With half of its 165 million population consisting of women, it is imperative for the growth of Bangladesh to increase the participation of women in the economy. There has been a surge in the number of women entrepreneurs, even though there are a variety of gender-specific challenges they have to face. One of the biggest challenges for the women entrepreneurs was access to the market and creating market linkages, women entrepreneurs Face an uphill battle in making connections with corporate buyers while noting that establishing networks in the sourcing departments of large corporations is very complex and non-transparent. Considering these issues The World Bank, along with implementing partners WEConnect International and strategic implementer LightCastle Partners launched the pilot program called Corporate Connect. The aim of the project is to create market access for women entrepreneurs and create linkage with women entrepreneurs and corporations.
LightCastle Partners’ approach was to divide up this project into three phases, in the first phase with the guidance of WEConnect, LightCastle had 100+ structured interviews with corporates and 150+ interviews with women-owned businesses (WoBs) in order to assess their challenges and opportunities in forming business linkages. The information helped the team devise a broad sector-wise landscape study that provided WEConnect with a deep database and served as an indicator of the demand from corporations. Moreover, the findings were also converted into publications for WEConnect. Lightcastle Partners conducted interviews with around 60+ corporations and 100+ women entrepreneurs.
The next step was to help devise a strategy and to train the women entrepreneurs for which LightCastle Partners helped facilitate the training of 50+ WOB and held a dialogue session with them. The participants were given online training on business fundamentals and how to interact with corporate suppliers, they were then divided into 2 cohorts and given the training to present their ideas to investors on business fundamentals and on how to pitch to investors with the support of a training partner. Several Meet-the-Buyer events were organized where the corporates spoke about their sourcing strategy and explained their procurement process. The events also gave the WOBs an opportunity to network with representatives, pitch their business and goods/services, and build relationships for future business opportunities.
The next step was to engage with the corporations which were done by identifying 15 corporates, who have a good understanding of the need to diversify their supply chain and were eager to work with WOBs and signing a pledge letter with them, stating their intention to procure from the WOBs. The members of the committee were large household names, consisting of Apex, BRAC Bank, DBL, Meena Bazar, and New Asia Group. One of the main concerns of the committee members was that the women entrepreneurs did not know how to properly pitch their business during meetings, some of them had good business plans but failed to convey their plans adequately. They also mentioned few did not have proper business documentation and financial projections prepared for the meeting.
After a rigorous assessment of the WOBs, LightCastle Partners picked out 25 top-performing WOBs and provided them training on topics such as Refining the Business Model, Financial Forecast Model, and Developing an Elevator Pitch and Networking with Buyers. The training program provided the entrepreneurs with the necessary tools and knowledge to present their business plans in front of both clients and investors. They were also given a platform to practice their pitch in preparation for the pitch competition. Moreover, the members shared key insights on how the procurement system works and recommended changes to the WOBs operations, to make them more suitable for being taken on board the supply chain.
After the conclusion of the final training session the 25 WOBs presented their business plan at International Finance Corporation (IFC) office in front of 3 judges, after which 5 women entrepreneurs were selected for the pitch competition at the Corporate Connect: Strengthening Market Access for Women Business Owners event. The event took place on February 9, 2020, at the Radisson Hotel, which was inaugurated by the honorable Minister of Commerce Tipu Munshi and Caren Grown, World Bank Group Senior Director, Gender. The event hosted around 180 guests of which 55 were women entrepreneurs and the rest were corporate representatives. The event consisted of panel discussions and roundtable sessions with senior executives from various industries. The event came to an end with the pitch competition, where the top 5 women entrepreneurs pitched their business plans to the esteemed judges.
This was the pilot phase of the Corporate Connect program, moving forward we expect the program to be scaled up to include more women entrepreneurs from Bangladesh. We-Fi is helping with the funding of the project, they are an organization that seeks to address financial and non-financial constraints faced by women entrepreneurs in developing countries, so far, they have helped 115,000 women-owned SMEs in over 50 countries. In Bangladesh, they have pledged over USD 30 million and aim to reach 43,000 women entrepreneurs while catalyzing 40,000 loans. Along with that WEConnect International is creating a database of women entrepreneurs, with the help of the SME Foundation and the World Bank Group, so that corporations can easily find contacts and conduct business with them.