Speaking from the heart: Empowering women to share business ideas

According to most studies, people’s number one fear is not death, but public speaking. Damchae Dem was no different. Her heart raced as she stared out at a sea of faces eager to hear her idea for how to improve the lives of rural young people in Bhutan.

“I felt like I was drowning and kept asking myself: how and why did I keep putting myself into such situations?” she says.

“But I felt the strength of the EIF team as they encouraged me to stand strong and speak from my heart.”

Dem, who is the Executive Director of the Bhutan Association of Women Entrepreneurs (BAOWE), was one of three women entrepreneurs who pitched a business idea during a Dragons’ Den plenary session as part of the first Global Forum on Inclusive Trade for Least Developed Countries (LDCs) organized by the Enhanced Integrated Framework from 13-14 June.

Dragons’ den-type events see entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to a panel of investors (known as the ‘dragons’) in the hope of securing investment finance from them. Once the pitch has been delivered, the dragons probe the idea further with questions to determine whether they are interested in investing in it or not.

It’s a format that is increasingly being used at conferences, both to inject new energy into the panel presentation plenary format, as well as to showcase new ideas that might not otherwise be given a platform to be heard.

The art of asking

The Enhanced Integrated Framework supports least developed countries improve their supply of products to the global market, strengthening employment, tackling poverty and taking vital steps forward in terms of socio-economic development.

EIF has been working with hundreds of entrepreneurs for the past few years, to help them build and implement strategies for brand promotion, participate in regional and international trade fairs, improve in processing capabilities and value addition as well as provide support to cooperatives.

“We saw the Global Forum as not only a good opportunity to showcase ideas from organisations with a demonstrated track record and high potential, but also to develop the capacities of these entrepreneurs to pitch to potential funding partners,” says Violeta Gonzalez, EIF’s Head for Partnerships, Outreach and Resource Mobilization and one of the main organizers of the dragons’ den.

The three entrepreneurs were given tailored support to ensure their pitches could be summarized in four slides and delivered in less than five minutes. A series of online and face-to-face coaching sessions with experienced presenters prior to the dragons’ den as well as guiding materials, helped them master the art of asking – ensuring their pitches were clear, concise, and backed up by financials.

“This was something special for me as it was my first time doing a dragons’ den and actually pitching my business idea. The preparation really helped me improve my pitch structure, remove irrelevant information and be clear about the financials,”said Alberta Vitale, Associate Director of Women in Business Development (WIBDI) in Samoa.

In her pitch, Vitale spoke of her organisation’s success in strengthening village economies by helping 796 coconut farmers in 183 villages earn 600,000 Samoan Tala (US$227,000) by producing organically certified coconut oil.

While Samoa’s raw coconut oil is well regarded in the industry (corporations like the Body Shop buy coconut oil from Samoa even though there are many other coconut oil producers closer by), the country still remains relatively isolated from international markets.

Instead of seeing this as an obstacle, Vitale shared how it can be an opportunity to engage with vulnerable communities and ensure the products meet the highest quality standards, given the growing global demand for coconut oil. She asked the dragons for US$50,000 to support a 20-ton increase in production of organic certified coconut oil as well as to access new markets, particularly cosmetic companies.

The dragons were impressed with her pitch – particularly in how she was able to showcase how her business had market demand and that she clearly knew her numbers.

Vitale says that the dragons’ den experience has also helped her organization.

“I have applied the skills I gained by coaching a younger staff member to pitch a business idea at a recent forum,” she says.

Empowering women entrepreneurs

Supporting the participation of women in international trade is high on most government and development partner agendas and there is increasing recognition that one of the key ways to do this is to support women entrepreneurs.

Yet, despite this, women entrepreneurs still face many barriers. According to a report by the UN Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) even though more and more women are starting businesses globally, they still manage fewer businesses than men, and run businesses that are in less profitable sectors, that grow more slowly and are ultimately more likely to fail.

Given this, the dragons’ den was designed with women’s empowerment in mind.

“It was great to have a woman-focused event – women presenters and at least half women panelists,” says Heather Ducharme, International Sustainable Sourcing Manager at The Body Shop and who was one of the dragons.

The focus on women was also a key factor for pitcher Damchae Dem overcoming her fear of public speaking.

“It was the faces of women back home struggling to make ends meet, the hope and trust they had in me that made me overcome my fear. It felt good to know that our well-being mattered,” she says.

“My lack of schooling didn’t hinder me, but made me realize that I am author of poverty through first hand experience… I stood there amongst strangers, purposeful and fearless for I carried with me the aspirations of not only women from Bhutan but every woman shackled by poverty.”

And so Dem pitched her idea: a project in Thimphu, Bhutan that offers two-year apprenticeships for youth to learn technical skills to grow herbs, turmeric, mushrooms and more, with a focus of remaining mindful of their environment and of their impact on the world.

Valuable learnings

While there weren’t any declarations of funding made during the dragons’ den, the EIF are hoping to link the pitched ideas with potential government bilateral development assistance funding, says Gonzalez.

Ducharme also saw the opportunity to pursue connections with international agencies to “leverage their contacts, knowledge and funding more efficiently in the Body Shop’s smallholder supply chain activities.”

There were also other valuable learnings for those involved.

Dragons and pitchers suggested that future events have more dragons from the private sector and developing country organizations and that pitchers are given a coach/advocate or sponsor who could help them work towards a successful funding match.

After delivering her pitch, Damchae Dem went into her daily meditation practice where she was able to reflect on the significance of the ten minutes she had just experienced.

“Life has always been my teacher and at the dragons den I have learnt one of the biggest lessons – focus,” Dem says.

“I realized how grateful I was for the amazing opportunity presented to me. To be exposed to my peers and gain from their wisdom. To appreciate the kindness shown to me by strangers. To understand that my fear was, in fact, my judgment of myself.”

Watch a recording of the dragons’ den plenary session here.