March 8

Nathan Rauh-Bieri

‘I Know Where I’m Going’: Lessons from the ‘Vital Voices’ Accelerator for Female Entrepreneurs

In a world that craves instant results, growth takes time. This is particularly true in entrepreneurship, where imagining and launching a business is no guarantee it will succeed.

The long pathway to growing a business is illustrated by the experiences of five women whose journeys I’ve followed over the past year and a half. We chatted when they first began the Vital Voices GROW Fellowship, a one-year accelerator program for women-owned businesses. We spoke again after the virtual training phase of this fellowship, after the in-person training phase, and after the final growth services and support phase.

I recently checked in with each fellow for a final report on the fellowship’s impact on their businesses. Amid busy schedules, each paused and took a look back, a look around, and a look forward:


Isabelle L. Mevs is the co-founder and CEO of Stars Industries S.A. (SISA), a food company that manufactures a variety of products  particularly hot sauce  using local Haitian ingredients. 


What’s happened in the last six months?

We have followed the action plan we created [during the Fellowship] and reached around 85-90 percent of our goals.

The challenges are the same: the political situation, the devaluation of money. There was also Hurricane Matthew, which destroyed the southern part of Haiti, where most of our suppliers were located. We suffered from their loss.

How do you pay it forward?

I trained a group of suppliers who are women from rural areas to help them organize their businesses. We have chosen twelve as a trial group. If it works, we will expand.

After Hurricane Matthew, we supplied the group seedlings, to help them get back on track. We as partners are guaranteeing we will buy their supply.

What are the fellowship’s greatest benefits?

Control. I have control of the business. I have learned to assess, choose a growth strategy, and create an action plan. I know where I am, and I know where I’m going.

What advice would you give to your pre-fellowship self?

You learn so much from these networking groups. It’s like a gold mine of resources. I stay in contact with the other fellows and we exchange a lot of information. It is very rewarding to see what these ladies are able to achieve and be part of that.

What are you looking forward to?

I am looking to export my products.


Claudia Esparza is the founder and general manager of Nanas & Amasan employment agency in Lima that connects families with trusted domestic workers; gives working mothers space to develop careers; promotes domestic work as a dignified job; and advocates for domestic workers’ rights.

Claudi Esparza Patino

What’s happened in the last six months?

My team is stronger than ever. Our sales are growing. We’re engaged with people who trust us. I feel more committed than ever to spread what we are doing.

We have connected with journalists, politicians and community leaders to spread our message of promoting domestic work as an opportunity to provide better living wages. It’s amazing: people hear what we are doing and planning to do, and they immediately engage with us.

What were the fellowship’s greatest benefits?

Confidence in what I am doing. (Also) the opportunity to make great friends. We are connected and still share our experiences, even though we started over a year ago. Whether bad or good, we share experiences with one another. We as women can make changes wherever we are if we are connected.

Was there a learning tool that especially helped?

The BMC (Business Model Canvas) helps you to focus on what you want without a lot of words and numbers.

What advice would you give to your pre-fellowship self?

Enjoy the way. Commit 100 percent to what you believe. And always remember to pay it forward.

What are you looking forward to?

We are getting ready to start franchising this year – in Chile this coming June. We are going to launch a media campaign for Domestic Workers’ Day (March 30). We have plans to open an office in every Latin American country by 2025.

I am (also) planning to write a book on this idea that domestic work is a tool for prosperity, not just something to advocate for, but to empower domestic workers.


Laureen Rwatirera is co-founder and vice president of learning solutions, Accelerate Performance Consultants, a Johannesburg training and consulting company. Accelerate provides internal human resources and learning and development services to state-owned, nonprofit and for-profit clients.

Laureen Rwatirera

What’s happened in the last six months?

We launched Accelerate HR, which provides HR solutions for small businesses. ([It] didn’t take as well as it could have because a lot of companies are experiencing an economic downturn here. We still think it’s a good opportunity, it’s just a bad time for a lot of small businesses.)

