“Establishment of this global coalition of young women’s entrepreneurship is a LEAP in the right direction” — Lakshmi Puri

Opening remarks by Lakshmi Puri, UN Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of UN Women at the side event, “Establishing the Global Coalition of Young Women Entrepreneurs – Promoting Innovation and Skills” on the occasion of World Youth Skills Day.


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Esteemed Panellists,
Distinguished Colleagues and Guests,

First, I want to thank each one of you for joining us today. Today marks the beginning of an important milestone for young women’s economic empowerment.

Let me quote from the launch of the World Youth Report: “Globally, young women are also less likely than young men to become entrepreneurs, in part due to cultural and societal barriers in some countries, which further limits the employment options for female youth.”

Empowering young women to become not only wage-earners but also job-creators is imperative for achieving the 2030 Agenda and for eradicating poverty. Some 1.2 billion young people today live on less than $1.25 a day. The unemployment rate among young people is at a historic high—three times as high as that of adults. With youth bulges in Africa and Asia, it is critical for sustainable development that we do more to ensure viable incomes and decent work for young people. We cannot do that, however, if half the population is left behind.

The fact is, therefore, that young women’s economic empowerment lies at the heart of sustainable development in every way, but realizing this goal fundamentally depends on transforming power relations and structural inequalities—in households, markets and States, and in different sectors of the economy, such as agriculture, manufacturing, technology, sport and services—to enable young women to be decisive actors who shape the terms and conditions of their participation in economic life.

Moreover, encouraging entrepreneurship is one of the most impactful steps we can take in addressing some of the disparities we see today. Studies in the United States of America and globally show the immense potential of enterprise to contribute to economies and the job market overall, and particularly for young people. Indeed, a study by the Kauffmann Foundation found that nearly 8 million of the 12 million new jobs added in the US in 2007 came from young firms. New businesses are also better employers of young people. In businesses between one and five years old, 70 per cent of employees are under the age of 45, whereas in older firms, more than half are over 45 years old. Young people also earn higher wages in new businesses. The truth is that while many new businesses may not survive, they contribute more in jobs, wages and social impact overall.

Supporting women not only as employees of these new enterprises, but also as entrepreneurs and employers themselves, will generate new jobs for both young women and men, as well as new ideas for growth. Indeed, the vast majority of women-owned businesses are micro, small and medium Enterprises (MSMEs). Unfortunately, gender specific barriers make it difficult for these enterprises to compete and hinder the growth and potential of women-owned businesses. Women face challenges in financing, bias and stereotyping about their business abilities, security concerns and lack of necessary business and entrepreneurship skills. Not surprisingly then, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Report on Women and Entrepreneurship, the rate of participation in entrepreneurship for men is four times greater than that of women in the MENA/Mid-Asia region. Further, while it is estimated that SMEs with full or partial female ownership represent 31-38 percent of formal SMEs in developing countries, women’s entrepreneurship is skewed towards smaller firms—a disproportionate share of women’s businesses fail to grow. Women entrepreneurs are also more likely to be in the informal sector, mainly in lower value added services. The numbers are stacked against women-owned MSMEs.

This is despite the growing evidence that large-scale investment in young women’s economic empowerment generates immediate and long-term social dividends, including in post-conflict situations. By economically empowering young women, the living conditions of a woman and her family improve, their reliance on external aid decreases, and ultimately it contributes to the growth of local and national economies.

Investing in young women’s economic empowerment sets a direct path towards gender equality, poverty eradication and inclusive economic growth. Women make enormous contributions to economies, whether in businesses, on farms, as entrepreneurs or employees, or by doing unpaid care work at home.

But they also remain disproportionately affected by poverty, discrimination and exploitation. Gender discrimination means that women often end up in insecure, low-wage jobs, and constitute a small minority of those in senior positions. It curtails access to economic assets such as land and loans. It limits participation in shaping economic and social policies. And, because women perform the bulk of household work, they often have little time left to pursue economic opportunities.

Promoting women’s economic participation requires changing social, economic, and educational policies so that women can access work, but can also be employers, business owners and champions of gender equality themselves.

In many regions, young women and girls are barred from completing secondary education due to being forced into child marriage or burdened with the responsibility of caring for the household from an early age. And in cases where they are able to complete their education, the traditional education system discourages entrepreneurship.

