A priority action roadmap for women's economic empowerment (PARWEE) amid COVID-19: a co-creation approach

Sandrine Bonin (Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Amritapuri, India)
Wafa Singh (Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Amritapuri, India)
Veena Suresh (Social Work, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Amritapuri, India)
Tarek Rashed (Civilizology LLC, Sheridan, Wyoming, USA)
Kuiljeit Uppaal (Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Pune, India)
Rajiv Nair (Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Amritapuri, India)
Rao R. Bhavani (Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Amritapuri, India)

International Journal of Gender and Entrepreneurship

ISSN: 1756-6266

Article publication date: 5 August 2021

Issue publication date: 17 August 2021




The study aims to co-create a “priority action roadmap for women's economic empowerment” based on women's top priorities to charting recovery directions. Doing so contributes to the growing body of knowledge on COVID-19 literature in at least four areas: assessing COVID-19 impacts on women entrepreneurs; mapping these impacts with four interdependent women's entrepreneurial ecosystem components; innovating a co-creation methodology based on remote participatory research; and providing a replicable model to perform action-oriented research in the context of COVID-19 impacts.


A co-creation methodology is proposed, combining systems-thinking and remote participatory research to engage women entrepreneurs and institutional stakeholders to prioritize impact, response actions and recovery needs in the wake of COVID-19. A ranking exercise using the analytic hierarchy process was used to derive ranking and assess user inputs' consistency.


The study exemplifies the integration of participatory methods and mathematical tool to engage stakeholders in prioritizing recovery work. PARWEE action items ranked by entrepreneurs and vetted by institutional stakeholders cover: access to finances, capacity building, health care, public and private partnership, marketing opportunities and formation of active advocacy groups to voice out women entrepreneurs' needs to institutional stakeholders. Results show a slight difference in the ranking of priority actions between experience owners and fresh starters.


This study innovated a new co-creation methodology for remotely engaging stakeholders of the women's entrepreneurial ecosystem, which is grounded in evidence and provides a replicable model for performing action-oriented research.



Bonin, S., Singh, W., Suresh, V., Rashed, T., Uppaal, K., Nair, R. and Bhavani, R.R. (2021), "A priority action roadmap for women's economic empowerment (PARWEE) amid COVID-19: a co-creation approach", International Journal of Gender and Entrepreneurship, Vol. 13 No. 2, pp. 142-161. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJGE-09-2020-0148



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2021, Emerald Publishing Limited

1. Introduction

The mainstream of women’s empowerment studies, especially those focused on the political economy dynamics of the empowerment process, draw attention to women’s voice and decision-making as the most pivotal element in women's entrepreneurship (Buvinic et al., 2013; Bari, 2010; Goetz and Nyamu, 2008). Domingo et al. (2015) introduced the concept of “quality of women’s voice”, arguing that women’s voice and participation should not be viewed in binary terms (i.e. yes or no) but as a matter of degree (i.e. level of participation). The degree to which women’s voice is captured dictates how much inclusive and gender-responsive are the laws, policies, and services offered to women entrepreneurs. The quality of women entrepreneurs’ voice is shaped by a broad range of underlying interconnected political, social, economic and cultural factors (e.g. social structures and norms, community dynamics, market characteristics, etc.). A holistic, contextual approach is necessary to capture these factors and interconnections.

As COVID-19 continues to impact every sphere of our lives, to point out that the pandemic has had a profound impact on women entrepreneurs worldwide is to state the obvious. Published literature discussed the challenges on women entrepreneurs’ adaptive and self-organizing capability and solutions for recovery and business continuity (CWEEE, 2020; ILO, Manolova et al., 2020; Shankar et al., 2020). However, the voice of women entrepreneurs in reflecting on the nature of these challenges and charting recovery paths has been missing. Further, and as documented in the literature review section, most recovery proposals for women entrepreneurs tend to be unidimensional, focusing only on the financial aspect of business recovery but ignoring other equally important dimensions needed to reinforce women entrepreneurs in their recovery.

To this end, the study reported in this paper was an attempt to capture the COVID-19 pandemic experiences of women business owners. The paper answers three core questions:


How do women entrepreneurs reflect on their experiences with COVID-19 regarding the consequences on their businesses and how they have responded to such influences?


How do women entrepreneurs foresee the possible path for recovery? How do they prioritize the recovery actions? And to what degree their recovery agenda overlap with and inform the agendas proposed by experts and decision-makers?


Given the lockdown restrictions imposed by governments amid the pandemic, how to capture the voice of women entrepreneurs and engage with them? How can they be connected with financial and policy experts and government officials in a constructive dialog regarding their experiences and proposed recovery agenda?

