Female entrepreneurs in Germany are teaming up to improve their networking and increase their influence in society. Manuela Kasper-Claridge reports from Hamburg.
The Hamburg Chamber of Industry and Commerce presents an unusual picture this week: Lots of women in the big hall where you'd usually encounter men talking business. Women tend to be in the minority here, but this week is different.
Female entrepreneurs have taken over the reins here at a meeting of the German Association of Female Entrepreneurs (VdU) — women of all age groups, in business attire or casually and colorfully dressed, exchanging business cards and debating anything from financing schemes to recruitment problems. They are entrepreneurs, mostly in charge of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the automobile, media or software sectors.
Among them is Christine Witthöft who develops marketing and distribution concepts and hopes to join the supervisory board soon. "Most supervisory boards follow traditional rules and are dominated by men; they have a diversity problem," she says. We female entrepreneurs have to change this, we have to make our voices heard as this is the only way to tackle and solve the challenges of our new digital world."
Networking can change the world
Witthöft is part of a network that exchanges information on open positions and suitable candidates to fill these vacancies. At their annual meeting in Hamburg, VdU members exude confidence. "We're part of a network that can change the world a little bit," says Stephanie Bschorr, who's been at the helm of the organization for six years.
Hundreds of female entrepreneurs have flocked to Hamburg to engage in networking and lively debates. You won't find any high-ranking German policymakers, though. German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier is patron of the "Next Generation Award" to go to young female entrepreneurs, but his schedule is reportedly too tight to attend the VdU meeting.
VdU campaigner Stephanie Bschorr is confident that greater networking among female entrepreneurs can "change the world."
No appointment with the president
Marie-Christine Oghly knows how important networking is and how hard it can be to make yourself heard. The French woman is president of global female entrepreneurs organization FCEM (Femmes Chefs d'Enterprises Mondial). She's met French President Emmanuel Macron several times, talking with him about female entrepreneurs' financing problems caused by lenders being more cautious whening grant loans to women. She's also demanded that more women join supervisory boards.
The meetings took place when Macron was still economy minister and Oghly says she hasn't been able to get an appointment with him since he became president of the nation. The FCEM represents the interests of half a million female entrepreneurs in 120 countries. Oghly has been cooperating closely with her German colleagues.
Looking for role models
"We French have always looked to Germany for inspiration and followed what's going on there politically and economically," says Oghly. "But when it comes to female representation in boardrooms, Germany is clearly trailing France."
Oghly's company develops aerodynamic models for the aviation industry and other sectors. "Of course, we have our share of problems in France, too," she admits. "Women are often paid less than men, especially in public administrative jobs, although this is against the law," she tells DW. But she is banking on the younger generation, insisting that young female workers are no longer willing to put up with this situation.
But how do get women interested in entrepreneurship? The number of female founders in Germany is low, there's a lack of role models, or they're simply not known. Jasmian Arbabian-Vogel wants to change this and hopes to be a mentor. She grew up in Iran and now heads four firms focused on nursing services for people with a migrant background in Germany.
"Diversity means that more women need to be represented across the spectrum of available jobs, but intercultural workforces are equally important," she argues.
Arbabian-Vogel is aiming to head the VdU for the next three years. She faces a very challenging agenda, including meetings in the German economy ministry, with the country's big associations and leading politicians. She hopes to have the backing of female founders. "We need more young women willing to take entrepreneurial risks," she says, as she looks forward to becoming the VdU's new president.