Guest Articles

November 10

Nathan Rauh-Bieri

Tools for Economic Empowerment: Virtual learning in the Vital Voices GROW Fellowship

In partnership with the ExxonMobil Foundation, Vital Voices supports women business owners looking to grow their businesses through its signature economic development program, the VV GROW Fellowship. The VV GROW Fellowship has three stages: 1) virtual training; 2) in-person training; 3) growth services and support. Presently, fellows have completed the four-month-long virtual training. How does this stage serve the fellowship’s aim of empowering women business owners?

Throughout the virtual training, fellows assess the current state of their business and leadership, analyze their business for growth opportunities and define specific business growth goals. Through a series of weekly webinars, online courses, assignments and one-on-one calls with peers and Vital Voices trainers, fellows build their knowledge about marketing, networking, business planning, financial management and leadership – the core topics of the program. In partnership with Harvard Business Publishing, Vital Voices enables fellows to access a series of online courses through Harvard ManageMentor®, the on-demand learning and performance support resource for leadership and management skill development. In addition, fellows identify their personal mission (“driving force”), undergo a strengths assessment, create a Business Model Canvas (BMC) and engage in facilitated virtual networking opportunities.

Let’s hear about each fellow’s experience:


Nathan Rauh-Bieri: What were your biggest takeaways from the virtual training? What changes have you made based on what you’ve learned?


Saudat Salami (owner, Easyshop Easycook Services Limited, Lagos, Nigeria): “The Business Model Canvas helped me break down the various parts of my business. The findings also gave me clarity as to who we are serving, how we are making money and where else we can be making money. I was also able to identify in clear terms what the value proposition was. When I finished this BMC, I immediately developed a five-question survey for my present customers so I could clarify our value proposition.

“The growth strategy (webinar) helped us analyze how we got here and to also plan how we will move on from our present position. My business had a hard time last year (in) 2014; this webinar allowed me to look at the various growth plans available. There is still a lot of work to do but now there is clarity.”

Laureen Rwatirera (co-founder and vice president of learning solutions, Accelerate Performance Consultants, Johannesburg, South Africa): “One thing that was a huge ‘Aha’ moment for me was (identifying) my ‘driving force.’ It helped me answer the question ‘Why are you in business? What are you trying to do?’ for myself, which I think gave me renewed energy and motivation to carry on and move to the next level.

“One of the hardest assignments was (one of the) financial management assignments. I’ve realized how many years of lost opportunities we’ve probably had because we’ve not been using my financial information to make better decisions. So, we’ve made big changes as a result of what we’ve learned.”

Isabelle L. Mevs (co-founder and CEO of Stars Industries S.A. (SISA), Port-au-Prince, Haiti): “The Harvard ManageMentor. It permits you to go back to basics. After all of the webinars, usually I go back to this tool and complement the course. It’s really at your own pace because you can go back as many times as you want. As we go along in the program, I have made changes budget-wise, to how we approach our accounts receivable, to identifying new markets.”

Lina Khalifeh (founder and trainer, SheFighter, Amman, Jordan): “The BMC gave me a chance to make some changes to my business. I am doing finance and forecast with my accountant, and I am giving myself until the in-person training course to work more on financial metrics, forecasting and profitability.

“The trainers were effective for sharing more from their expertise and knowledge about my driving force and my business mission. For example, I thought I had a clear business mission, but it was good to listen to other people in order to have a more accurate business mission and driving force.”

Claudia Esparza Patiño (founder and general manager of Nanas & Amas, Lima, Peru): “Developing my (positioning) statement (a statement on what makes a business unique). Maybe at the beginning, over six years ago, I thought about what I wanted to let people know about my business – but I never developed that seriously. Not only through the webinars and through thinking about our mission, it was developed almost hand-in-hand with the Vital Voices trainer. We are developing a new, interactive website, and the first sight you’re going to have is the (positioning) statement.

“We are also taking more seriously our finances. We used to work with an accountant that only paid our taxes. After these trainings, we realized the importance of having people who are not only connected with our business and our mission, but a professional who can give us his or her opinion about what we are planning to do.”


NRB: What surprised you during this first stage of the fellowship?


Saudat: “The level of detail. Sometimes when you are running your small business, you don’t actually step back, break it down and look at what exactly is going on. I get to do this almost every week after each virtual session through our assignments.”

Laureen: “The strengths assessment report because I think I’d forgotten where my strengths are and where my weaknesses are. I’d been putting myself under pressure to try and be good at everything, which I am not. It reminded me to say no to things that don’t fall into my area or delegate it to someone.”

Isabelle: “The first surprise was finding out about my strengths. I knew them, but I didn’t think of them as strengths that I could use in the business. Some strengths that came out for me I didn’t even know existed. It made me realize also that I need my partner to complement for the strengths I am missing.”