In answering the above-listed questions, this paper represents a conscious effort to engage Indian women entrepreneurs in the co-creation of a “Priority Action Roadmap for Women's Economic Empowerment (PARWEE)” amid COVID-19. PARWEE reflects a grounded approach that charts a roadmap echoing women's top priorities for recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. This paper's authors selected India to answer these questions for three reasons. First, the multiple forces at stake and the strong gender bias in the Indian culture provide a rich context to study the pandemic's impact through a holistic approach to reinforce women entrepreneurs in their recovery. Second, our access to several organizations and societies supporting women's small and medium enterprises in India helped us reach out to women entrepreneurs from diverse geographic locations and business industries across India, thus answering the above-listed questions. Finally, a panel of international and national experts with strong and unique expertise on the women’s entrepreneurial ecosystem in India agreed to participate in the study. Adopting a co-creation methodology has allowed women entrepreneurs to take the lead in identifying the consequences of COVID-19, sharing their responses and lessons learned and discussing their prioritized agenda for actions with the experts' panel.

To this end, the paper contributes to the growing body of knowledge on COVID-19 literature in four areas:

  1. First, it assesses the consequences of COVID-19 on women entrepreneurs through the lens of women business owners. After all, the pandemic is far from over and continues to evolve. A continuous assessment of its influences on women-owned businesses is required.

  2. Second, it adopts a holistic approach, rooted in systems-thinking, to understand women entrepreneurs’ adaptive behaviors with various and interdependent dimensions and actors. We borrowed from the work on women's entrepreneurial ecosystems (WEE) (CORE, 2017; Manolova et al., 2017; Shankar et al., 2020) and the systems-thinking approach to women's empowerment (Gressel et al., 2020) to grasp the multidimensionality of the pandemic consequences.

  3. Third, the paper innovates a co-creation methodology based on remote Participatory Research (PR) principles adapted to the constraints of the COVID-19 situation and enhanced with a robust mathematical tool to support a shared representation of lessons learned and recovery needs.

  4. Fourth, this paper offers a replicable methodological model for performing action-oriented research in the context of COVID-19 crisis, thus setting an example of bridging the gap between academic research and policy-oriented outcomes.

Our paper is structured as follows: Section 2 provides an overview of WEE's theoretical underpinning and contextualization in India, where the case study conducted by the authors took place. Section 3 starts with an overview of the stages associated with the PARWEE co-creation methodology and then discusses the specific methods and tasks related to each stage. Section 4 presents the outcome of completing each step of the PARWEE co-creation methodology. Sections 5 and 6 shed light on the study's limitations and lessons learned, discuss how PARWEE can be used and explore the possibilities of follow-up research.

2. Literature review

2.1 Covid-19 consequences on women entrepreneurs

At the time of writing this manuscript (September 2020), a Google search on COVID-19 impact and women entrepreneurs yielded over 240,000 results from diverse resources. A rapid assessment of the results, focusing mainly on authoritative reports and peer review literature, revealed three recurring themes. The first theme concentrates on assessing the impacts of COVID-19 on women entrepreneurs, mostly on the financial aspects and their effects on business and livelihood (CWEEE, 2020; ILO, 2020; KPMG, 2020; PWC, 2020; UN, 2020; UNW, 2020; WEF, 2020; WTO, 2020). The second theme focuses on theorizing about why the pandemic’s impact has been more severe on women entrepreneurs than on men counterparts (Dy and Jayawarna, 2020; Fairlie, 2020; Kuckertz et al., 2020; Manolova et al., 2020; Shankar et al., 2020). Though not as prevailing as the first two, the third theme focuses on analyzing governmental and policy response, and in fewer cases, offers recommendations for specific measures to alleviate the adversity faced by women-owned businesses (Kuckertz et al., 2020; PWC, 2020; WEKH, 2020).

This paper's authors observe that the literature on COVID-19 and women entrepreneurs (published between April and August 2020) agrees on four key findings. First, women-owned businesses are affected disproportionately and differently from men-owned businesses because of pre-existing gender inequalities that COVID-19 has further deepened, thus exposing women’s vulnerabilities in the wake of the pandemic (Manolova et al., 2020; KPMG, 2020; PWC, 2020; WEF, 2020). Second, there is a need to address the unintended consequences of working from homes, such as an alarming increase in domestic violence and mental distress (CWEEE, 2020; Dy and Jayawarna, 2020; UNW, 2020). Third, as governments seek to lift lockdowns, there is a need for creating a gender-responsive entrepreneurial ecosystem that empowers women entrepreneurs to mitigate the consequences of future, sudden operational interruptions effectively, facilitate their access to aid and assistance programs, and fully integrate them into the digital economy and across the supply chain (Kuckertz et al., 2020; PWC, 2020; UN, 2020). Finally, there is a necessity to leverage women's representation and inclusion in charting economic recovery policies that are more gender-sensitive (Kuckertz et al., 2020; WEKH, 2020).

