For true economic development, women are essential

“The district leadership thought we should get together to support entrepreneurship with microfinance because unemployment was extremely high here,” says Margaret Thorpe Williamson, who leads LaunchDetroit and is an assistant governor of District 6400. In 2013, Detroit’s unemployment rate was 20 percent, and the poverty rate for individuals was 40.7 percent. “Many people had home-based businesses in an attempt to support themselves.”

The program is based on four pillars: business education, loan capital, mentoring, and networking. Most of the clients are women. “Women were so adversely affected by the economic downturn of 2008 and were usually making less money anyway,” Williamson says. “And often they were heads of household. So we thought, let’s encourage entrepreneurship. We’re here to help you be successful and realize your dreams.”

You can’t get sustainable development when half the population doesn’t control their own assets. Women’s empowerment has to be at the forefront of any poverty eradication program.

— Bonaventure Fandohan, manager, Rotary’s economic and community development area of focus

Women are less likely than men to have access to financial institutions or have a bank account. Studies show that they are less likely to be entrepreneurs and that they face more disadvantages starting businesses. There are a few countries where women are engaged in new business startups at rates equal to or higher than men (Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines, and Vietnam), but in much of the world, women participate in entrepreneurship at far lower levels — at half the rate of men, or even less, in some countries.

LaunchDetroit established its own loan fund, offering loans up to $2,500. Business education classes focused on practical skills leading up to writing a business plan and were supplemented with advice from local Rotarians.

Today, LaunchDetroit takes 10 to 15 applicants a year. Not everyone wants a loan. “Some want the networking, the business plan, and the mentor,” she says. “Some were able to secure funding, but they didn’t have the knowledge to move their business to the next level. We provide this at no cost, and our investment is in their success. It improves the economic viability of our region.”

“Women’s economic empowerment is a big deal,” says Fandohan. “It’s an essential tool for achieving sustainable economic growth.”

• This story originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Rotary magazine.