Building an Entrepreneurship Ecosystem for Women in Mongolia www.asiafoundation.org
For many Mongolians, the booming capital, Ulaanbaatar, is synonymous with economic opportunity and a new life. Half the population now lives in the capital, most of them in the so-called ger areas, unplanned districts often lacking essential infrastructure like water and electricity and isolated from commercial activity. Starting a business here and keeping it running is hard, and even harder for women. Yet, with women comprising nearly 40 percent of the country’s entrepreneurs, Mongolia’s economic future is tied to their ability to participate in the marketplace.
While the female-to-male ratio of labor-force participation in the formal sector is relatively high in Mongolia compared to other countries in the region, women in business still face steep challenges in acquiring business skills, developing networks, and securing financing.
Take 27-year-old Undrakh, who started her handicraft business several years ago in her home but struggled to sell her products. Although full of passion, she lacked the skills at the outset to keep accounts, market her products, establish sales channels, and understand customer feedback—it was all uncharted water. Living in a ger area, she faced the constant challenge of traveling with large and unwieldy baskets to deliver to customers, a few at a time, in the city center.
Fast-forward to today, and Undrakh has a registered LLC with a well-appointed studio office in the center of Ulaanbaatar, two assistants, and a steady stream of regular orders from bigger businesses.
Undrakh is one of 28 graduates of Mongolia’s first-ever Women’s Business Center and Incubator Project, funded by the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) and The Asia Foundation’s Lotus Circle. The WBC supports a growing number of women business owners like Undrakh by providing high-quality business support services and an enabling environment for women entrepreneurs.
Since opening in 2016, the WBC has trained over 5,000 women and developed a regular client base of 2,000 entrepreneurs. For clients like Undrakh, the center is valuable not only for its high-quality business support and development services, but also for its open environment, where women from all walks of life gather to share information and exchange ideas.
While business-support centers do exist in Mongolia, the WBC stands alone in addressing the unique needs of women entrepreneurs, particularly single mothers and those with disabilities or from low-income groups. Close partnerships with grassroots service organizations allow the project to attract participants from marginalized communities, who are typically excluded from capacity-building efforts. Services include basic and intermediate business training and one-on-one advising, finance training and consulting, a coworking space, a business library, and a children’s playroom.
The WBC’s flagship initiative is an accelerated business incubator providing an intense four-month, tailored, business-development program to selected women entrepreneurs. The incubator offers participants a wide range of opportunities with practical, positive outcomes. Five to nine women are chosen for each class—28 women have graduated from the incubator to date—and the selection process has become increasingly competitive.
The program provides four stages of intensive business support: product development, identifying target clients and developing marketing strategy, achieving successful market penetration, and establishing binding contracts with investors and larger vendors. Incubator participants also have access to regularly organized pop-up-shop events and other sales or investment opportunities. Those without their own office may use the incubator at no cost while in the program. This four months of intensive development becomes a platform for networking and companionship, and alumni often return to the center to help other women.
The WBC has been recognized domestically and internationally, most recently by a visit from President Khaltmaagiin Battulga on May 14. The president met with incubator graduates to discuss their challenges and achievements, viewing their various products and expressing support for women’s economic empowerment.
The WBC’s social impact can be measured in the lives of its clients: women who are creating employment opportunities for other women, shifting from informal cottage enterprises to formal businesses, and experiencing higher self-esteem and improved status in their communities. As the most active network of women entrepreneurs in Ulaanbaatar, the WBC is helping to create a vigorous ecosystem of Mongolian women entrepreneurs.
Amarzaya Naran is The Asia Foundation’s project manager for the Women’s Business Center and Incubator Project in Mongolia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Soomin Jun is the Women’s Business Center and Incubator Project consultant in Mongolia. She can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.