Valrie Grant had just landed one of her biggest government contracts when she walked into the Kingston, Jamaica, bank three years ago seeking a million-dollar loan so she could seal the deal.
Instead of a receptive welcome, however, the founder of a geographic information systems company received an all-too-familiar reception for women entrepreneurs in the region: the brush-off.
“The bankers looked at me and said, ‘Are you sure you aren’t suffering from overgrowth?’” said Grant, whose GeoTechVision Enterprises had won a bid to bring E-learning into Jamaica’s classrooms and is currently mapping Guyana’s shoreline. “I told them the only thing I was suffering from was the fact that I had a team of talented persons, and we just did not have the financing to execute the contract in hand.”
Grant would eventually get the financing the old-fashioned way, from family and friends. Last year, as she became the region’s most celebrated woman in business at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta — she was named Commonwealth Woman Entrepreneur of the Year — she remembered her struggle and began thinking about how to use her new status to help Caribbean women raise much-needed capital.
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“Being a woman entrepreneur is tough,” said Grant, who enlisted the help of friend and fellow entrepreneur Cecile Watson, the founder of pitchandchoose.com, a Caribbean-focused crowdfunding platform. “Sometimes you have to put in 300 percent, you have to work much harder … [But] it’s via entrepreneurship that we are going to get out of some of the problems that we have.”
This September the two women, with the help of the Commonwealth Businesswomen’s Network that gave Grant the award, will launch the first Commonwealth-wide crowdfunding campaign, FundRiseHER. Its goal: to raise $1 million to benefit 50 women entrepreneurs from at least 10 Caribbean countries, including Cuba and Haiti.
“This is about entrepreneurs supporting entrepreneurs, and we believe that it is necessary for the entrepreneurs who have done well to actually pay it forward,” said Grant, who has clients in 15 Caribbean countries and offices in Jamaica and Guyana, where she pitched the initiative to several Caribbean leaders earlier this month. “The group of entrepreneurs who are going to be beneficiaries, we want them to have that same kind of mindset as well.”
Women-owned entities represent more than 30 percent of registered businesses worldwide, according to the World Bank’s International Financial Corporation. But women around the globe continue to face a wide range of barriers, the financial institution said. Only about 10 percent of women entrepreneurs, for example, have access to the capital needed to grow their businesses.
Still, while crowdfunding has become a popular vehicle in developed economies such as the United States and the United Kingdom with platforms like GoFundMe and KickStarter, the idea of an online fundraising platform is still in its infancy in the Caribbean.
Watson, who founded pitchandchoose.com in 2013, said FundRiseHER is not only an opportunity to elevate women, but also to show that internet fundraising can work in a region where traditional financing remains difficult following the 2008 global financial crisis.
“When I got started on this journey to build pitch and choose, it came from a place of recognizing that we’re dealing with a couple of challenges within the region,” said Watson, who is from Barbados but based in Jamaica. “Governments were indebted. Corporate sponsorships were down. Our entrepreneurs were always talking about access to capital being a challenge. The multilateral donor agencies were not providing the levels of funding that they were doing. Unemployment was also rising.”
She noted that a World Bank report, “Crowdfunding’s Potential for the Developing World,” projects that by 2025, crowdfunding will be a worldwide industry of $93 billion — with about $11 billion from Latin America and the Caribbean.
“The power of crowdfunding is so much more than just that type of charitable, individualistic need. The real power comes when we can actually provide funding for entrepreneurs,” said Watson, an engineer and former regional banker.
Watson believes crowdfunding also could harness some of the billions of dollars in remittances sent to the Caribbean annually. It’s a matter of educating the “masses on how we can use this kind of funding to bring capital not only from the diaspora, but globally from friends,” she said.
The FundRiseHER campaign will allow donors to match funds and receive rewards from local entrepreneurs who are part of the initiative. The focus will be on high-growth areas such as green technology, climate change mitigation, agro-processing and creative industries. Winners will receive grants of between $10,000 and $25,000 to help their businesses, plus “expert guidance” to achieve their goals.
“At the end of the day we are looking to grow economies,” Watson said. “We want to to be able to tell the story coming out of this, ‘This is the impact that we have had.’”
Arif Zaman, executive director of the Commonwealth Businesswomen’s Network, said the first-of-its-kind initiative responds to one of the most pressing needs — access to financial resources — facing women entrepreneurs both in the Caribbean region and in the Commonwealth, countries once formerly part of the British empire.
“One in three people on the planet is from a Commonwealth country — 2.6 billion people,” said Zaman, who plans to help launch the campaign in Asia and Africa in 2017 and 2018. “Forty-four percent of the world’s poorest women live in these Commonwealth countries.”
And of the 1 billion women in those countries, he said, 60 percent are under 30 years old. “So we have a big opportunity to tap this appetite for entrepreneurship and the opportunities that can be provided.”
Baroness Patricia Janet Scotland, who earlier this year became the first woman to serve as Commonwealth secretary-general, said she welcomes “opportunities to make sure that equality really means equality and finding ways in which we can work together.”
Zaman said he believes FundRiseHER can give the Caribbean and women the kind of visibility that Scotland also has been pushing for in her new role.
There are small and medium-size enterprises, he said, “with high growth potential but are not getting the capital from microfinance. They are not getting the support from traditional financing.”
The program will focus on those “trapped in the middle,” he said.“This is a solutions-based approach to a problem, not just reciting the litany of what we can’t do but what we can do.”