2.2 The place of women’s voices

Our assessment reveals that women entrepreneurs' voices are missing in the abundance of studies and reports published on the pandemic impacts. To fill this gap, this study adopts an innovative co-creation approach to capture women’s experiences and facilitate a collective representation of women entrepreneurs’ recovery needs. Based on Participatory Research (PR) methodology, in-depth qualitative knowledge on the consequences of COVID-19 on women entrepreneurs is first generated and then framed into a prioritized action plan for recovery by using a robust mathematical tool for collective ranking. PR is an umbrella term that indicates inclusivity and direct participation of the stakeholders in the research process to achieve actionable change, rather than respondents like in conventional research. Such action-based research approaches value participants’ outlook, offering “the right and ability to speak up, participate, express oneself, and have that expression valued by others” (Abma et al., 2019). As PR is often criticized for not being robust enough, the authors opted to reinforce the methodology with quantification of qualitative data, which is explained further in the methodology section.

Without women’s voices, one cannot help but question the extent to which these vast volumes of published statistics on the COVID-19 impact have helped produce practical solutions and intervention measures that directly address women entrepreneurs' challenges. We attribute the disconnect between “evidence” and “action” to the pressure to publish in haste, even at the expense of understanding women entrepreneurs' actual needs. For example, many published reports have relied on either quantitative or qualitative surveys performed online or via telephonic interviews based on what the surveyors wanted to know and the data they assumed was essential to collect. Few studies, if any, attempted to capture women entrepreneurs’ views on the path for their speedy recovery.

As a result, the collected data tends to be unidimensional and focuses only on one or a few aspects of the pandemic consequences, often those related to financial distress. We are yet to find a single survey that provides a holistic look at the entire experience, even though women entrepreneurs are known to embrace a culture of agility in dealing with crises (Sharma, 2018; Shetty and Hans, 2019). Even the few publications that suggest measures and interventions tend to reflect the author's or expert's view on how COVID-19 affects business but do not account for what women entrepreneurs actually want. Therefore, this study adopts a holistic approach through the systems-thinking paradigm, which the authors found inherent in the entrepreneurial ecosystem concept.

2.3 Systems-thinking and WEE

The entrepreneurial ecosystem concept has emerged to integrate the interactions between the individual entrepreneurship process and the political, social, and economic contexts. Prominent authors define the entrepreneurial ecosystem as a set of interdependent actors and factors coordinated to enable productive entrepreneurship (Cavallo, 2019; Stam and Spigel, 2016). Despite the extensive body of research to contextualize entrepreneurship (Ritsilä, 1999; Sorenson and Audia, 2000), only a few studies adopt an interdisciplinary and systems-thinking approach to comprehend the complexity of such relationships (Acs et al., 2014; Colombelli et al., 2017; Zahra et al., 2014). Pioneering efforts by researchers such as Isenberg (2010) offered a top-down process by which diverse communities (financial, labor, scientific, and government sectors) and culture impact entrepreneurs, suggesting a systems-thinking approach beyond Schumpeterian’s classical economic development model. Welter (2011) complemented this top-down approach with the bottom-up process in which entrepreneurs also influence their environment, claiming that diverse communities are dependent on entrepreneurs for their organic growth.

Adopting the lenses of systems-thinking, especially complex adaptive systems, provides significant insights to conduct the study. Lai and Huili Lin (2017) explain that the “complexity” arises from the dynamic network of interactions between stakeholders and factors, characterized by the number of identifiable domains and the density of interactions, intertwined with the agentic entrepreneurial behavior. The agentic factors concern the self-determined decisions made by actors to reach their goals, in our case, the entrepreneurs who are considered as “adaptive” since they are continuously adjusting to their environment and/or other conditions. This evolutionary aspect or embedded agency refers to the emergence or creation of a new order (i.e. adaptation), according to Roundy (2018). The agency concept, central to empowerment literature, has become a subject of debate between authors (Donald et al., 2017; Ibrahim and Alkire, 2007) regarding its conceptualization and appropriate measurement tools. Unfortunately, the theory of change models developed for women’s empowerment are often pre-defined, based on theorists’ expectations and intentions to build evidence-based practices and miss such “adaptation” processes, thus failing to represent the richness of empirical reality. This study aims at bridging this gap by capturing women’s voices and mapping them to the theoretical components forming the entrepreneurial system under study.

The literature identifies specific multi-dimensional and multi-level forces that influence the complex adaptation of entrepreneurs. Overall, they cover the human, psychological, social, and financial capitals influenced by the institutional setup at the meso and macro levels (Brush et al., 2019; Foss et al., 2019; Giménez and Calabrò, 2018; Panda, 2018; Wu et al., 2019; Yadav and Unni, 2016). As this paper's paradigm advocates for action-based research, we select four components (categories of factors) in which interventions are possible by merging the human and psychological capitals, which we consider related, under the leadership component. The social capital is associated with informal institutions (family, codes of conduct, gender roles, social norms, religion, and ideology) as defined by Giménez and Calabrò (2018). Formal institutions (apart from financial capital) constitute an exclusive component. Each of these components covers specific enabling factors, disempowering constraints and stakeholders that influence women entrepreneurs. The interactions within and among these components shape up the current status of WEE in India. As such, any attempt to optimize WEE would propose interventions that target these components. This is precisely the case of the PARWEE agenda presented here. Below, we briefly elaborate on these components and associated factors.

