate experience and utilisation of existing resources by onboarding talented, skilled individuals as entrepreneurs within the organisation or, alternatively, through:

  • start-up acquisition and alliances, such as Makro’s acquisition of WumDrop, a courier service, in 2017, and the purchase of Entry Ninja, a sporting event platform, by Computicket(20);
  • accelerators and business incubators; a number of entrepreneurial businesses have emerged in South Africa to support and scale tech start-ups to market, housed in various business incubators(21);
  • venture capital(22), such as the SA SME Fund, capitalised to R1.4 billion, and FNB’s Fundaba; examples of venture capital investment include funding for start-ups such as Snapt, Aerobotics, Lumkani, and LifeQ, as well as exits, such as Skyrove and Motribe, which were acquired by MXit(23).

This support for various entrepreneurial businesses adds immense value through the creation of new products and business units with new offerings, all while creating employment(24). One of Accenture’s 4IR divisions is headed by a young black woman intrapreneur responsible for their Open Innovation for the Africa region, which links start-ups with Accenture’s corporate clients, thereby bridging the gap between innovation and skills training and development, while delivering on its core consulting business(25). Such strategic initiatives ensure the success of young black women, as they can develop the business- and managerial competencies that would have taken them longer, had they been entrepreneurs outside of such established organisations.

The Liberty Group partnered with Lionesses of Africa in 2017 to create Lean in Circles, to assist in building businesses for women entrepreneurs by developing leveraging networks across Africa(26). To date, Lionesses of Africa has impacted many women entrepreneurs across Africa through partnerships with companies such as VW South Africa, creating pivotal intrapreneurship opportunities for these businesses. The Department of Trade and Industry(27) and various affiliated organisations offer networking sessions in association with various stakeholders, such as the European and German Chambers of Commerce(28), to further entrepreneurs’ understanding of global business, enable them to forge personal and business relationships, inform them on the different business- and management approaches applicable to specific markets, and to teach them to benchmark against other entrepreneurs(29). Enterprise Supply Development (ESD)(30) offers a variety of programmes, e.g., in preferential procurement, supplier diversity, supplier development, and enterprise development, for mastery of competencies across industry sectors.

From the above, it is clear that it is critical to create a culture of training and education beneficial to all stakeholders in the multi-layered entrepreneurial sphere.

Below are some suggestions to advance the success of women entrepreneurs for both businesses and prospective entrepreneurs.

Promoting intrapreneurship and entrepreneurship in your organisation

Engagement to identify talent
Organisations need to create lines of communication through which employees can make suggestions, and they need to create platforms such as open forums or online organisational chatrooms in which employees can brainstorm and exchange ideas, followed by engagement with management. This will stimulate intrapreneurship and assist the organisation in identifying talented individuals and gaining insight into their specific competencies. Even the smallest of organisations could benefit from the insights gained into processes through open communication and then build on these gains.

Another consideration is the loss of knowledge through retrenchment. Retrenched individuals constitute a valuable talent pool to tap into in developing entrepreneurs. HR practitioners should maintain ties with these individuals, and when the opportunity arises, facilitate skills transfer from the organisation and offer mentorship, to ultimately create a business from which the organisation could benefit.

Talent development
Once talent has been identified, it must be developed. HR practitioners should formulate initiatives to develop and groom talent for future intrapreneurial and entrepreneurial activities. The type of development required would be situation-specific, but HR practitioners can construct a broad framework to identify opportunities and methods of development specific to their organisation and budget. Such initiatives require an understanding of how to promote intrapreneurship and entrepreneurship on different levels. Interviews I conducted with some black women entrepreneurs who had held executive roles in business organisations and had been nurtured indicated that the support of their organisations had contributed immensely towards their intrapreneurial journeys, as they had learnt, while still employed, through venturing into unknown territory, taking guided risks, and celebrating successes.

Larger organisations with an extensive supply chain would have many more options, both within and outside the organisation. This offers the opportunity to enable talented black women to start up entrepreneurial ventures as a link in the organisation’s supply chain. Examples of such endeavours are in-house travel agents and event organisers. This requires that HR practitioners implement focused support for these women so that they can gain the skills, experience, and financial acumen necessary to venture into business. Training could start in-house, through job shadowing, technical upskilling, financial management training, and mentoring, and, if the candidate shows promise, be followed up with greater investment in formal training and start-up assistance. Successful black women entrepreneurs have noted that working in a corporate entity in management and team-leadership roles had developed their skills in team management, motivation, performance appraisal, training, and customer service, all critical for making a business successful.