Lina: “I had never thought of the driving force for business, so that was actually really helpful in having something to keep you motivated at work. I (even) made my employees try their own driving force.

“The virtual online meetings were helpful, (and even) surprising, because you share information about businesses and we found out we have maybe the same challenges, and sometimes they have different experiences. So it was very good to share information with each other and to take different opinions about the challenges we face in our countries.”

Claudia: “The results (of the strengths assessment) really amazed me. I felt great about the results because it made me feel that I am a person who loves to help, to create, to improve everything that I can – not only things, but more importantly, people. And I think that was reflected in the results of that survey. It really made me happy and made me think that I am in the correct path.”


NRB: What were the strengths of the VV GROW Fellowship global virtual training?


Saudat: “Convenience. It’s one hour a week, mid-week. It’s planned. It’s virtual. It’s convenient to entrepreneurs because you’re working; if I were to go to a one-hour in-person class, I’d actually need three or four hours commute time because of traffic, etc. But with virtual training, all my training is in my office. And then they send you an assignment afterward which, if you take time to do it, you are actually analyzing your business. The webinar plus an assignment: That is a two-hour retreat every week to think and strategize about my business. What’s not to like?”

Laureen: “The content is great; I found every session relevant. The (one-on-one calls with trainers) time with the coach were excellent. I would love if we could have (even) longer sessions with our coaches.”

Isabelle: “For me, what makes this program unique is that all the homework given after the webinars is directly related to your own case. Usually, these business programs, which I’ve had the privilege to (take several), will give you a case study, but it’s mostly on other companies or corporations, and sometimes you don’t relate to them. Since you are applying the homework or studies to your own case, you are able to see right away on your own company what needs to be corrected and improved.

“Talking to a coach is (also) very empowering, because you can ask questions. If you have a problem with any subject, the trainer is just an email away. The coaching is related to you and your company and it’s all about helping you and giving you the support.”

Lina: “I took many courses in business, but never like (Harvard ManageMentor). It has all the training and documents. And whenever you don’t understand something, that’s a good point of online learning: You can actually stop on some point and you can ask somebody who knows more about it or discuss it with somebody from Vital Voices and go through it again. I am planning to have training for my staff on the marketing and how to be more effective at sales.”

Claudia: “I think it’s a great way to do training. I’ve never participated in webinars before. It is very interactive; you can raise your hand, you can speak, ask questions, have answers.

“The trainers were really great. They really care, and you can feel that, and that is the most important thing I can receive from the fellowship: It’s not just lessons, but they give you their feedback. You can ask for help anytime, and you know they will answer what you have asked.”



As virtual learning expands across the world, many have discussed its merits and drawbacks. Some laud virtual learning as a vehicle for providing unprecedented global access to technical knowledge. Some critics view it as incapable of promoting interaction with other students or personal application of the material. While the criticisms are not without merit, these fellows’ experiences reaffirm that virtual training can be effective, offering support and structure along with self-pacing and scheduling convenience, and it can be engaged from one’s office and easily shared with employees. For these reasons, virtual learning can be a vital component of a holistic business-training model.

As one part of an overall training program, the Vital Voices GROW Fellowship’s virtual training component confers these general benefits. But it also surpasses them by intentionally developing leadership abilities along with business tools; offering calls with trainers; providing a consistent structure that includes a weekly webinar and homework assignment; building content successively and incrementally; and applying all content to the individual’s actual business rather than a theoretical situation.

This structure is particularly suited to busy entrepreneurs in that it enables remote interaction between fellows, delivers content in manageable, regular increments, and fosters constant, big-picture thinking. When done well, virtual business training programs enable a certain kind of attention – taking a step back and a clear look at one’s current situation and opportunities, and at a business’ condition and gaps, amidst the competing demands of work and life. It enables trainees to lean back while they lean in.

Well-designed virtual programs deliver undeniable value. At the same time, proponents of e-learning do well to recall for the importance of shared physical space – hence, traditional training institutions’ recent efforts in “blended learning.” It will be interesting, therefore, to learn how the in-person training impacts Vital Voices GROW fellows’ outlooks and builds on the foundations laid in the virtual training.

Coming soon, we will check back in with Saudat, Laureen, Isabelle, Lina and Claudia at the end of the in-person training stage of the fellowship, in which they gather with other fellows in their region to connect, receive coaching and develop plans for business growth.


About 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.

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, the parent organization of NextBillion. 

Photo: 2013 VV GROW fellows work on their action plans in Accra, Ghana. Photo courtesy of Vital Voices



Education, Social Enterprise
skill development, social enterprise