2.4 The anatomy of women's entrepreneurial ecosystem in India

2.4.1 Overview of Indian entrepreneurial context.

India is ideal for testing the systems-thinking approach to WEE because of the Indian context's specificities and the diverse sociological influences on economic empowerment. Though WEE traditionally applies to a local setting, this study is conducted at the national level to create a shared representation between women entrepreneurs, supporting the webinar interaction with stakeholders from the Government of India. Jha (2018) speculates that the Indian entrepreneurial ecosystem is characterized by traditional collectivist culture and an educational system that encourages conformism and hinders the required creativity and innovation of potential entrepreneurs. The same culture that celebrates conformity also stigmatizes failure and extends the shame of personal loss to the entire family or community. This stigmatization of loss prevents family and social support, causing fear of social isolation in budding entrepreneurs. The sociological and cultural layer contributes to the degree of complexity in studying India's entrepreneurial ecosystem, a process that intricates further when adopting a gender lens.

2.4.2 Leadership.

The leadership component of WEE encompasses the following qualities related to human and psychological capital: capacities, competencies, knowledge, experience, perceived control, self-worth, self-awareness, self-efficacy and self-determination (Cattaneo and Chapman, 2010; Ibrahim and Alkire, 2007). One of the main challenges facing many Indian women entrepreneurs is that they lack the confidence to be successful business leaders (Indira and Bharti, 2005; Kollan and Parikh, 2005). Their presence on the levels of “development of self” is thus generally contained within low self-concept that affects their movement towards the self-actualization of their goals and strengthening their image (Uppaal and Singh, 2016). The lack of self-confidence directly affects social networking and risk aversion. Combined with educational background disparities, this contributes to disabled entrepreneurial cognition, a critical factor for leadership and entrepreneurship (Brush et al., 2019; Wu et al., 2019).

2.4.3 Formal institutional support.

The second component of WEE refers to formal institutional support (i.e. the business, economic, and political environment). Specific policies and schemes have been implemented in India to support women entrepreneurs. Almost all the offered benefits focus only on monetary assistance, specifically micro-finance, but neglect other types of support that women entrepreneurs need. Despite a ground-breaking step taken by the Government of India in setting aside 3% of public procurement for women entrepreneurs, our research finds that policies aimed exclusively at assisting women entrepreneurs are lacking. Researchers call for building evidence-based practice in women's entrepreneurship (Foss et al., 2019; Giménez and Calabrò, 2018) to improve policy effectiveness. This component is associated closely with financial capital.

2.4.4 Access to finances.

The third component of WEE relates to access to finances or equity capital for startups. Women entrepreneurs generally rely on internal funding sources such as support from friends, family, and relatives (Wu et al., 2019); however, the Indian socio-cultural context embedded in traditional norms makes this quite challenging, especially in gaining support from men in their families (Coley et al., 2021). Equal rights to property and assets are often ignored, impeding women to present credit history or collaterals to formal banking institutions and forcing about 79% of women entrepreneurs to opt for self-funding options (Korreck, 2019). Gender discrimination also extends to venture capital funding. Indian women entrepreneurs received only 2% of startup funding, and the top ten startups owned by women accounted for $136m, while men's overall top ten reached $8.5bn (Nair, 2017).

2.4.5 Socio-cultural recognition.

The fourth component of WEE concerns social recognition and cultural restrictions, including access to information systems and technology (Ilahi, 2018). Panda (2018) identified constraints due to gender discrimination as the most adverse in the business, economic and political environment. Indian women entrepreneurs have evolved from balancing social and occupational roles (1950–1970) to pioneering professional entrepreneurs (1980-present). Despite increased challenges in men-dominated sectors (Brush et al., 2019), it is encouraging that the contribution of women entrepreneurs to employment generation, economic growth, and development have found recognition (Ghosh and Cheruvalath, 2007; Masood, 2011). Offering gender-responsive innovation to meet neglected needs (Gayatri and Udhayakumar, 2018), women entrepreneurs affirm their presence in specific sectors (health, hygiene, clean energy, zero waste, education, textiles and fashion, cosmetics, food, and nutrition). There is also evidence of so-called “empowerment spillover”, where women entrepreneurs are more likely to exhibit social responsibility and are inclined to promote, support, and mentor other women entrepreneurs (Coley et al., 2021). They stand as role models against the archetypal male representation of an entrepreneur. These four components (leadership, formal institutional support, access to finance and socio-cultural recognition and restrictions) compose the model used in this paper to review the collected data through a staged methodology presented below.

3. Research methodology

3.1 Overview of research design

The core methodological research question of this study triggered the innovation of a robust co-creation approach to collectively and remotely involve women entrepreneurs in knowledge generation of their adaptive behaviors and priorities for recovery needs. A staged approach (Figure 1) has been proposed to cover the needs for adopting a holistic approach, remote data collection, and the integration of robust mathematical tools to reinforce the PR's explanatory power. Figure 1 shows the co-creation methodological framework innovated in this study and its relation to the guiding research questions posed to capture COVID-19 consequences on women entrepreneurs, their responses and lessons learned, and their joint proposal for prioritized action items and measures to recover from the crisis. This figure describes the sequence of steps carried out, such that women entrepreneurs become owners of the created knowledge and voice it to other stakeholders. While PR has become challenging to conduct during the COVID era due to restrictions on gathering and movement, its methodological flexibility and the plethora of online communication and collaboration tools offer great potential. These methods ensure that participation, engagement and action remain an integral part of the knowledge co-creation process of women entrepreneurs’ advancement throughout the research cycle.

