What is the WIEF Businesswomen Network?

MOHAMAD: The WBN, or the WIEF Businesswomen Network, was established when we had our first WIEF meeting in 2005. At that time, there was only just a panel of discussions held by women. It’s just a group of women as panelists. Then we were pleasantly surprised when the men stood up and said that we cannot put aside this very important economic asset called women. So we must have a kind of a 100% subsidiary of WIEF to look into ways of increasing the economic position and power of women, empowering the women essentially. It was then decided that we will not be focusing too much on the big, big corporation, but they can be there as examples for the others. But essentially, we were trying to develop small entrepreneurs, small businesswomen because that is the real meaning of empowering women.

What are some of the milestones the WBN has achieved since inception in 2005?

MOHAMAD: We have had several programs specifically for women, and again, we started off with something very simple and very basic and that is to cultivate entrepreneurship in women; to enlighten them that business is the way forward, and not just being dependent as a salary worker with the government or with anyone else as an employee, but to groom them to make them aware that the best way to go forward to gain economic independence is to start your own business, small, medium, or even tiny. There is a start to everything.

We have had many workshops just in calculating this for women, how to do business, how to keep the finances properly, more than just bookkeeping, how to introduce innovation into the product and the marketing system, for example. But the best thing that we have conjured and actually provided for the women under the Businesswomen Network is what we call web reach internet marketing. Because even though we talk about internet marketing all the time, most of them they have no clue to what it is. So when we introduced this web reach internet marketing to them we have seen tremendous success that has done us really proud.

For example, we just invited these women who are just doing things from their house, small products, including having a spa in the house, providing massages for people who are ill or just for the sake of healthcare. After just four days of teaching them how to do it, how to use the internet, and how to sort of market, really market, the products, on the fourth day or the fifth day that they set up, they posted to the web, they have the website and there was an increase of 100% to 400% in their business within four days and this is not a joke, its serious.

One lady who said “The spa comes to you”, that means she goes to where you are wherever the clients are and she had to immediately after one week increase the number of therapy providers for her. One lady in Kenya who started what we call the garage internet area, she does maintenance and repair work of the car in her garage but at the side she has an internet café and it became so popular once she posted to the web on the internet you know there was a 400% increase in her business. So these are just specific examples of what happened.

You know when you talk about milestones you tend to think of the big things. Have they gone for listing, an IPO? No. What we went is for them to grow from very simple business to a much higher business platform that will give them a much improved intake of income for them from month to month, from year to year, that will not just fulfill their needs but that of the family, of the community, and eventually the country itself. So this is our ambition. This is our aim.

What are your goals for the WBN going forward?

MOHAMAD: We have had all these workshops, especially the web reach internet marketing, at the original level. That means we’ve gone to Kenya, we’ve gone to Indonesia, we’ve gone to Morocco for example. The demand for these courses, simple as they are, is tremendous and we have people are in the queue to take our courses, our workshops. Our ambition and our goal is really to increase the number of participants and to increase, location wise, where we will be having our workshops. That means at the original level it’s going to be much more important than just in Malaysia.

But Malaysia can also provide the original needs because the Southeast Asian countries are quite widespread and Indonesia alone has a population of 260m, half of which are women. So we are not exclusive to just Muslim women, we provide all these to others as well, non-Muslims as well. Because you learn entrepreneurship, you learn about business from all the others as well, and you trade not just with the Muslims, but with everyone else as well. So we’re expanding the market for these women. Basically, it is really providing a world market for them rather than just a small community market. So the women really found this amazing.

How will the theme of the 10th annual WIEF, “Innovative Partnerships for Economic Growth”, be incorporated into the WBN’s program?

MOHAMAD: When you talk about products, there are a lot of ways to innovate the product, to make it much more interesting, to enhance the quality of the product, and of course, the packaging is innovative. Now we had to also introduce an innovative marketing system. The package that you provide for your clients, for example, is just the normal transaction, I give you the product, and then you make the payment, and that’s done.

No, we might also provide other things like you get for me extra clients, I will give you certain discounts on the products that I am providing you. All these innovative ideas and introduction of technology, for example, will certainly enhance your production system. The quality will be enhanced and of course the way that it’s produced, the output, the production can be done much faster for example. And if it was done manually before, when you introduce new innovative ideas and new technology that can make do with less labor but with just a new machine for example, that can help you produce much more at a better quality.

How are steps being taken to develop a sustainable peer network to facilitate the rise of women entrepreneurs?

MOHAMAD: We have, and I’m just talking purely about WBN first, we have a huge database of women entrepreneurs, especially those that have participated at our workshops, either just a pure economic workshop teaching you how to do financing, teaching you how to make a submission to the bank, how to procure a loan for example, or the internet marketing workshops.

Now, we are going to introduce a new product called “Awesome”, where we can really enhance the capability of women in the small and medium sized economy, which means we are growing from small, tiny family enterprises, to a much higher level, and then to the SMEs with the help of the big corporations, women who are leaders in the corporate world and in the business world. We have had a lot of cooperation coming from them. So this peer network will start basically from the data that we already have of our participants. So when they meet, they actually found a market for each other for different products.

This was exactly what happened at the various workshops. You know, one of them started to become an agent for the product of one lady from Surabaya for example, and one lady from Surabaya found a market in Yemen for example for some very simple textile. Now the mood is the hijab for example, but very stylish way of hijabing yourself if I can use the word. This has grown in popularity and I must say that women just in this area have grown so enthusiastic in whatever they’re doing.

I think enthusiasm is one very positive element to build up a businesswoman or an entrepreneur. Now with all the peer networking, mentoring also, it certainly will be a big help to the women, especially those that are just on the startups. So I think we don’t talk about big, huge forum for women or big huge workshops. No, but just workshops for women of 50 or 40 and the interaction and the responsiveness is much more positive than just a big forum where it can just become pure talk shop.

What needs to be done to empower women and enable women to take corporate leaderships roles?

MOHAMAD: You’re talking about women in the C-suite they call it right? In Malaysia for example, or in Indonesia, you’d be surprised, without talking too loudly about it, there are so many of them already in the C-suite and of course we want the number to grow. For Malaysia, the target is at least 30%. I think there is a lot of talk about women being there at the top management, but it is not evolving as much or growing as much as we would like to see it happen. However, in certain countries like in Malaysia, for example, it grows organically, which means we believe that the cream will always come to the top.

Whether you like it or not, you recognize a talent, you recognize the capability and competence in someone, be it a woman or a man, and you would take him or her on board. Of course, in Malaysia, we have this 30% requirement for women directors to be sitting on the board. It’s not happening as fast but it has happened and much more than we had thought it possibly could. But we wanted it to happen much more. But in the other countries, we need to always convince men, and I always say this as a joke, women have evolved so much faster than the men. So they need to recognize now that these women have got great talents and you need to have them on your board or in the top management.

I think eventually people will realize that diversity in management, diversity on the Board of Directors, is valuable because the women give the women’s perspective of products or services and not just the men’s. After all, I think Mackenzie has said 80% of consumption and consumption decision are made by women. So you know you can’t have a car with a seat that only fits John. It has to be a car that is going to be decided by Jane, for example. So you have to adopt these because these are needs, these are imperatives in anything that you do, services, products, management, or whatever else, because you know 50% of the population of the world consists of women. So women’s perspective, women concentration, their needs and their wants must be taken into any policy decisions that is undertaken by any company or any country.