A Safe Space

By Madeleine White

Last week was Week of Women and Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW). It is not surprising therefore that I was involved in two thought leadership events – both looking at different perspectives of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and the players and policies that shape it. The first event was hosted by the FCO's Wilton Park.  Balanced Economies: Balanced societies explored promoting gender parity in politics and business. The second had an academic host – with the Technical University of Eindhoven (TUE) looking at issues around dynamic entrepreneurship. Some important ideas emerged, which I have attempted to shape, presenting a digital worldview coupled with a call to action.

From Brexit to the new US president elect – the unexpected has become expected and we are facing a world in which we just don’t know what’s around the corner.  Human energy has been directed and funnelled through digital space in a way that is unprecedented, and amongst this, the question for many of us is – how on earth did we get here and what are we going to do next?

We know we need to find a way to channel our collective hunger for change, a lightning rod of energy able to power innovation, partnerships and connection. However, recent world events have shown us that we just haven’t cracked it yet. We are also slowly coming to realise that the frameworks of social and traditional media and other digital platforms aren’t the helpful forums for knowledge share and free expression we had assumed. Instead of helping us chart a path to real socio-economic change they bamboozle us with an illusory smokescreen of self-validation in a battle for digital territory.

internet-value-chain2016 GSMA Internet Value Chain report brings up some useful considerations.  It cites the total value of the internet value chain as almost trebling from $1.2 trillion in 2008 to nearly $3.5 trillion in 2015, explaining that ever more revenue is being funnelled into fewer, larger organisations. In turn, these consolidated players need to work ever harder for their money.

In other words, in order to ensure future growth, conglomerates need to monetize every aspect of our digital interaction within forums that appear to promote authentic engagement and knowledge share. By assuming that we are in a good, safe space and helping others network within this framework - we affirm opinions or behaviour patterns that help these digital middlemen make ever more money.

However, there is a way of moving this narrative on. It is possible to harness the momentum of the many into more meaningful interaction. To do so, we need to understand that the power of small amounts of money spent by a huge population can be used for social good – with value driven middle men, sitting at the heart of the picture (see my feature on the role of NGOs). This can be done by putting an Inclusive Business (IB) framework at the heart of economic policy that is shaped by real human interaction (storytelling from the coal face) and data that will help us learn from collective successes and failures. The 2013 Asian Development bank report concludes, for example, that 50% of total expenditure of the Philippines is happening in the space where people have the least money. There is real value in even the smallest of interactions and transactions – as long as we collectively know where these opportunities lie and how to communicate them.


The Frugal Thermometer

Frugal innovation is a perfect example of turning abstract economic principles and arguments into real, connected actions. It is based on creating high technology solutions to low tech applications. Professor Cees van Beers from the Technical University of Delft cited the use of online dissemination and collaboration as being central to the creation of examples of this, such as frugal thermometers, mobile heart monitors or mobile phone weather monitors. These were created in Africa and are now being used the world over.

And, although purely physically accessible at the moment, the WECREATE centres, funded by the US state department, are another example of entrepreneurial communities connecting to drive opportunity from the bottom up.  The centres provide a safe space and the necessary resources for women to start or grow businesses. Since 2013 they have helped 13,000 women in 5 countries, create 3,600 jobs. It is possible to start using this kind of framework in the digital space.

So, how can we define our own safe space? One that allows us to hear a wider range of views and mobilises the many to create stability while at the same time promoting considered risk?  I believe we need to focus on identifying the right networks, understanding the need for transparent measures around key performance indicators and finally, delivering capacity building and training that is geared towards shaping universal access. In this way we can  overcome the toxic mix of lack of confidence and fear of failure that stops us from embracing the individual power we can bring to bear.