3.2 In-depth interviews

Selected on a volunteer basis, 24 women entrepreneurs participated in the co-creation of PARWEE. Participants represented businesses of differing sizes and varying years of operation from diverse sectors such as hospitality and travel, public relations, HR recruitment, food manufacturing and delivery, fashion design, consultancy and self-development training. All women entrepreneurs belong to urban settings such as Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi. Most of them started their entrepreneurship ventures after work experience to gain more flexibility for family life. Some of them built their skills through specific entrepreneurship training such as Goldman Sachs 10,000 women initiative.

In the first stage, in-depth interviews were conducted with each participant over the phone. The discussion was intentionally kept open so that women entrepreneurs felt free to express themselves regarding their business experiences during the COVID-19 crisis. They were guided by a semi-structured questionnaire, split into four sections:

  1. Entrepreneur’s profile (business profile, history, pre-COVID-19 status);

  2. Impact and adaptations (consequences, response and coping mechanisms);

  3. Governmental support (benefits received and challenges faced); and

  4. Lessons learned (takeaways for future).

Discussions covered in the interviews were transcribed and coded into basic themes. A second cycle of analysis enabled the identification of pattern codes. These codes were categorized into macro themes relevant to the research:

  1. Nature of business disruption due to COVID-19.

  2. Responses and lessons learned, categorized under the four components of WEE (described earlier in the background section) used as provisional codes:

    • leadership (personal and leadership skills applied by women entrepreneurs to cope with COVID-19);

    • business continuity (innovative thinking and business adjustments (processes, marketing, selling, supply chain));

    • financial management (means adopted to mitigate economic consequences); and

    • family/social support (family and societal support during the crisis).

  3. A Wish List of action items desired by women entrepreneurs to help their businesses recover from COVID-19 crisis and regain strength.

Thematic analysis of each interview (summaries) was sent back to participants for review and feedback. Following their approval and post-integration of their suggestions, further data condensation was conducted to consolidate a list of unique basic themes under each pattern code and each macro theme representing all the information provided by women entrepreneurs.

By the end of this process, the entire pool of women entrepreneurs was split into two tiers: Tier 1 included experienced women entrepreneurs running businesses for more than three years, while Tier 2 included women entrepreneurs who were relatively new to entrepreneurship (less than three years).

3.3 Ranking workshops

The consolidated list of basic themes served as the basis for conducting ranking workshops and determines the most significant consequences and adaptive responses caused by COVID-19, as well as their Wish List of actions (recovery needs). Two separate workshops, of 2.5 h each, were conducted for Tier 1 and Tier 2 via video conferencing on the Zoom platform. In both workshops, the research team played the facilitators’ role in running the Zoom application’s poll functionality and collecting the data necessary for the ranking process. The poll results were then displayed on-screen to moderate an open discussion on the rationale of their ranking based on their experiences, insights, and perspectives.

The polls used in the ranking workshops were designed to facilitate pairwise comparison using the analytical hierarchy process (AHP) developed by Saaty (1980). This process of interrelated comparison between variables generates consistent and coherent information to support consensual decision-making. Based on their intuitive feelings, women entrepreneurs answered a series of questions in the general form of “How important is criterion A relative to criterion B?” Each participant chose one of five options (significantly more important, moderately more important, equally important, moderately less important, significantly less important).

After the workshop, the quantitative results of the AHP survey were tabulated and analyzed using an online AHP Calculator tool to determine the individual priorities of each participant. The AHP Calculator provides a robust mathematical model for generating the relative weight of items or factors in addition to a statistic that measured how consistent each participant was in providing their answers. As the group is understood to act together as separate individuals, the authors selected individual priorities, the use of distributive mode instead of the ideal mode of normalizations, and the arithmetic mean to aggregate the individual computed scores into a global weight (Forman and Peniwati, 1998). This aggregation process, which excluded individuals with a consistency ratio superior to 20%, resulted in five ranked lists Tier-wise (four for the WEE components and one for the PARWEE action items).

3.4 Webinar

PARWEE action items (i.e. Wish List items and basic themes ranked by women entrepreneurs) were discussed in a webinar that brought together five stakeholders with seven women entrepreneurs who volunteered to represent their fellow entrepreneurs and lead the discussion on prioritized issues and concerns. The webinar included participation from sector-specific experts as panelists, including two Government of India representatives from the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, two international experts (United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women), and one financial specialist from an international bank. Women entrepreneurs led the discussion on their prioritized issues and concerns to outline a roadmap for action. The objective behind the organization of the webinar was three-fold:

  1. to provide a platform for women entrepreneurs to voice their concerns and share their prioritized action agenda with the experts;

  2. to facilitate a direct dialogue between WEE’s key stakeholders and women entrepreneurs; and

  3. to outline the PARWEE framework according to experts’ feedback.

