Elena Fadeeva is the Head of Marketing Nordics and Baltics at Visa. She was among the brilliant Novatore Impact Summit speakers this year. Elena also led the masterclass on how women entrepreneurs can realise their dreams. In a short interview, she tells how Visa's She's Next program enables women to achieve their business goals.
Why is supporting women entrepreneurs important for Visa?
Our company's purpose is to uplift everyone, everywhere, by being the best way to pay and get paid. Ninety-nine percent of the businesses in Europe are small. We see these entities as an enormous power to drive economies, especially in the Baltic countries. Women entrepreneurship plays a vital role there. This perspective is why we need to support them to build more equal societies where everybody participates in the economy. This backing is crucial because when we think about the economy, we see that everybody wins when everyone has access to participate.
Please tell me more about the She's Next program and the purpose of creating it.
Data shows that in some countries, women in entrepreneurship are materially underrepresented. For example, in Sweden, only 26% of small businesses are owned by women; in Latvia, the number is slightly higher – 40%. This deficit means society has a long way to go in reaching equality so everybody – women and men – everywhere have a chance to participate and contribute. This is why we at Visa feel this is a substantial cause. Therefore, we created the She's Next program – to advance women in their efforts to fund, run and grow small businesses.
She's Next is a global initiative. And we launched it in the Nordic and Baltic countries last year. Its idea is to address these universal challenges women face:
• underrepresentation in entrepreneurship,
• significant challenges in raising funding to start and run businesses, and
• societal normative pressures, as well.
Through the program, we support women by giving them essential tools and resources. At the Novatore Impact Summit 2023, we were onstage with two of our grant recipients and heard what She's Next means for them. We saw excellent engagement. We talked about these women, raised this issue, and got more people talking about it. As a society in this fashion, we can move closer to closing this inequality gap.
And what are your headline goals with this program?
We desire to create a more equal and inclusive society. Again, more women should have access to run their own businesses. In Sweden, only one percent of investment capital goes to women-founded tech companies — merely one percent! And we have similar disappointing numbers in the Baltic states. Only thirteen percent of start-ups here have at least one woman on the founding team; men alone found most start-ups.
And, while women are engaged in entrepreneurship and running self-owned businesses, constrained access to funding remains a substantial barrier. This situation will only change if we focus on this problem and undertake concrete steps.
Considering why supporting female entrepreneurship is essential, I compare the situation to women's football. Visa is a proud sponsor of women's football. Last year, we ran an extensive campaign focusing on increasing equality that got a fantastic response. So, what is the parallel between football and entrepreneurship?
The history is that once only men played football. When women started playing, it turned out they played differently. People who attend these matches say the game and atmosphere are fundamentally different. Women's participation and engagement expanded the joy of watching football; viewers have more opportunities to watch another form of the game. And this development is wonderful and rewarding for women who play this amazing game.
Extend the notion to small businesses: Everyone wins when more of us – that is to say, also women – take part. Society becomes more prosperous, and chances for financial inclusion and economic growth are realized.
How exactly does She's Next assists women in developing as entrepreneurs?
She's Next provides female-led enterprises with grant funding, coaching, information, and knowledge. Additionally, and crucially, we talk about this issue; we shine the light on women entrepreneurs by speaking about them. Doing so creates a supportive environment where women feel it is okay to start thinking about running owned businesses, so they can grow and try things. This activity is also important: not only giving the means to do something but creating the atmosphere where they recognize it is feasible and okay.
Women entrepreneurs need better conditions. Also, entrepreneurs generally need varying support at different stages. Initially, a solid idea is required, but funding accompanied by counsel and advice from a seasoned entrepreneur who has done it before is necessary. The initiative offers such a network for this reason because this creates a supportive environment where women founders can solicit such advice and engage and support one another.
Of course, it depends on where a women founder is on this journey. But the network, business coaching, and mentorship are crucial. This support is probably as important as acquiring funding, although it depends on the situation.
Research shows women are less confident than men to grow their business. That is why we find it essential to provide coaching. And for our next program, we have decided to offer coaching for recipients in collaboration with Novatore. So again, having a local touch is valuable, giving an even better-tailored program for women in the Baltic states.
Can you provide examples of Baltic state companies you have supported and followed in their progress?
We started the program last year and proudly announced the grant recipients in January. Consequently, it has run post-funding for only three months. Therefore, sharing more about how they are doing is premature. However, four Baltic state leaders and their enterprises received She's Next grants: Beāte Korte-Vītola for NorthernGrip (Latvia), running an online vintage clothing store; Lelde Cepīte for Rūme (Latvia), creating high quality, sustainable children's furniture; Simona Sadauskiene for Bosaddo (Lithuania), creating warm-up clothing for ballet dancers; and Dagmar Kork for Nupu (Estonia), producing high-quality children's educational toys.
In addition to the €10,000 individual grants, these women entrepreneurs received coaching and funds to invest in media visibility. There are many ways we can support growing businesses. And another way is by providing funds for achieving media visibility. External exposure is crucial in this digital world.
The recipients are using the grant itself in varying ways. Some are launching new products, some are expanding markets, and some are marketing. There is no "one size fits all." The actions depend on particular needs.
What about the quality of the project applications received?
First, the interest level was tremendous, a remarkable response. Such high interest is inspiring, showing the initiative's criticality. The number of applicants was large, and applicants put in time and effort.
Answers to questions were well-formulated; they effectively conveyed messages about business purpose, financials, tangible goals to achieve, and the validity to this program.
And participants' feedback to us indicated the application was straightforward to complete. The questions were relevant and easy to answer. We also translated application forms so the questions were clear.
The quality of an application and its storytelling depended on the previous experience of the entrepreneur. Each had a different life story; some were employed full-time and then started thinking about what they could do alternatively. Some had never worked in employment, always running their own company. However, the key differentiator is how a story is told, particularly its originality.
What is this program's value for you?
Women must have the same chance to start and develop and run businesses. The program highlights examples of women entrepreneurs and moves society toward equality, closing a gap where not everybody presently can participate in the economy.
I firmly believe that improving economic growth through financial inclusion is something we can best achieve together.