In 1982, Vietnam was among the first countries in the world to ratify the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. This was at a time when the country had 73 percent of its female population participating in the labor force, which was one of the highest rates in Southeast Asia. Now, women continue to play a pivotal role in the Vietnamese economy, with 26.5 percent of all businesses in the country being owned by women. According to the Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs 2020, Vietnam ranks 9th out of the 58 countries studied when it comes to the number of women in leadership roles and labor force participation.

Nguyen Thi Be is one such enterprising Vietnamese woman. “I started my business because I want to provide a better life for my family. I learned through my journey that I also have personal ambitions that I want to achieve. In embracing my professional dreams, I have helped my family and found greater purpose in my life” says Ms. Be as she shares her triumphs and struggles with growing her guava business.

Having produce guavas in Thanh Hoa, Vietnam, since 2016, Ms. Be now has five full-time employees and 30 seasonal ones. She aspires to diversify and open a one-stop shop that showcases all the specialties from her province, including guava products. The economic effects of the pandemic have made realization of this goal di ffi cult, but she is forging a new pathway forward.

The choice to embrace her dreams was possible because Ms. Be borrowed credit from Thanh Hoa MFI, which has been digitizing its operational processes with the support of Canal Circle and CARE in Vietnam. Digitizing the borrower management system and loan application reduces the operational costs for Thanh Hoa MFI. In turn, the financial institution is better able to provide women entrepreneurs like Ms. Be access to loans that meet her business’ needs.

Ms. Be also participated in training to upskill herself, which enabled her to be confi dent in her business decision. This tough decision to borrow during uncertain economic times was made easier because Ms. Be has the full emotional support of her family. The risk paid off . Nguyen Thi Be – despite the ongoing challenges of the pandemic – is well on her way to achieving her growth target.

Nguyen Thi Be’s story – of exciting potential getting unlocked by access to the right resources – is one that Mastercard’s Winnie Wong is intimately familiar with. As the company’s Country Manager for Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and having worked in Southeast Asia for many years, she’s seen women of all backgrounds from across the region working, and oft entimes struggling, to realize their entrepreneurial dreams. “To achieve their professional goals, many women benefi t from access to business networks that connect them to customers, open access to tailored fi nancial services, and provide emotional and business acumen support,” she says. “Resources like these are crucial for converting an idea into a successful job-creating company.”

It’s this resource gap that CARE is trying to close. Through an innovative program called Ignite which is supported by the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, CARE is pioneering a new approach to bolstering women entrepreneurs’ access to these networks. The Ignite program focuses on:

Better financial services: CARE partners with forward-thinking financial service providers, such as VP Bank and Canal Circle to better serve the needs of women entrepreneurs. Through a private sector collaborative model, women entrepreneurs have greater access to tailored to larger loan amounts, flexible repayment terms and reduced collateral requirements. Participating financial service providers can test alternative digital delivery channels and adapt marketing materials.

Upskilling for women entrepreneurs: Working directly with women entrepreneurs, CARE empowers them to make the best decision for the growth of their individual businesses. The wrap-around training for women business leaders focuses on building their digital skills, strengthening their business practices, providing mentoring advice, and fostering stronger professional network connections.”

Community support: CARE and partners are working to unlock the full economic potential of women as business leaders by launching an outreach campaign to expand societal and familial encouragement of women entrepreneurs. Both implicit and explicit expectations of what a woman’s role is can be either barriers to or ignitors of prosperity.

CARE’s women-centered approach to building impact-focused private sector partnerships is an innovative way to reach scale. By helping to evolve “business-as-usual” practices and tailoring products to women entrepreneurs, the Ignite program is delivering tangible impacts. According to research, there is a fi nancing gap of over US$1 billion for Vietnamese women entrepreneurs. This is despite women-led businesses on average earning the same in revenue as men-owned ones. The need for products designed and marketed to women entrepreneurs is important to closing the opportunity gap and removing this obstacle to small business growth. Through the Ignite program, CARE has developed key private sector partnerships to develop and refine financial solutions for women business leaders.

CARE is also directly upskilling women entrepreneurs to enable them to adapt to a pandemic operating environment, to go digital, to access new customers and markets, and to find mentors. Accommodating the busy work-home balance of women business owners, CARE promoted the HerVenture training app that facilitates women’s access to skills-building while on the go. It features six learning tracks targeted toward a range of needs, including launching a business, product innovation and expanding market access. This was a service that Nguyen Thi Hien turned to when she wanted to expand her fermented pork business, called Truong Foods. “I decided that, to grow my business, I needed to expand overseas,” says Ms. Hien. “While I needed financial capital, I also needed the digital skills and e-commerce know-how. The training provided through Ignite enabled me to take the next step in becoming an exporter.”

Simultaneously, CARE has launched an innovative social awareness campaign called Umbrellas of Pride to celebrate the accomplishments of women business leaders. Inspiring pride among young women, men, families, and communities about Vietnamese women’s accomplishments fosters a more supportive ecosystem that in turn empowers women entrepreneurs to realize their full potential.

According to a recent analysis, 92.3% Vietnamese men agreed that a woman’s role is to take care of family and be strong support for husband’s career. “Vietnamese women are very strong and are active contributors in the labor force. Despite this, perceptions about their role as primarily care givers and cheerleaders for their husbands persist” says Le Kim Dung, Country Director of CARE Vietnam. “To achieve a fair and just society where everyone can achieve their personal best, we need to evolve our thinking about a women’s primary contribution. We need to celebrate her professional accomplishments because when a women business leader is successful it is good for the entire community.” The recently launched orange umbrella campaign is a visual reminder that women-owned businesses are a source of pride for the nation and for their families.

Mastercard is showcasing the learnings from the Ignite program with practitioners, who are on the forefront of inclusive economic growth. Through sharing CARE’s insights, particularly around how to develop impact-focused partnerships with the private sector, Mastercard helps foster a movement to shape economies where everyone, everywhere can realize their full potential. The Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth with the Aspen Institute will convene a global summit in October where all practitioners are invited to join the conversation. Only through collaboration will we enable women entrepreneurs such as Nguyen Thi Be and Nguyen Thi Hien to excel and build an inclusive society that off ers opportunity for all.