Women Ecosystem Builders Empowering the Leaders of Tomorrow
We Sit Down With The Women of GIST IHubs, Who Are Building Regional Entrepreneurial Ecosystems That Elevate Other Women
As we celebrate Women's History Month, we look to the incredible women making a difference building the networks that touch innovators in regions all over the world. These changemakers have led the charge in building entrepreneurial ecosystems that empower women through the network of GIST Innovation Hubs. Through community-led groups, IHubs aim to bolster networking and entrepreneurial skills to build durable, long-term, supportive networks. The ultimate goal of the initiative is to stimulate local entrepreneurial activity and ensure participants can grow their skills and scale their businesses together – both in their home country and through the GIST Network’s global connections.
Women play a key part in this effort, and make up more than half of the GIST Network. We sat down with some of the women working to build and support their innovation ecosystems and asked them to share their insights and perspective with us on how they have built systems of entrepreneurial empowerment- for women, by women.
Evelyn Gomez, UTEC Ventures (Peru)
Evelyn Gomez is the program manager at UTEC Ventures, the startup accelerator of the University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) in Peru and one of the most active early investors in Perú, with an emerging focus on elevating women founders in science and technology. Learn more about their work here.
Arta Ahmetaj, ICKosovo
Arta Ahmetaj is the Incubator Department Assistant at the Innovation Centre Kosovo (ICKosovo). Innovation Centre Kosovo (ICK) was founded to support entrepreneurship, innovation and commercially based business development, with a focus on information and communication technology. The center supports both start-ups and existing companies with the potential for growth.
Nazrin Guluzade, FemTech Azerbaijan
Nazrin is the founder of FemTech, a platform in Azerbaijan which assists women in fostering high tech careers and setting a foundation in their own startups, as well as exploring many issues related to women working in the entrepreneurial sphere including leadership, teamwork, personal development. Learn more about Nazrin and the community she helps foster here.
What are lessons learned you can share with other ecosystem builders?
Evelyn (UTEC Ventures): I think the first thing would be that it’s important to have a diverse team, to have multiple points of view.
Another is to make sure to be looking at information in a wider way, and a key way to do that is to not just have information passing through the same people. There are extraordinary people around, and we need to make an effort to reach new people. And if we are hosting events, having people on a stage, we need to be coherent in what our values are. If you’re saying you believe in gender equity, that panel, those speakers, should reflect this. If you say you care about this, but you’re running events with only male speakers, you are giving a different message. It’s important to unify the message you're sharing as an organization.
Arta (ICKosovo): Putting the word out there, and especially elevating the success stories, is so important. One of them that comes to mind is a venture which was founded by a woman who didn’t even really know what entrepreneurship was. Over the course of working with the incubation program she started working on her product and has been very successful, experiencing market penetration in more than 10 countries all across Europe, working mainly in robotics.
And this shows the importance of a tailor-made approach for incubator or accelerator programs, having a reliable approach with clear milestones to measure success, reach their first investments, and scale their startups.
Nazrin (FemTech Azerbaijan):
It’s really important to bring in both sides… with issues of gender equality, not everyone goes into it with the same mindset, so it’s important to bring men into the fold, to show that men support this as well, and can play a part in uplifting women entrepreneurs.
It’s also important to say, don’t wait for finances… a lot of organizations say “I need money’ to start anything, but not waiting and trying to build it yourself, building your network can allow you to start doing important work even without finances.
And finally, it’s so important to choose people and partners in your family who support you in your journey, who understand your work, and lift you up.
What have been some of your biggest challenges?
Evelyn (UTEC Ventures): One of the biggest challenges has been in looking at actually "who is on the team” when it comes to leadership positions. For example, who is deciding who is going to be the teams that will be part of a cohort? We need women that are part of this decision-making process… it’s important for women at all levels to be involved, we need the opportunities to be from women to women, and it’s important because it can also make women founders more comfortable.
Nazrin (FemTech Azerbaijan): The lack of role models is a problem.. When we go to the community, and ask young girls what they want to be, half of them say “teacher”, because that’s what they see as the women in their life with a lot of experience. But they don’t say, you know, I want to be in the tech sector, or I want to be an engineer, and so on.
It is so important for us to work from the bottom up… A lot of organizations work to support women entrepreneurs, but the problem is that a lot of women in Azerbaijan aren’t aware of or able to enter this space in the first place. So we have changed our approach, working to build literacy and a culture, starting from zero, and building a foundation, and that process really motivates us in building this better future.
What would you tell industry and world leaders about why women in entrepreneurship matters?
Evelyn (UTEC Ventures): Well, we have this information, all this data, that backs up that women-led entrepreneurship is successful.
It’s also important to note the topics that women can focus on; 80% of femtech startups are founded by women. It’s about health, about women’s health, and I can’t imagine a man being able to create something that addresses endometriosis in the same way, something that affects a huge population and is a billion-dollar problem. So there’s a huge business here in looking at problems that need to be solved for women, and I believe only women are really going to address that. Looking at products for menstrual cycles, for menopause, many other problems that are just dismissed because the people that would build these products or fund them just don’t understand.
Arta (ICKosovo): Over the years, we've seen that women entrepreneurs just need a chance to enter the market, to have that access, and they can change the world, they can absolutely go through and beyond this process.
I believe that supporting women entrepreneurs can lead to a boost in our economy, can lead to higher employment opportunities and help in sustainability, that in all of these things gender equality is the way to go.
But also with the regulations and government support here in Kosovo to support women, not only in business, but in every sector, it has increased the overall prosperity of the country and it's benefiting immensely, giving value to the society here. It’s so important to have resources and support to support these clusters of women entrepreneurships working here and worldwide, and for the women who have succeeded and achieved market penetration, it’s important to share their knowledge, experience, and support.
What makes you excited for the future?
Evelyn (UTEC Ventures): There were a lot of startups already, and a good number of tech focused ones. Women have good support in the ecosystem in general, but there are other variables at play as well, like in education. It’s not as common to see women in engineering classes in the universities, there are not many women in engineering in Peru, within the educational system, and there’s a lot of bias, but there are women building despite that. So they are building, but now the question is, how do we get funding for them?
And to that end, I’m very excited for the future. I think being a technical founder in Peru, in Latin America, is an enormous privilege. We are having more and more diversity, more and more visibility, and that’s good. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but I’m very optimistic.
Arta (ICKosovo): We’ve had here in Kosovo lots of support, through embassies and through the government. I believe that it’s growing, and that women’s access to entrepreneurship here and in Albania is certainly increasing. And not just young women, but even older women as well; we’ve seen a trend in our information sessions of older women who are interested, and we are saying to them, you can start at any age and learn something new. And when they have the motivation and drive to do something new, they absolutely succeed. And we’ve seen that trend increase. It's not always easy to change the entrenched mindset, but in the last 10 years, we have seen a major difference in our ecosystem.
Nazrin (FemTech Azerbaijan): We are seeing lots of women and girls that are interested in this, and we are seeing such growth for everyone. They look up to us as role models, but we are learning together… As we work, we keep learning new things. We are learning and growing together.
The GIST Network would not be the vibrant community it is today if it wasn't for the leaders on the ground who have dedicated themselves to building entrepreneurial communities in regions all over the globe. They have touched the lives of women and girls the world over, and we will continue to support our IHub Network as they continue their extraordinary work.
Learn more about some of the incredible women founders of the GIST Network in our article highlighting their continued success here.
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