Getting help
Many organisations aid existing and prospective entrepreneurs on every level. Individuals and HR practitioners need to determine their needs and financial means, to identify what type of help they need and can afford. HR practitioners need to inform themselves regarding these organisations and facilitate appropriate contact for talented employees. Below are examples of sources of support on various levels, both formal and informal, for individuals and HR practitioners to consider, depending on the situation, including business needs and financial resources. The list is by no means complete, and interested parties are encouraged to do their own research.

Microsoft South Africa runs programmes that develop and support innovative tech start-ups and small to medium enterprises with access to finance, technology, markets, information, skills, and services(31) and innovations that can improve organisations’ competitiveness, and often partner with start-ups in this industry. Offering research opportunities in partnership with universities could be another way of promoting the development of women entrepreneurs. The Small Enterprise Development Agency (SEDA) assists small, medium, and micro enterprises (SMMEs), including co-operatives, as well as potential entrepreneurs, in developing a business idea. The Business Women’s Association of South Africa (BWASA), through seven branches countrywide, supports and connects women in business, helping them build a career. First National Bank’s Fundaba telephone app provides holistic business advice to assist entrepreneurs in building a successful venture. Investec’s The Business Place offers emerging and existing entrepreneurs a cluster of affordable service providers. It is a business advice centre that advises entrepreneurs on how to proceed, or refers them to a service provider. The Sasol Foundation promotes entrepreneurship awareness and offers start-up support. Future Females is a platform where women entrepreneurs connect, collaborate, and assist each other in gaining access to resources. The African Women Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum holds annual conferences where entrepreneurs and businesswomen gather to learn from each other and find solutions to entrepreneurship issues and challenges. Lionesses of Africa is an online community forum that showcases women’s businesses and shares information and advice, creating conversations around the challenges faced by women entrepreneurs in Africa.

Below are examples of organisations that offer support at various levels of entrepreneurial development. Individuals and HR practitioners are urged to familiarise themselves with these organisations’ offerings, that they may find appropriate assistance.

Chamber of Commerce
DEMO Africa
Lionesses of Africa
Small Business- and Entrepreneurial Development Centres
Silicone Cape Initiative
Riversands Incubation Hub
22 on Sloane
Silulo Business Incubation
Social Media Networks
Shingler Connect
Seminars & Conferences
The Business Show
Non-profit Organisations
The Hope Factory
Shanduka Black Umbrellas
Tony Elumelu Foundation
Colleges & Universities
USB's Small Business Academy
Bertha Centre
USB Business School
Ackerman Academy
USB Business School Executive Education
The above is only a glimpse of the resources available. What is needed is considered and concerted efforts to develop black women intra- and entrepreneurs by identifying talent and then developing it through organisational resources and the facilitation of appropriate network development.

Despite the spotlight on gender equality intensifying, the mindset of entrepreneurship as a career has yet to be embraced and promoted. Human resource practitioners could do more to empower women, particularly black women, who constitute the majority of the previously disadvantaged South African population. More women need to be recruited and trained for leadership positions, and organisations should take a holistic approach to the development of talented black women, one that includes experiential learning. Training should be based on enhancing their understanding of various business functions in preparation for and development of intra- and entrepreneurship.

As part of an organisation’s corporate social responsibility, supporting both intrapreneurship and entrepreneurship would be more than meeting a social need, it would be a sustainable investment in the economic welfare of both individuals and the country — it would be teaching black women to embrace and unleash their entrepreneurial talent.


Christine Chichi Muduviwa Kere

Christine is a Leader Development Coach & OD Consultant focused on capacity-building for the learning and educational sector. A natural in finding the jewels in people, her wealth of experience gained working across diverse industries in Africa gives her grounding and understanding of strategy and talent development in businesses across industries. She currently coaches and consults in corporate organisations, educational institutions and NGOs. Most of her current work is centred around leader capacity development in learning and education.