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Women missing out where rubber meets the road Add to ...

The former Canadian foreign minister Pierre Pettigrew was possibly the first to state that the era of globalization would count women among its winners.

Indeed, women have made great strides, virtually all over the world, as far as their labour force participation and their level of education are concerned.

According to the World Bank, women accounted for 40 per cent of the global labour force in 2009. Women now account for the majority of university students in many countries, including Malaysia, Libya, Venezuela and Iran.

And yet, for all these successes, there is one arena where the progress of women is still very insufficient: the crucial front of entrepreneurship.

Their absence means that, at a time when the world economy is nervously seeking future sources of growth and jobs, the entrepreneurial potential of roughly half of humanity has not been brought to bear.

If we were to launch one initiative across cultures to stimulate economic growth, increasing the ranks of women entrepreneurs would probably be the one that would yield the most potential.

But in order to get it right, it is important to understand the precise nature of the constraint that is keeping women from realizing their full entrepreneurial potential.

Recent research by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation found that, in the United States, for example, women are earning more degrees than men in the natural sciences and making gains in engineering. Women scientists are publishing as many scientific papers, and they are winning their share of research grants.

But where women fall short is at this critical nexus: the switch from research to commercialization.

Women, in fact, launch very few startups and account for a vastly disproportionate share of intellectual property generated out of university research.

The root cause of this shortfall, according to studies undertaken at Harvard and MIT, is that women have very weak networks in the commercial marketplace. And that, of course, is where the rubber always meets the road.

This is why the case of Singapore’s Olivia Lum, founder and chief executive officer of Hyflux Ltd., is such an inspiration and point of departure.

In June, the Singapore-based Ms. Lum was named the 2011 World Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young, making her the first female recipient in the award’s 25-year history.

Her life story underscores the potentially transformative power of entrepreneurship.

Adopted at birth and growing up in neighbouring Malaysia, she earned a science degree and joined GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical firm, as a chemist

In 1989, she quit her job to focus on polluted industrial water, a problem she had first become aware of in her work at Glaxo.

From that moment on, she was determined to seize on what has turned out to be a tremendous growth market, the desalination industry.

Ms. Lum credits hunger and poverty, as well as her experience selling goods on the street when she was a girl (which she did to earn money to stay in school) as helping her develop the tenacity it would take to succeed as an entrepreneur.

Two decades on, her firm now employs 2,300 people in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and was recently selected by Singapore's national water agency as the preferred bidder for the country's second, and largest, desalination project. Singapore, for its part, is among the world leaders in water management.

Along the way, Ms. Lum did exactly what our foundation's research had pointed to: It is a matter not just of vision and talent but of relentless collaboration and systematic networking that helps entrepreneurs, women or not, transform ideas into real businesses.

Ms. Lum’s story should serve as a wakeup call that we have not done nearly enough to encourage women as entrepreneurs in high-growth businesses.

Given the tremendous challenges the world economy faces, and especially the needs for growth, innovation and jobs, we need to take up this challenge and make this the decade of the woman entrepreneur.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Carl Schramm is the president and chief executive officer of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

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