Networks are our Net Worth

We start by identifying a network that would benefit from the kind of framework described, whilst being strong enough to create the necessary momentum for it to be effective. Key is building and understanding new kinds of networks – linked by an underlying fact or principle. The network must be motivated and motivational, powerful and above all able to cut across a number of geographical and cultural barriers. Weconnect International is a great example of such a network. It is aimed at empowering women business owners throughout the world by offering a way in to the corporate supply chain, whilst connecting to each other. It has a profit proposition that underpins its ‘safe space’. Empower Women, UN women’s dynamic, funded platform, improves the sharing of evidence, experiences and good practices around women’s economic empowerment.

Both these are great example of frameworks that encompass a safe digital space, along with physical elements needed to support capacity building, networking and usage and both embed transparent measures and data, authentic storytelling, and relevant capacity building. However, although the platforms do influence opinion and policy, it is worth questioning whether they are robust enough to get even those who are against Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE) to engage… Or have enough reach to monetise points of interaction, mirroring the mechanisms and drivers of the most effective global platforms.

Diaspora networks, built around the opportunity of connecting business and trade across multiple geographies, have significant potential in terms of leveraging both profitability and identifying opportunities. The context of course is the mass migration we are seeing globally; but this migration, if harnessed properly, could create the opportunity to extend and deepen international trade networks. It is worth looking at more established diasporas to get an idea of impact. When I created WEE platform nina-iraq.com for example, it aimed to connect the Iraqi diaspora and in-country women and men through a shared framework. It ensured inclusivity, i.e. it included everyone from Iraq for example and linked different levels of education or religion for example in a melting pot that was linked by shared values, although they may have acquired a different flavour. It was hacked in 2015 and was offline for a week. In some ways this is a testament to its reach, as the ideas and contacts it was offering women in Iraq through diaspora engagement directly challenged radical precepts of Islam of ISIS.

Transparency and Measures

In order to create a way of working that is as yet unchartered we need to define the journey we wish to take. We then need to ensure others can connect and contribute by being allowed to participate – which at its most scalable needs a digital framework. However, to do this effectively the tech being used shouldn’t be our first consideration, instead the focus needs to be on the changes required to positively impact the physical system processes to generate increased opportunity and productivity.

VC4Africa, a platform aimed at African Start-up funding, was able to share some interesting findings, based on companies reporting on their system. By presenting this overview data, with reference to who was able to raise capital, they have been able to raise considerations around where current market systems may be missing a trick. Unsurprisingly 54% of entrepreneurs looking to raise capital digitally were under 35. However, when compared to norm of around 9% of women-owned companies gaining VC funding, the fact that 25% were doing so through VC4Africa was surprising. Linked to similar findings through US platform Circle Up, this starts to make an interesting case around women benefitting from non-human networks to raise capital as opposed to their male counterparts.

A couple of other findings that used academic research to dig underneath existing narratives were presented in academic research at the TUE event. They evidenced that openness in business is not always a good thing, despite universal openness that Western business practice promotes. A study from Raboud University shows that openness is great if information is shared in a research rich environment. However, in many emerging economies, (the study was based on Africa) openness can mean losing competitive advantage.

Similarly, networking is generally considered a good thing, indeed specifically something women can benefit from. However, in an exploration of positive and negative social capital, TUE discovered that very often power relations can leech away the financial benefits of networking for female entrepreneurs, who for example, are more likely to give than receive resources.

The beauty of using a digital framework in order to gain understanding of what is working and what isn’t is the immediacy of both information and therefore corrective measures that can be taken.  If this transparency of information that is being fed from the bottom up. This allows us to make the changes needed to ensure the journey remains on the right track.

marketplace-imageChallenges Marketplace is a great example of this. Aimed at creating both breadth and depth of understanding within value chains and investment circles, the specific function of Challenges Marketplace is to enable the operational, financial and impact performance of a social enterprise to be tracked and analysed over time. It allows the enterprise to track tailored KPIs based on a development plan for their organisation. Through tracking in this way managers can learn to read their management information and demonstrate they are responsive– making changes required to keep their enterprise on track. By separating these into Operations, Finance and Impact, Marketplace ensures that the enterprises it touches are growing sustainably - adapting to change and risk, whilst benefiting people who have historically been disadvantaged, excluded or exploited in the supply chain.

