Assessing Cities Around the World for Female Entrepreneurs

Ever since the end of the aughts, Dell has been running a project that revolves around supporting female entrepreneurs: the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network (DWEN). Around that time, the question often arose – not least in the wake of the financial crisis – as to how enterprises could return to increased growth. One potential answer: companies led by women.

group of women at the 2017 Dell Womens Entrepreneur Network DWEN Summit in San Francisco

The World Bank and the World Economic Forum drew the conclusion that female entrepreneurs could be decisive in effecting a shift towards increased growth in the global economy. This is because, taken as a total, female entrepreneurs possess economic power roughly equivalent to those of China and India combined. That vast resource should not be left untapped.

However, research into this area also indicated that female executives and entrepreneurs often do not actually play the roles that they could in the economy. In most cases, this has nothing to do with the fact that women are often hindered or thwarted in their work. Usually, their inability to reach their full potential is due to ‘static’ framework conditions that have a negative impact. For example, these include disadvantages in access to capital or markets, or poor access to other resources such as technology or ‘the best and brightest’ staff – to say nothing of women’s need to catch up with their male counterparts in terms of informal networking, a phenomenon that I can confirm from personal experience. In the established business networks that men have often built up over many years, an ‘old boys club’ attitude still prevails – which, of course, nobody would ever actually admit out loud.

That is why DWEN has, from the very start, operated as an international networking platform for women in leadership positions, forming a network and community of like-minded women that also opens up direct access to valuable resources. At the many and highly popular annual DWEN meetings, which have been held at sites including New Delhi, India, Cape Town, South Africa, Berlin, Germany, and, recently, San Francisco, we lived up to our promise and created a platform for making new contacts, one that women use to share their professional experiences. DWEN is a success story; and since women still aren’t where they could – and should – be in the business world, it will continue to serve as an important stimulus towards making that happen.

Addressing factors on a local scale: DWEN’s WE Cities Index

Of course, DWEN has not contented itself with merely building an international networking platform. Another pillar of the work we do – in the broadest sense – is lobbying for female entrepreneurs. We want to instill within decision-makers in the fields of business and politics a sense of how important a role women-led companies can play in the global economy.

Our effort towards this end particularly includes the Women Entrepreneur Cities (WE Cities) Index, which was informed by numerous experiences gathered through the DWEN campaign.

WE Cities takes a different focus – as its name suggests, instead of focusing on countries, it focuses on cities. The WE Cities Index evaluates various cities’ potential for female entrepreneurs. It is a gender-specific index that researches the conditions for companies founded by women in the respective cities. The index also makes it possible to summarize the effects of local politics and measures for promoting women at the workplace.

Of course, since studies are always bound to a certain scope, only a limited selection of cities could be taken into account: 50 cities in total were researched and evaluated along the criteria of access to capital, technology, education, and markets, as well as cultural factors. Out of 72 indicators in total, 45 had a gender-specific component.

The 50 cities were selected for their general, gender-independent reputations as hubs of innovation, as well as for geographical aspects – in other words, these are cities from all parts of the world.

Two German cities were included in the index: Berlin and Munich. Berlin took 21st place in the overall ranking; in the ‘Markets’ category it attained 8th place, and took an impressive third for costs of technology. Meanwhile, Munich only took 31st place in the overall ranking. The Bavarian state capital came away in 13th place in ‘Culture’ and a mere 42nd in access to capital.

I want to strongly discourage against conceiving of the selected cities as being in a competition for the best spots, turning the index into a mere comparison of figures, and obsessing over where we stand. It is far, far more important that the (political) powers that be in the selected cities take the data and information from the WE Cities Index as a tool that they can use to critically assess and review their own efforts towards promoting female entrepreneurs. The index is meant to serve as a way of identifying needs for optimization.

I also do not wish to address the individual results and the rankings of the 50 cities at this point in time. Instead, I would prefer to point out two things that I found particularly interesting.

  • Firstly, there is a great deal of room to improve. Although New York City came in first in the overall ranking, at 63 out of a potential 100 points, even number one has significant potential for optimization. NYC is still a long way away from being an ideal city for female executives and entrepreneurs. In other words, nothing is set in stone.
  • Secondly, the rankings in the individual categories vary widely – no one city is leading the way in terms of all criteria, and no one city is bringing up the rear on all fronts, either. For example, Lima, the Peruvian capital, is lagging far behind in terms of access to capital, but offers comparatively good opportunities for market access. This means that even lower-ranking cities have areas in which they are doing well.

Taken as a whole, WE Cities shows that there remains a great deal of work to be done – women stand to achieve more than is currently the case. The digital transformation represents a vast entrepreneurial challenge, one that calls for drawing upon all available resources. No society can afford to leave valuable resources – such as a qualified female workforce – untapped.