GENDER balance is not only a women's issue, it is a business issue. A recent study from the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that women in the Asia-Pacific, if given equal opportunities at work, would create additional gross domestic product (GDP) equivalent to an economy the combined size of Germany and Austria each year. But looking beyond economic gains, when women lead, they are also active role models of change and progress for their communities.
Take the story of Raena Lim, co-founder of Style Theory, Singapore's first day-to-day fashion rental subscription platform. She and her partner Chris Halim harnessed the power of technology and data innovation to change women's lifestyle for the better by addressing one common problem that many women face - having a wardrobe full of clothes, yet feeling that they have nothing to wear.
Through continuous learning and adapting to market, as well as consumer research and marketing experimentation, she managed to find the right product fit that truly addresses customers' needs and desires. Today, Style Theory has a growing team of 150 staff, with an expanding community and following in both Singapore and Indonesia - all in less than three years. They are also touted to be the biggest fashion rental subscription platform in South-east Asia.
As women like Ms Lim and their achievements are celebrated on International Women's Day, there is also a duty to recognise the hurdles that women still face, and find the pathway to a more gender-balanced world.
To gain a deeper understanding of the differences between male and female business owners, their experiences, and their needs, we mined the Future of Business Survey - a collaboration between Facebook, the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to survey the 90-plus million small businesses on Facebook around the world. It is one of the widest, most global survey of SMEs ever conducted.
The latest report shows that in Singapore, women business owners on Facebook still face significant funding challenges, with over four in 10 stating that they started their business with personal savings. Only about one in 10 said that they currently have a bank loan or a line of credit. We know this is consistent with the challenges faced by women entrepreneurs across the region. Apart from finding it difficult to raise external funding, they often need to work twice as hard to balance professional and family demands, and they are more likely than men to run businesses out of their homes - which can deprive them of the networks needed to grow and scale up. Women's leadership potential can also be stymied by the lack of role models and support systems where they can receive mentoring and guidance.
Yet there are many reasons to be optimistic. The flexibility offered by digital technologies is levelling out the playing field. It has enabled a new generation of women entrepreneurs and even one-woman businesses that can go global by tapping into the power of community and conversation to grow their businesses.
Around the world, a substantial proportion of small businesses on Facebook are owned and led by women. In the 95 countries surveyed, we found that nearly four in 10 (39 per cent) of people identifying as owners or managers of small businesses on Facebook are women.
In Singapore, over nine in 10 female business owners said that social media was useful in growing their business. Singaporean women business owners also said also they benefited from the role of community and mentorship, with over six in 10 saying that they have a role model, of which nearly three in four say that their role model is a woman.
Connection and mentorship can often make the difference between having a dream and realising it. This is why Facebook continues to invest in #Shemeansbusiness - a global initiative designed to help women take the next step in their business ventures. The programme provides financial support, advice, training and a supportive community of mentors and peers. As of this year, Facebook has trained over 130,000 women in digital skills across the Asia-Pacific.
When women entrepreneurs get the funding, technology and skills that they need, it also enables them to share knowledge and build the future of business together.
- The writer is country director, Facebook Singapore