Women in travel: How to grow your travel start-up, despite female entrepreneurship challenges

2018-04-19 13:30 - Saara Mowlana
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alessandra alonso talk

Alessandra Alonso moderating the Women in Travel panel discussion at WTMA 2018. (Photo: Saara Mowlana)

Being a woman in business is hard enough, but being a female entrepreneur brings a new dimension of trials, tribulations and prejudice. From having to navigate both social and workplace discrimination, discouragement is not uncommon to many. 

The topic was scrutinised during a Women in Travel CIC panel discussion, moderated by Women in Travel CIC founder, Alessandra Alonso. Adding context to the narrative were five female speakers who too have dealt with the issue of sexism in and out of the workplace and the gender issues of navigating the road to entrepreneurship:

Alonso says that in the travel and tourism industry there has been a large growth in the number of women entrepreneurs and with trends like solo travel becoming increasingly female as well, it shows just how strong the female presence in the industry is. In fact, in the last two years alone, solo female travel has grown by a staggering 40% according to Mariette du Toit-Helmbold.

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"The research from the World Bank says that, you know, really Africa entrepreneurship is thriving - is thriving across all sectors - but, in travel and tourism you are looking at 50+% of the women being entrepreneurs, running their own business," Alonso said.

She compared this figure to the UK, where she is London based, where these stats sit at about 18% - 20% and of that percentage she estimates around 4% - 5% of the number is in the UK travel and tourism industry. 

Explaining the increase of women entrepreneurship locally, Nwabisa Mayema says that it has a lot to do with our history. Mayema discussed how, historically, a lot of the time, particularly in South Africa as well as Africa, the responsibility to carry a household and generate income for a household was placed on the shoulders of women in Africa.

She adds that this was because often the men went to find work out of town and in other cities and start new families there which led to many women starting businesses and being the sole source of sustenance for their homes. 

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With women having played a pivotal role in the liberation movement of SA, Mayema said that it had already prepared many African women to be more liberated in their thinking when it comes to entering or starting a business.

"At the same time from a socio-political point of view, you find that because of a lot of the liberation struggles, women actually participated in some form of emancipation behaviour and so by the time we started looking at the gender problem or the gender story, a lot of women had already superseded that because they were part of a broader liberation movement," Mayema added.

As to why there is a higher number of women in the travel and tourism industry than men is due to the fact that the industry is very people driven. Mayema says that women tend to be more collaborative, quite likely to form deals and maintain teams better than their male counterparts when it comes to creating businesses.  

Mayema also said that women entrepreneurs beget more women in business as they are more likely to hire and in turn empower other women on their team. 

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While the talk focused on women and female entrepreneurship empowerment, Alonso made it clear to the men in the audience that they too are needed in this struggle. "Some of women's best champions are men and we need those men because often they are the one in the spotlight and they are the one, you know, they are also the employers in the bigger corporations. So, we need them as mentors, we need them as sponsors, we need them as ambassadors by all means," Alonso elaborated. 

The Deputy Minister of Tourism, Elizabeth Thabethe gave a few short words and agreed that women in SA have a fighting spirit. She elaborated that we come from a time where women had no rights and were not given the economic tools to empower themselves and that this has changed. Thabethe also believes that in order to succeed, women need to collaborate and work together.

As for what the department and government are doing to help promote the female presence in business and the industry, she says that the department tries to empower women in the industry, encourage them to access the department and help grow their business from small start ups.

Thabethe said those seeking help from the department should visit the website and see what programmes and events are taking place for people to network and empower each other in the industry.

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But even with our SA stats proving female entrepreneurship to be on the rise, there are still challenges that many women face when trying to start a business or climb upward in a business.

While majority of the travel and tourism industry members are women, only about 5% of women are in senior leadership roles du Toit-Helmbold added. 

Talking about her experience when starting out in the industry, du Toit-Helmbold mentions that initially in board meetings and during her travel abroad, people were surprised by her success and position in the industry as she was quite young and a woman. She added that often within the industry, the structure is designed in such a way as to keep women dis-empowered because it suits the industry.

"So, even if you look at the traditional industry, women are often employed at the very lowest level where they're at their most vulnerable," du Toit-Helmbold said. 

In order for women to be able to grow their business and increase the female presence in the industry and business at senior levels as well, collaboration and supporting each other is a necessity. Du Toil-Helmbold also added that on a governmental and structural level, there should be more insight done to uncover how to grow the presence of women in business and empower those who are in business to inspire others. 

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