Capacity building

In Challenges case, in order to ensure that capacity building goes hand in hand with Marketplace platform growth, relevant learning material and enterprise-based work experience is made available at the coalface. Enterprises are encouraged to report and put the businesses online. This creates relevant training for youth enterprise volunteers placed within those businesses – while building reporting skills (i.e. financial) that will allow entrepreneurs to understand and growth their business more effectively. The fact that this is securely reported on a platform that is visible to potential investors and those further up the supply chain (with permission) is an excellent further incentive.

Indeed, the importance of this understanding being built in tandem with new technologies was brilliantly demonstrated by a study run by Makere university around Mobile Money– i.e. mobile money needs mobile phones, so in order for mobile money to be used successfully, studies have shown that there must be adequate mobile phone skills in place, it does not happen through osmosis.

Using digital systems to support entrepreneurial ecosystems doesn’t just add an extra layer of opportunity in for the enterprises. Identified trends can help governments and corporations create relevant regional policy, whilst creating a positive environment for inward investment. As a founder member of Access to Capital for Rural Enterprises (ACRE), Challenges aims to leverage impact investment in emerging economies. Working alongside four other NGOs (Christian Aid, Twin, Traidcraft and Practical Action) it looks to support motivation at every level of engagement – from the entrepreneur who wants to gain investment, to the person looking to gain relevant experience.


We are in a time of extreme change. It is not about what we know (as material is changing constantly) it is about how ably we are able to adapt what we know into what is needed. We need to have the motivation to engage, the tools to make our engagement effective and the confidence to transcend fear of failure.

We will not always understand each other. But, if we create a framework that enables the worlds of academia, business, public and private sector to contribute as shareholders, we will be creating a Rosetta stone that is able to connect us at a fundamental human level. It needs to encompass and effectively translate shared human stories and the measures and data that prove their worth. It will help us understand why universities are researching, what the private sector needs to create value chain momentum and how we as individuals can participate in a world that so often seems to spin beyond our reach.

It is our ultimate weapon in the battle for digital territory, with common values allowing us to positively harness the extreme impact of certain kinds of rare and unpredictable events. Because of the extreme reach of the internet, this Black Swan effect[1] has the potential for just one of us to set a ripple effect in motion. So, rather than sitting in our individual or collective silos, retrospectively navel gazing in private or through social media we are all in a position to contribute to the redistribution of power through technology.

As one philanthropist shared with me, he is investing in providing a safe learning space for hundreds of girls in emerging economies in the hope that one or even two might generate unexpected outliers that will be able to shape a collective future.

The first Iraqi billionaire, Faruk Mustafa Rasool built one of the country’s first wireless networks, something that under Saddam Hussein’s regime could have got him thrown in prison –as mobile phones were banned in order to isolate and better control the citizens of his totalitarian state.

The president of Costa Rica, who is also chair of the UN High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment is showing visionary leadership, laying fibre optic cables in tandem with gas pipelines - thus coming much closer to national, universal access to digital opportunity.

And even if we aren’t in positions of power or influence it is still possible for us all to focus on what we can actually do. We can decide that rather than being money making machines for the middlemen, we want to participate in a journey of discovery. At the very heart of this journey is the belief that if we contribute our knowledge, our networks and our time we may just catalyse the one occurrence that might mean our world might never look the same again. Moving beyond our comfort zones in this way is very definitely not safe, but is satisfying and might even present some sustainable money making opportunities along the way!

In the meantime, here's a really innovative way to get involved - but there's not much time. Expressions of interest need to be in by 30th November.  http://www.diasporaalliance.org/sustainable-diaspora-goals-sdgs-challenge/ 

[1] The Black Swan effect, Nassim Nicholas Taleb

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