Turn Change Into Dollars $

Women and Social Entrepreneurship

©Jane R. Plitt

Women have always been at the center of social entrepreneurship as initiators and recipients.  Given the current world protest against the recent market abuses, it is particularly timely to understand what has and is being done to use business for social change and to urge women’s involvement in righting the world’s injustices through creative entrepreneurship.

Back in the 19th century, when inequities were systematically built into our free market economies, options were even more limited for women, especially poor women.  If you were born into poverty, often marriage was the only option out of being a washerwoman, a servant, or a factory worker.  Yet, those realities often followed the married lass.  Marriage for many was another kind off servitude, where a woman lost her right to property, including control over her body.  She often became a baby incubator and then died.

Two poor American women, one a Canadian immigrant, the other a Black  daughter of  slaves, were determined to change their destinies.  To help support the family, Martha Matilda  Harper was bound out into servitude from the time she was seven. For the next 25 years, she sought a way out.  Madame Walker, an African American was orphaned by the time she was seven.

Both of these women created beauty businesses  targeting women of their own color, but most significantly, both created employment opportunities for their fellow poverty-stricken sisters.  Harper launched modern franchising in 1891 and momentously decided to place  poor women as franchisees and staff.   Harper’s decision was brilliant in terms of creating an incredibly loyal esprit d’corps team, who strictly followed her mandates and standards,.  This opportunity also transformed these women and gave them enormous life options.  Said Harper, “ I believe that the great Achievement of the Harper Method does not consist of the large number of our shops—though the sun never set on them. The Great Achievement of the Harper Method is the women it has made.”


(Photos of five Harperites whose lives were changed! Courtesy of Author, Jane R. Plitt)

Madame Walker ultimately became the first Black millionaire with her Walker Method  and also targeted poor women as her agents.  Instead of making  $2 week as a maid, her employees could make $23 week!  With those earnings, these poor women could then choose whether to marry, to buy a pearl necklace, to take a course,  and/or educate their family.

(Madame Walker)

However, not all businesswomen provided such transformative business opportunities.  Helena Rubinstein, Estee Lauder, and Elizabeth Arden all chose the traditional business approach of maximizing profit for themselves and not using their business as a vehicle of social improvement.

In contrast, Mohammad Yunnus, 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, recipient, created microloans with  Grameen Bank.  As an economist, he observed Bangladesh women unable to produce many woven stools because they could not buy product.  He gave 42 women $27 in 1974 and they expanded their production and income. This success convinced Yunnus that small loans at reasonable interest could help such women on a large scale.  Today, there are 8.29 million borrowers (97% women).  Their  97% repayment record, is unheard of in the banking industry.

In the Mideast, Zeinhab Al-Momani in Lebanon, created the Sakhra Women’s Cooperative to help female farmers, giving them a new, more powerful voice.

Business is merely an economic structure.  What we do with it is our choice.

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