In business, leadership has no gender. Or so they say.
Beyond being underrepresented, female entrepreneurs run into roadblocks that males don’t usually need to overcome. From defying social expectations to limited access to funding and the lack of mentors, these leaders have always been forced to take a backseat.
Over the years, however, we’ve seen more women break the glass ceiling and carve their names in the increasingly competitive business landscape. While statistics are still low, the growth rate of female founders has seen massive improvements.
In Vietnam, the percentage of women-owned businesses grew from only 9% in 2009 to 27% in 2022. A Mastercard report even noted that women are outpacing men in entrepreneurial activity in Vietnam — one of only 10 economies where this is happening.
With their critical but underrepresented role in social development and economic recovery, women entrepreneurs are starting to make their voices heard as they redefine their roles in society and the future of business.
Women in business: Leadership journeys
Last week, global Viet Kieu community ‘Overseas Vietnamese’ held its first women-dedicated event at the CTY Kitchen + Bar in Saigon’s bustling Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street. The crowd — mostly women, aptly so — was brought together by their common goal of celebrating success and understanding the challenges Viet Kieu women go through to grow their careers and build startups meant to empower others.
Moderated by OV co-founder Mai Vo, the insightful and impactful conversation on “Leadership Journeys” put the spotlight on what makes a true female business leader and why the journey of becoming one always comes with hurdles.
“There are definitely certain traits that a natural-born leader has. But for me, it’s being someone you, yourself, would want to follow,” shared Denise Sandquist, the CEO and co-founder of Asia’s first female-focused social app Fika. With a background in the military (having completed military service in her home country Sweden), Denise has always had that leadership instinct to be unafraid of taking responsibility, decisive, and optimistic. This helped her build her first-ever business endeavor, Fika, and grow it into one of the most successful startups in Vietnam.
The weight of trying to be a role model for her 30 employees sometimes becomes overwhelming, Denise admitted. “I’m a work in progress. Keeping a strong mindset and showing vulnerability can both be difficult. It requires balance. But to be a good leader also means showing that you also are human.”
For Trang Dang, the woman behind Ru9, leading a business is a test of character. Her four-year-old company has gone through its lowest and highest points this year, eventually leading to Trang saying goodbye to some trusted employees, opening physical stores in two cities, and growing the company.
“The biggest failure we had was during the end of the lockdown. The staff turnover rate was really high as everyone was so stressed out. It was then that I realized Ru9 didn’t have a solid structure for building a team. During this time, the revenue was high, but the kind of team we had didn’t complement it. Bridging the gap, hiring the right people, and scaling within a very short amount of time was a difficult challenge.”
The changes hit Trang hard emotionally, but she had no time to waste. In a matter of months, she built a new company culture and welcomed more employees than they ever had in the past three years. Ru9 now has 52 employees, all working together to continue revolutionizing restful sleep in Vietnam.
Logivan co-founder Linh Pham had a similar take. For a startup to thrive, it needs to have a clear vision. “And as a leader, you should stay true to that vision and not go astray. Only then will people who followed you from the start will continue to be with you in the next stage.”
Being in a male-dominated industry has provided Linh the strength to hold her ground and adhere to the principles and values she believes in — even if it sometimes means going separate ways with the people she built her businesses with.
“Co-founder breakup is one of the darkest moments any startup would experience in one way or another. I experienced that with my first startup in the UK. After a year of working together, we felt we were going in different directions. I took that experience as a lesson when I built Logivan. The kind of co-founders you onboard from the beginning has to share the same vision as you.”
‘It’s a great time to be a woman’
While gender equality and women empowerment still have a long way to go, all three innovation leaders agreed that more opportunities and platforms had been created for women over the last few years. The “Leadership Journeys” by Overseas Vietnamese is one great example.
“It’s a great time to be a woman,” said Trang. “Honestly, women-led businesses are getting so all kinds of support here in Vietnam. Even though we’re still a developing country, this environment has become more favorable for women entrepreneurs. That wasn’t the case 15 or 20 years ago. So the changes are really incredible.”
The female business leaders added that women across industries should use this time to lift each other up and provide support, so the movement being made today continues for future female leaders in business and beyond.
“Business is a battleground, and it’s a bloodbath out there with everyone trying to survive,” Denise noted. But being the “last woman standing” isn’t the goal anymore. The more female business founders there are, the better the world becomes.