Young Women and girls need full and equal access to economic opportunity, as well as the skills, education and resources to start their own businesses. The positive gain of empowering women in work and the economy is exponential. Removing the employment participation and wage gap globally is calculated to value $17 trillion. Increasing women’s earning power grows economies through greater demand and productivity. In fact, if women’s participation in the labor force matched men’s, it would boost the USA’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by more than 5 per cent, United Arab Emirate’s by 12 per cent, and Egypt’s by 34 per cent. And it has been proven again and again that when women earn more, more money is reinvested in their children, families and communities. Currently, however, a third of women in the developing world have no say at all in major household purchases.

In alignment with UN Women’s global mission with the vision of Planet 50-50 by 2030, UN Women is deepening it commitment to youth through its Youth and Gender Equality Strategy—the first-ever youth-specific strategy identifying the importance of young women’s economic empowerment and skills development, and the LEAPs Framework for Gender Equality.

The “LEAPs” framework calls upon:

  • Strengthening young women’s Leadership;
  • Promoting Economic empowerment and skills development of young women;
  • Fostering Action to end violence against young women and girls.
  • Additionally, it makes a case for promoting Partnerships with young women and their organizations, as well as partnering with young men in gender equality. Last, but not least, it invites intergenerational partnership to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Today, we focus on the E—Economic Empowerment of young women, which is at the core of the LEAPS framework.

Women’s entrepreneurs can spur global growth and create jobs. Money in the hands of women fosters development through women’s higher spending on the family on the health and education of children, contributing to the breaking of inter-generational poverty. It also enables women to be independent and take more active leadership in their communities. Creating opportunities for women entrepreneurs through public and private gender-responsive procurement can have a transformational impact on global markets and contribute to women’s economic empowerment by boosting demand for goods and services supplied by women entrepreneurs.

Public procurement alone accounts for 15-30 per cent of GDP in countries and represents a multi-trillion-dollar market. Governments procure goods and services to carry out state functions in all sectors, including infrastructure development and health. Corporations also source goods and services from other smaller businesses throughout their value chains. Significant gender disparities exist in procurement markets. It is estimated that women entrepreneurs only access 1 per cent of public procurement. Women’s access to corporate value chains is also dismal. Women are missing on a major source of demand for goods and services.

Women entrepreneurs are excluded from accessing information and networks, so they are not aware of business opportunities in procurement markets. This reinforces a negative cycle and prevents them from entering higher value-added sectors in the economy. At the same time, procuring entities, corporations and investors lack the information necessary to analyse the gender impact of their decisions and identify female suppliers.

UN Women’s Empower Women is at the forefront of this work across sectors and skills. Empower Women promotes and advocates for women’s entry into the ICT workforce. It launched iLearn with Facebook, a mobile-learning platform for women entrepreneurs in nine languages that has reached over 300,000 women in 37 countries. Empower Women is also developing entrepreneurship training modules and conducting skills development webinars to prepare the next generation of women and men to take actions for gender equality and women’s economic empowerment in response to emerging needs of the labor market.

Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have become indispensable for effective participation in the economy. Many women’s businesses around the world are using ICTs to connect with their customers, sell products to new markets, forge business contacts and obtain market prices. With ICTs many young women entrepreneurs access key sources of information, opportunities to build networks and taking advantage of the increasing number of online mentoring programs and web-based and mobile-assisted learning tools.

In all our economic empowerment programmes, UN Women aims to reach out to young women most in need, often by engaging with grass-roots and civil society organizations. Particularly marginalized groups include rural young women, domestic workers, some migrants and low-skilled women. This demographic must not be left behind.

I am happy to launch the incremental steps for the Global Coalition of Young Women Entrepreneurs – Promoting Innovation and Skills with an aim to strengthen multi-sectoral partnerships and productive networking for developing young women entrepreneurs.

We call for cross-sectional partnerships, we call upon young women leaders, private sector, Philanthropist, Academia, UN agencies, entrepreneurs and young women entrepreneurs, in particular student groups.

In closing, I must emphasize my belief that by mentorship initiatives, partnerships with women’s movements, youth, indigenous, and other groups, and by removing all barriers to young women’s and girls’ participation and leadership in all aspects of life, whether in the context of development, humanitarian and conflict situations, we have incredibly transformative power to unlock their potential to be not only beneficiaries of development, but to become examples of self-achievement and realization, and champions of inclusiveness and respect for the dignity and equal human rights of all.

The establishment of this global coalition of young women’s entrepreneurship is a LEAP in the right direction. Thank you for being part of a HERstoric moment.