The webinar was broadcasted live on social media to over 1,600 individuals, and the event received over 650 comments during the 2.5-h session. The webinar represented a meaningful culmination of the study’s co-creation process, with the women entrepreneurs becoming the face of the research.

4. Results

4.1 Covid-19 consequences on women entrepreneurs

Figure 2 presents the percentage of women entrepreneurs Tier-wise who reported on a list of 20 consequences compiled from the in-depth interview thematic analysis results. These items were presented to women in three main categories: business and supply chain, demand and client base, and staff management.

It is interesting to note that apart from the loss of liquidity and the reduced mobility, there is a considerable difference between Tiers for the highly ranked items. Tier 1, the experienced entrepreneurs, mainly reported on the hindered business growth. All other impact items are equal to or less than 67%. While for Tier 2, handling personal distress and anxiety has been reported by all, followed by business interruptions, impact on business logistics, challenges in reaching out to clients who do not use digital platforms and reduced clients and sales. All other impact items are equal to or less than 67%.

4.2 AHP results

4.2.1 Responses to and lessons learned from COVID-19.

Table 1 presents the aggregated individual priorities calculated through the AHP protocol using pairwise comparison. It contains the aggregated scores Tier-wise. The ranking is deducted from the total aggregated scores to facilitate the comparison Tier-wise. The table is organized according to two macro themes: responses to and lessons learned from COVID-19, sub-divided into the four provisional codes, and the Wish List for recovery that forms the PARWEE Action items. The sub-criteria of the four provisional codes related to the four WEE components and the Wish List were informed through the basic and pattern codes that emerged during the analysis of the in-depth interviews. Therefore, these results offer a quantification of the qualitative data collected in the earlier phase.

Table 1 shows the list of aggregated individual priorities for leadership sub-criteria (pattern codes). Safety and hygiene in the workplace was considered the most essential sub-criteria for both Tiers, with an overall priority score of 0.27. Ensure that staff stays productive is ranked closely before personal self-development, which was mentioned to be a critical coping action to COVID-19 crisis during in-depth interviews.

Similarly, the list of aggregated individual priorities for business continuity sub-criteria indicates that build new business networks and partnerships is the priority for both Tiers, with an overall result of 0.21. Other sub-criteria, except build a competitive edge ranked last, have quite similar scores. Women entrepreneurs have tried to transform difficulties into opportunities through innovative means and developing their capacities. One WE shared that:

While keeping business as usual, we need to create an innovative department to adapt quickly, being flexible to build business immunity, we started an R&D department, and it was never there before.

The list of aggregated individual priorities for the finance sub-criteria shows contrasting results between the two Tiers. Tier 1 ranked seek financial support from government and/or other sources as the number one priority with a score of 0.33, while Tier 2 ranked downsize staff and reduce pay as the priority with a weight of 0.47. Managing finances has been one of the toughest challenges that women entrepreneurs have faced. While experienced women entrepreneurs used their financial reserves, the relatively new women entrepreneurs had to cut costs in their businesses. The considerable difference in priority scores regarding government schemes shows that established women entrepreneurs are aware of them and want to access financial support, despite reported recurring difficulties. All women entrepreneurs unanimously agreed that government schemes do not manifest on-ground because of several challenges: lack of support from banks, dismissive attitude towards women entrepreneurs, loopholes, collateral requirements, procedural complexities and delayed processes of governmental setups in disbursing loans.

The list of aggregated individual priorities for familial and social support sub-criteria points to adjust their schedule to balance work and family time as the priority for both Tiers with an overall score of 0.46. Some women entrepreneurs explained that the balance between work and family time already existed before COVID-19; however, some demarcation was required since house responsibilities had increased in the absence of hired domestic aid. Most of the women unanimously agreed on the value of family support in their business activities, be it in terms of business operations, as some family members are exceptionally skilled and/or in the form of suggestions and criticisms. They admitted that this solidarity from their families gives them confidence and the “wings to fly”. Regarding support societal responsibility, one business owner explained, “the COVID-19 situation has influenced people's integrity, i.e. the awareness that other lives matter and take action to care for others”.

4.2.2 PARWEE action items.

Table 1 shows the list of aggregated individual priorities for the macro theme in terms of recovery actions which inform the PARWEE Action Items. During the two workshops, women entrepreneurs in both Tiers strongly agreed to all the seven pointers mentioned in the Wish List (the input came from women entrepreneurs, but our research team rephrased the language). The weights assigned to action items were very close in their values – meaning that PARWEE represents the needs of all women entrepreneurs across the spectrum of experiences and sectors.

