But women social entrepreneurs, like Flora Belinario, have found ways to rise above the challenge.

 

A fisheries technologist by profession, Belinario is among the founders of “Tindagat,” a social enterprise that serves as a bridge between local fishers and seafood lovers. A portmanteau of the Tagalog words, “tindahan” (market) and “dagat” (sea), the start-up supports fishing communities by connecting them directly to their market through a digital platform.

 

Tindagat, and eventually the registered company Jasconius Technologies Inc., was the brainchild of Belinario and her three classmates in graduate school at the Asian Institute of Management.

 

“We started our social enterprise just when the pandemic started,” Belinario recalled. “When COVID-19 struck, I felt hopeless at first, but I think God put me through graduate school so that I can turn a disaster into an opportunity, not just for me, but for our partner fishers.”

 

Belinario is the lone woman in the four-person founding team. A proud mother of two teenagers, she admits that sometimes she finds difficulty juggling her responsibilities as a social entrepreneur and a mother—a balancing act that is not lost on many women social entrepreneurs. 

 

Unequal field

In Southeast Asia, despite millions of women already contributing to economies, there is still an unequal playing field of economic opportunities between women and men. 

 

In 2020, Ashoka, an international organization promoting social entrepreneurship, worked with S&P Global Foundation, the philanthropic arm of S&P Global, to identify the gaps and enablers in the field of women entrepreneurship.

 

Through 150 quantitative surveys of social entrepreneurs and 30 in-depth interviews with Ashoka Fellows from Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, the resulting report found that women entrepreneurs see gender barriers as the obstacle that was “most difficult to break,” with 10 percent more women faced with these barriers compared to men.

 

The report, titled “Advancing Women Social Entrepreneurs in ASEAN,” also found that female entrepreneurs tend to work more towards building inclusive communities, and, despite barriers and obstacles,  continue to scale and replicate their work nationally and internationally.

 

The conversations with women social entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia for the report underscored a common theme: the need for a strong community and structured mentorship to grow and navigate the challenges of social entrepreneurship.

 

In response to these needs, DIWA was born.

 

DIWA, which stands for Deepening Impact of Women Activators, was a three-month long online capacity building program, spearheaded by Ashoka in partnership with Deutsche Bank and S&P Global Foundation. The program was designed as a learning journey for women social entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia. Beyond empowering women to strengthen their impact, it establishes a network of strong female leaders and changemakers in the region.

 

Nani Zulminarni, Ashoka Southeast Asia Diamond Leader, said the DIWA program aims to  strengthen the leadership and capacity of women entrepreneurs, in order to deepen their social and economic impact.

 

“In many contexts, they have to transform the challenges caused by patriarchal systems in society in order to survive and grow,” said the Indonesian activist, who for decades has worked to uplift women in her country. 

 

Added Zulminarni: “Their life experiences are valuable knowledge that needs to be organized into collective power for change towards an ‘everyone a changemaker’ world.”

 

“The DIWA program’s ultimate goal is to provide innovative solutions to address these social issues, enrich lives, and create positive change for a better world.”

 

Light to communities

The word “diwa” has powerful meanings in several languages in the ASEAN. In Tagalog, it stands for spirit, consciousness, and will. Dewi or dewa in Bahasa Indonesia carry similar meanings. In Thai, diwa or tiwa means daylight.

 

All these point towards the main goal of the DIWA program: to capacitate women leaders and decision-makers, so that they may continue spreading light in their communities through their social enterprises.

 

Annie Yeo, Deutsche Bank regional director, said Ashoka’s DIWA program resonates with the bank’s strong culture of embracing diversity.

 

“The journey to social entrepreneurship can be a long and arduous one, especially in Asia [where] women entrepreneurs often do not have equal access to capital and business networks,” she said. “The DIWA program’s ultimate goal is to provide innovative solutions to address these social issues, enrich lives, and create positive change for a better world.”

 

DIWA is Ashoka’s second training for women social entrepreneurs, following its Women Together for a Better Normal program in 2020.

 

This year, the DIWA cohort consisted of 44 women leaders working on various social enterprise projects in the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore. 

 

S&P Global Foundation supported 34 women social entrepreneurs under the program, while 10 others were supported by Deutsche Bank.

 

The online learning journey, which ran from June to August, featured three comprehensive modules on leadership, impact and sustainability.

 

The first module grounded the participants in their respective purpose, goals and intentions as changemakers. Through workshops and coaching therapies, they were taken through the various aspects of leadership and learned how to be better communicators and empathizers to be more confident as women leaders.

 

The next sessions zeroed in on impact strategy. Through breakout groups and plenary discussions, the participants were taught to further understand and measure the impact of their leadership and of their work. At the same time, it emphasized the importance of addressing the challenges in their communities and analyzing their impact as women social entrepreneurs through a systems perspective.

 

The final module focused on sustainability, which covered both financial and organizational sustainability. With the two previous modules deepening their understanding of their motivations and of their impact, the finishing leg of their online learning course offered frameworks and business models to ensure that they will remain relevant and sustainable amid turbulent times.

 

“The DIWA program has certainly added a new identity for fellow women changemakers as gender-responsive value creators in the global arena.”

 

Unlocking potential

Women entrepreneurs generally demonstrate more inclusive and people-centered leadership in social enterprises, applying resourcefulness and ingenuity to bring diverse people together and meet today’s challenges. said Cheryl Chen, director of corporate responsibility and sustainability for Asia Pacific of S&P Global Foundation. 

 

“Together with Ashoka’s extensive expertise and experience, we believe that unlocking the potential of these entrepreneurs and changemakers and building their capacity with the DIWA program will also unlock social and economic value for their communities, helping to scale solutions that are systemic and sustainable,” she said.

 

Despite the limitations of their remote learning, the DIWA cohort produced tangible outputs they can use beyond the program itself. Through their workbooks, they mapped out their social enterprise journeys, designed their business models, and outlined timelines for the milestones in their respective start-ups.

 

For Belinario, taking part in the DIWA program opened her eyes to the possibilities, not just as a social entrepreneur, but as a woman. Their newfound community of women leaders through the program, she said, was a strong network that she will continue to benefit from as a social entrepreneur.

 

“The pandemic and the challenges that we faced during the whole duration of the program only shows how resilient a woman can be,” she said, adding that the program also underscored the importance of self-care. “Balancing the demands of my graduate school, work, start-up, and being a mom is difficult, but [what] I have gained from the sessions fuels the passion and motivation in me that I can do more.”

 

Tram Anh Pham, a participant from Vietnam who runs a website called Good Human to promote sustainability and corporate social responsibility, echoed Belinario’s sentiments, saying that she gained inspiration and strength from her fellow women social entrepreneurs.

 

“Many female participants I talked to during the program are mothers of two to three kids, and they run their organization perfectly!” she said, calling the program a “life-changing” experience. 

 

“They shared with me they could be down sometimes and tired and stressed, but they still succeed in what they do and that gives me so much encouragement,” she added.

 

While the program was a steep learning curve for her, the comprehensive learning journey under DIWA allowed her to focus on her strength and capabilities in building her organization better, said Dr. Priadarshni, who started Jujucare Medic in Malaysia to deliver affordable and quality healthcare through a preventive care model.

 

“Reputable organizations like Ashoka, Deutsche Bank and S&P Global have raised the bars in gender lens investing,” she said. “The DIWA program has certainly added a new identity for fellow women changemakers as gender-responsive value creators in the global arena.”