Just after that, I was approached by a global investment company to run their global learning academy. I said, let me give it a shot. (Now) I’m…working remotely and providing input and support [to Accelerate]. This role allows me to increase my network on a global scale, as well as support lots of businesses around the world.

Transitioning in my role (from Accelerate) forced me to empower others more.

How do you pay it forward?

We help other entrepreneurs in the training/consulting space become more effective.

What are the fellowship’s greatest benefits?

The quality of the materials, the quality of the learning, which was immediately applicable.

One facilitator spoke about your “special sauce” – your value proposition for any role you have. The fellowship helped me clarify what the “special sauce” is for Accelerate Performance.


VV GROW Fellowship Process & Content Areas

VV GROW Fellowship Process & Content Areas



What advice would you give to your pre-fellowship self?

Give your all for every activity. When you really put in the time, you get so much more.

What are you looking forward to?

Our sights have turned from growing Accelerate Performance; our focus is now on helping other companies make that kind of impact. I am hoping that will spiral into something bigger and better that really transforms the African continent.


Lina Khalifeh is the founder of and trainer at SheFighter, the first self-defense training studio in Jordan designed to empower women both physically and psychologically. 

Lina Khalifeh

What’s happened in the last six months?

SheFighter is still growing. We are providing training of trainers workshops every month, so we have now more than 150 trainers all over Jordan. We have partnered with the International Rescue Committee to provide training for refugees in three areas in Jordan.

I have participated at One Young World with actress Emma Watson and I have provided a Self-Defense session for her and talked about us in her social media. I have also delivered a TEDx talk in Prague.

What are the fellowship’s greatest benefits?

Great network of women and training in financials.

Was there a learning tool that especially helped?

“Planning for Growth” and “Mobilizing Markets” content areas. [Note: fellows engage on these and three other content areas (see graphic above) throughout the fellowship’s duration.]

What advice would you give to your pre-Fellowship self?

Follow your heart, it knows better than you do.

What are you looking forward to?

Expanding into the Gulf area (Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait) then to more countries in 2018. 


Saudat Salami runs Easyshop Easycook Services Limited, a company that provides customized online fresh food delivery targeted at working women in Lagos who do not have the time to shop. 

Saudat Salami

What’s happened in the last six months?

Nigeria is going through a recession, so business is not as vibrant as expected. Notwithstanding, we were able to keep our doors open and find creative ways to continue till the economy recovers.

I participated in various proposed initiatives that will help develop the value chain, create jobs for the youth and women, reduce food waste in the system, and create wealth for the stakeholders. We are hopeful that our proposals will bear fruit.

What are the fellowship’s greatest benefits?

Tools to better organize my business, and a network of women that come together to support each other.

How do you pay it forward?

We are supporting the smallholder farmers we are patronizing. If they know how to plan their business properly, they can grow. Based on the things I have learned, I can help them. We link them to training that will help them improve their practices.

What advice would you give to your pre-fellowship self?

Don’t doubt yourself.

What are you looking forward to?

My goals have not changed; the method of achieving them keeps changing due to new information or external forces beyond my control. The fellowship has given me the tools to keep going till I actualize my goals.



This series has provided a look at how a fellowship has helped five businesswomen navigate unique challenges and opportunities. These five are creative, persistent and strategic as they deal with changing markets conditions, political unrest, social upheaval, currency devaluation and ever-present social barriers.

Before identifying lessons from their valuable narrative accounts, it is important to discuss the quantitative, longer-term impact of a training program like the Vital Voices GROW Fellowship. For two years post-program, Vital Voices measures both the economic and social outcomes achieved by its fellows, which together provide an overall understanding of women’s economic empowerment (including: a belief in self, access to resources, retention of knowledge, building of skills, and the ability and choice to act). Vital Voices monitors and evaluates changes in business sales and employment, changes in business, confidence and connections gained through the fellowship, and pay-it-forward activities in order to assess how acumen gained during the program is being applied during and after the fellowship. vvgrow.graphic

These results are promising. Before entering the program, 2013-2014 fellows experienced 16 percent annual growth on average. One year after completing the fellowship, 2013-2014 annual sales grew by an average of 24 percent and two years post-fellowship, sales grew by an average of 34 percent, and 46 percent of the fellows also experienced growth in full and part-time employees. Fellows from the first three cohorts reach over 32,000 individuals in their pay-it-forward activities.