The overall ranking positions the need for capacity building (e.g. digital marketing, technology access, R&D/innovation, crisis management, etc.) as the priority; this is the priority of Tier 2 with a score of 0.20. The results indicate that the Tier 1 priority is to increase awareness of, and enable expedited and easy access to, loan opportunities offered by the government and their disbursal process with a score of 0.18. This item is ranked 2nd by Tier 2 with a score of 0.16. This difference shows the higher need for capacity-building of women entrepreneurs in Tier 2 as they are not experienced enough to handle the COVID-19 situation. However, Tier 1 gives preference to access finances due to their larger-scale operations compared to Tier 2. The following three items have a similar scoring for Tier 2. Tier 1 gives priority to private investment, followed by improved supply-chain and marketing, and public-private partnerships. Interestingly, the need for associations is ranked 3rd by Tier 2 with a score of 0.15, while Tier 1 ranks it in the 6th position with a score of 0.11. The last item is universal health care.

4.3 Webinar results

While the workshops succeeded in engaging women entrepreneurs to build an initial version of PARWEE, the webinar brought about other stakeholders in India’s WEE to vet and discuss the practicality of the prioritized action agenda. As mentioned in the Methodology section, the action items were presented by seven volunteers on behalf of the entire group that created PARWEE.

The government representatives pointed to several resources and services to answer women entrepreneurs’ needs, such as online loans, assets registration, subsidies for fairs and exhibitions, district agencies to counsel entrepreneurs, public procurement platforms, pitching and grant opportunities, and universal health-care systems. The panelists also reminded women entrepreneurs about the importance of being part of women’s organizations, learning about private investment connected to sharing equity or convertible loans, and seeking marketing opportunities by joining already well-established brands or forming clusters. Being part of civic women’s organizations was considerably highlighted by all panelists for advocacy, recognition of opportunities, and access to resources, including peer learning and mentorship. As individual voices often get lost, government officers reaffirmed the need for forming a civic women's business organization to raise concerns at the governmental level.

The discussion also touched upon new projects and opportunities. The government indicated the upcoming launch of an e-commerce initiative. Regarding the two highest priorities, one government representative recognized women’s challenges to access loans given the socio-cultural norms depriving women of collaterals and requiring husbands as guarantors. He added that:

Women's voices need to be raised. In politics, we have seen village bodies raising their voices and concerns, and things like that have helped to some extent […]. I think it is time to see it also in the financial sector so that women entrepreneurs can be empowered with softer loans.

Adding to the topic, a UN international expert suggested coupling capacity building with loan disbursal so that bankers know the business plan of women entrepreneurs, while women entrepreneurs grow their financial skills. Such programs are likely to contribute to the bank's learning process and the acceptability of women entrepreneurs in financial markets. One official recognized that skill development is the greatest requirement of the nation despite the plethora of actors on the market. However, there is no one size fits all, and need assessment and training customization are required.

Overall, the PARWEE action items created by women entrepreneurs were perceived by the expert panel as timely and helpful for directing the formation of recovery plans post COVID-19, and to improve preparedness for similar crises in the future. Suggested follow-up actions to move forward with the PARWEE agenda depend on how much the government officials and international experts' recommendations have convinced women entrepreneurs to take up new initiatives to build their resilience in the wake of COVID-19.

5. Discussion

We started this paper with a critical take on the current literature on COVID-19 impacts on women entrepreneurs, noting how the mainstream of published work emphasizes the “pain” caused by the pandemic over the “treatment” that can be offered to remedy this pain. We also pointed out the missing voice of women entrepreneurs themselves in the ongoing debates and recovery recommendations. The overarching goal of the work presented in this paper was to capture the voice of women entrepreneurs to understand the influence of COVD-19 through the experiences and lessons they have lived and learned and develop a roadmap for recovery based on their priorities. Under this goal, three research questions were formalized to guide the study, which were then mapped to methodological objectives regarding applying systems-thinking in engaging women entrepreneurs and innovating and testing new remote PR methods in the era of COVID-19. In this final section of the paper, we provide a self-assessment of the degree to which we met our research goals and objectives in answering the stated questions. We also reflect on the study's limitations and how the lessons learned can support and inform future work.

5.1 Covid-19 consequences assessment

The PARWEE study revealed several consequences due to the COVID-19 pandemic that Indian women entrepreneurs have faced and the ways they have coped with it. This work extends the literature on entrepreneurship by highlighting key coping strategies and critical needs for women in the wake of COVID-19. While women entrepreneurs’ priorities have been to follow policies related to COVID-19, their main challenges in terms of leadership and HR management are to ensure their staff on telework stays productive and to keep themselves informed about the crisis to adjust. Women have reported resilience in coping with individual distress, dealing with the staff, and adjusting their businesses.

However, they shared a dire need for financial support, be it only loans to keep some activities going. Women entrepreneurs complained that accessing financial resources was already difficult before the crisis because of gender bias. These findings confirm that the main constraints for women entrepreneurs are related to gender discrimination, as Panda (2018) pointed out. Women entrepreneurs require financial support from the ecosystem stakeholders to face the crisis.

