NGOs Should Pay Attention to Women’s Entrepreneurship to Achieve the SDGs
The United Nations General Assembly meets in New York City this month at the midpoint of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The sweeping development agenda calls for lofty objectives like eradicating poverty, ending hunger and achieving gender equality worldwide. But progress toward the goals is “seriously off track,” U.N. analysts found in June. If NGOs and development professionals hope to bring the world closer to achieving the SDGs by 2030, they need to do things differently.
Fortunately, one proven way to achieve any and all of the 17 SDGs is still vastly under-utilized and holds a wealth of untapped potential — and that’s equipping women to grow their incomes through entrepreneurship.
Street Business School and our partners including BRAC, the UBS Optimus Foundation and UNESCO leverage the SBS entrepreneurship training to more than double graduates’ incomes and accomplish objectives ranging from empowering youth to reducing exploitation. But more work is needed in order to fully realize the promise that comes from helping women succeed.
The Multiplier Effect: Empowering Women is a Key to Success on the SDGs
Women are most affected by backslides on the SDGs in both developed and developing markets. “The evidence speaks for itself,” said Deepti Mathew, CEO of Street Business School.
Indeed, research shows that women and girls are more likely to live in poverty globally. They tend to be less educated, have less access to assets and receive less medical care. If that’s not enough, 80 percent of those displaced by climate change are women and girls.
“In every single scenario, no matter how you slice it, women are significantly more disadvantaged than men,” Mathew said.
The breadth of these historical disadvantages presents a daunting challenge, but also a promising opportunity. “Any intervention you enact that impacts women will positively impact not just those women, but also the entire family,” Mathew said. “That’s why we so actively focus on women as a path out of poverty. They’re more disadvantaged, but they also have a much bigger spillover effect if you direct your intervention toward them.”
Experts from Mathew and Street Business School to UNICEF and the World Bank note a “multiplier effect” of investing in women’s economic equity and economic empowerment and the promise it can have for the global development agenda and the NGOs pursuing it.
“From our experience working with over 250 partners in 34 countries, we know that if you provide a woman with entrepreneurial skills and you can double her income through that — which Street Business School’s curriculum is able to do — she will move herself out of poverty. She will move her family out of poverty,” Mathew said.
Communities where more women have access to their own sources of income will begin to see the full extent of the multiplier effect take shape. “You will see the age of marriage increasing. You will see access and use of healthcare facilities improving. You will see climate resilience increasing. You will see human trafficking reducing,” Mathew said. “Women’s entrepreneurship has this amazing impact on income, but it also multiplies and has an impact across developmental outcomes.”
This isn’t just anecdotal. Research shows that working women invest 90 percent of their income back into their families and communities, compared to 35 percent for men. Women who are empowered economically also tend to have fewer, healthier children. And they’re more likely to send those children to school, which improves a host of development metrics — from child and adolescent health to reductions in child marriage and human trafficking.
Entrepreneurship Is an Overlooked Solution for NGOs
Within the host of potential interventions for empowering women economically, entrepreneurship stands out as having greater and more immediate benefits.
“Even in the developed world, even in the professional sector, women earn a fraction of what men earn,” Mathew said. “You can imagine how much more severe that situation is when you’re talking about manual, unskilled or semi-skilled labor. Women get paid much, much less than men.”
Considering women earn about 20 percent less than men globally, a gap that widens even further in much of the developing world, “skilling up” a woman to work for someone else “is very likely to put her at the bottom of the food chain,” Mathew explained.
“That’s part of the reason why we focus on entrepreneurial skills,” she said. “But the main reason why we look at entrepreneurial skills is we believe that it’s a life skill. We believe that it gives a woman agency.”
When measuring grit — an indicator of how women perceive their ability to overcome obstacles and persevere — a randomized control trial of Street Business School’s entrepreneurship training programs showed a 3 to 4 percent increase, which is in line with interventions that explicitly target this outcome.
How Street Business School Can Help
Street Business School develops custom partnerships that are tailored to large organizations and their needs, target audiences and areas of operation.
“What’s really unique is how deep our partnership capabilities are,” Mathew said. “When a large NGO comes to us with complex programs they’re implementing at a large scale across multiple geographies, we can flex our engagement depending on the best way to support that organization.”
For example, SBS linked up with BRAC, the world’s largest NGO, back in 2021. “We started with consultation,” Mathew said. “And together with their team, we came up with a combination of existing materials they have and our curricula.”
The partnership adds crucial services to BRAC’s Empowerment and Livelihood for Adolescents (ELA) curriculum. Entrepreneurship training co-developed by SBS and BRAC are expected to reach 91,340 girls across Africa.
“The Street Business School training exceeded my expectations,” said Carrie Ellet, BRAC Regional Advisor for Youth Empowerment. “The training was relevant and straightforward, and it is obvious SBS has expertise on the African continent. SBS makes online training more fun and it absolutely hit our goals.”
In the Maldives and Sri Lanka, SBS worked with UNESCO to reduce vulnerability to radicalization by teaching 75 local community trainers about entrepreneurship education. “It was really well planned and executed, and the participants enjoyed it a lot,” said Maija Lyytinen, who served as program manager for youth and social cohesion at UNESCO before moving on to a similar role at UNICEF. Since the 2022 sessions, those trainers have gone back to their communities with the aim of teaching women and young people how to build new lives as entrepreneurs.
Beyond enhancing lives and livelihoods for women and youth, a steady income source can be a lifeline to a struggling family and mean the difference between a family breaking up or staying together. Poverty is a key cause of family breakdown, resulting in an increased number of children being raised in institutional settings. Nearly six million children are registered as living in child care institutions, but the majority, up to 80 percent, have a living parent.
With a goal of keeping children in family-based care, the UBS Optimus Foundation partnered with SBS to serve grantees in its Child Protection portfolio. SBS will provide comprehensive training and support to grantees, who will go on to train an estimated 3,600 women in East and Southern Africa over the next five years.
Women’s Entrepreneurship is a Powerful Tool to Further Progress on the SDGs
Together, Street Business School’s partners are leveraging women’s entrepreneurship to further progress on 16 of the 17 SDGs. The work they do makes a dramatic case for the compounding impact of investing in women — and how simple it can be to get involved.
“I think everybody understands the benefits of serving women,” Mathew said. “What typically tends to happen is a program is focused on a very specific SDG or a very specific outcome. That’s where their expertise is, and they think, ‘We don’t do entrepreneurship.’ That’s okay. There’s an entire organization focused on doing entrepreneurship and offering that capability to other NGOs.”
SBS is out to help more NGOs learn how women’s entrepreneurship can further their goals and accelerate their progress toward achieving the SDGs. Our customized poverty-eradication partnerships help NGOs leverage the untapped power of women to unlock progress on a range of development objectives and improve lives and livelihoods for the people they serve.