Let me propose a few overall lessons from this series:

1) Some business skills are global. Considering the wonderful diversity represented in its fellows, the VV GROW Fellowship has nevertheless managed to provide globally-relevant offerings – in strategy, finance, marketing and leadership – while also building customized services to meet individualized business needs. The program builds foundational knowledge and skills that fellows can immediately apply to their businesses.

2) Online training provides flexibility. Virtual training, when paired with coaching and other individualized support, provides an effective way for entrepreneurs to apply learning while they remain embedded in their work. It allows for a shared understanding of concepts, vocabulary, and expectations prior to in-person engagement. As Saudat said during one interview: “An entrepreneurship program like this is on-the-job training. You have to be running your own business to really appreciate it. I’m able to apply everything.”

3) In-person interaction is irreplaceable. While a program can succeed without a face-to-face component, it is necessary when building a peer network is a central goal. Learning in a group setting makes it easier for people to connect, exchange ideas and peer-coach. In-person training also provides business owners the space, time and increased perspective afforded by stepping away from the busy daily realities of running a business.

4) Support services enable growth. Once fellows begin to implement their action plans, Vital Voices provides tailored growth services and support to meet the needs of each cohort of fellows. This can take many forms, including coaching and mentoring. As every entrepreneur knows, having a sounding board available when you encounter a roadblock can make all the difference. Support services that meet entrepreneurs’ individualized needs are critical to implementing growth plans.

5)  Networks keep on giving. The ExxonMobil-UN Foundation’s publication A Roadmap for Women’s Economic Empowerment identifies entrepreneurial networks as a high potential intervention and “a key source of information, advice, access to markets, partnerships and policy influence, as well as encouragement and prestige” (page 65). As we have seen throughout this series, fellows build a peer network from the start. By encouraging early peer engagement and fostering relationships through calls, regional in-person training, and regional WhatsApp groups, this program fosters a strong peer-to-peer network. Each fellow repeatedly named the sisterhood they found through the fellowship as profound to their personal and business growth.

6)  Confidence matters. Changes in women’s economic conditions stem from both: a) access to and application of tools, knowledge and resources to become change agents, and b) the confidence to act. Of course, as we have seen throughout this series, growth in confidence is unique to each individual and rarely follows a straight line. And certainly, the ecosystem in which women live and work has a strong impact on levels of confidence reported. Those evaluating confidence should, therefore, take into consideration both expectations around the role of women and the level of comfort in taking measured risks factors (see here). To its credit, Vital Voices gathers data on a variety of indicators, such as fellows’ confidence as women leaders, in managing business, in growing business, and on positively impacting their communities. Past fellows report a moderate to high level of confidence in all indicators. This bodes well for these five tough and talented women who, thanks to this fellowship, are even better prepared to face whatever challenges lie ahead.

This series has aimed to inform practitioners who broadly support economic growth in emerging markets. As the VV GROW Fellowship demonstrates, entrepreneurship education – when done well – is a vital means to empower women and encourage their growth.


Founding global partner for Vital Voices:

ExxonMobil Foundation: The ExxonMobil Foundation is the primary philanthropic arm of Exxon Mobil Corporation in the United States, providing funding globally to improve basic education, promote women as catalysts for development and combat malaria in developing countries.

Platinum sponsor for Vital Voices:

FedEx: FedEx is dedicated to transforming lives and economies around the world and in the communities where employees live and the company operates. The company is committed to investing $200 million in more than 200 communities by 2020 through collaborations with trusted NGOs and nonprofit organizations around the world.

About Vital Voices: Vital Voices Global Partnership invests in women leaders who improve the world, partnering with leaders from more than 140 countries who advance economic opportunity, increase political and public leadership, and end violence against women.


Nathan Rauh-Bieri is program coordinator of education at the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan.

Photos: Vital Voices participants. Credit: Vital Voices






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