Regarding familial and social support, the study also confirms the significant challenge for women to balance family and work life. Many of them shared that the crisis led them to gain the discipline to dedicate separate time and space for work and family. Another promising finding suggests that women entrepreneurs have high societal responsibility, and the crisis has exacerbated this trend. Many women were reluctant to downsize staff, provided psychological support to their team, and reached out to society to help. Such behaviors have already been identified by authors such as Coley et al. (2021), suggesting that women entrepreneurs have further societal responsibility than men counterparts.

5.2 Systems-Thinking perspective

Using a holistic process of probing women on the four components identified from literature helped understand the dynamics and challenges at stake. Even though polls were designed to address each of the four WEE components (provisional codes) separately, the factors (basic themes) revealed from participants were not exclusive to individual components. For example, the finances poll included factors that were connected with both the financial capital and formal institutions components of the WEE. Similarly, the business continuity poll covered elements concerning capacity building and business operation, which cut across the WEE human capital and formal institutions components. The many-to-many mapping between responses/lessons learned generated by women entrepreneurs, and the WEE components reflect the complexity and interdependence among the various components that make up WEE in India and reinforce the need for systems-thinking to tackle this complexity.

5.3 Co-creation approach

The co-creation approach underlying PARWEE was possible because of the remote PR methodologies adopted by the study. Online platforms have been used successfully for certain research tools over the past decade; however, conducting an entire research project, especially collaborative research activities (such as focus groups and multi-stakeholder workshops) online, is entirely new. This study contributes to a new body of knowledge called “Responsible Online Research and Innovation” by Braun et al. (2020) by adopting innovative, immersive, and creative participatory methods (in-depth interviews, ranking workshops, and a webinar) for assessing women entrepreneurs’ experiences. Online tools offered many positive aspects, such as flexibility in study settings, no requirement for field visits, and the ability to involve participants from multiple locations.

To ensure that the women's voices were at the forefront throughout the research process, we capitalized on participants' qualitative information shared in the first methodological stage to design remote ranking workshops for the following phase. In the final stage of the approach, we invited stakeholders representing experts from several domains related to the WEE components. By doing so, the study honored the concept of WEE in two ways. First, bringing together women entrepreneurs and stakeholders virtually to operationalize the PARWEE framework; and second, bringing a convergence between the needs of women entrepreneurs and the institutional environment represented by national and international experts.

5.4 Limitations

Although we attempted to adhere to PR principles, some modifications had to be adopted. While typical PR calls for the communities to be a part of the research throughout the process, this study could not involve women entrepreneurs in defining the research problem, as it was initiated remotely in the wake of COVID-19. Moreover, the impersonal nature of online interactions has undoubtedly affected the richness of the qualitative data collected.

We also acknowledge that the study provides an informal descriptive representation of system concepts and lacks formal modeling. Rigorous application of systems-thinking requires quantitative data. Such mathematical tools as chaos models, simulation and agent-based modeling to capture the entire system and degree of influence among various components were beyond this paper's scope and goal.

Beyond complying with COVID-19 rules and regulations, women entrepreneurs’ experiences in coping with the crisis mainly rely on their leadership skills, personal development and capacity to balance family and work life. The systems-thinking theoretical perspective and the co-creation methodological approach have proven successful in building a shared representation of the consequences of the COVID-19 on women-owned businesses and their behaviors and drafting a joint recovery agenda. Now we turn to the conclusions sections to draw recommendations for the academic community and policymakers.

6. Conclusion and policy recommendations

The paper presents a replicable model of conducting action-oriented research to inform policy agendas. The implication for practice relies on the invaluable contribution of placing women entrepreneurs at the center of evidence-building through co-creation methodologies. The staged approach to creating PARWEE remotely while making it action-oriented to support decision-making and practical policy outcomes presents itself as a model methodology that can be replicated in more extensive studies on women’s economic empowerment and other similar topics. The ranking process has contributed to the literature by integrating remote PR qualitative methods and a mathematical tool to generating reliable quantitative and objective results to prioritize action items. Likewise, the webinar, which captured the transformation of women entrepreneurs into change agents (by presenting the PARWEE framework before the experts), is more likely to lead to a behavioral change of women entrepreneurs and policymakers alike. The first positive affirmation of this aspect appeared in the officials' commitment at the webinar, who offered to raise the women entrepreneurs’ voices and their concerns at the appropriate forums for further action.

The work presented in this paper has implications for the existing body of knowledge on women’s entrepreneurship, as discussed in the above section. It empirically shows the value of systems-thinking in diagnosing challenges and proposing interventions, thus connecting theoretical perspective and ground requirements. The COVID-19 situation exacerbates the challenges women face in business venturing and dealing with relationships between multiple constraints, resulting in adverse issues. Considering this complex reality, it can be stated that only a systemic approach to the problem can create practical solutions for women entrepreneurs’ advancement.

The PARWEE agenda ranks women entrepreneurs' main requirements to support ecosystem stakeholders and policymakers in designing effective programs and policies. While some resources are already available, PARWEE points out high priorities requiring governmental interventions to support recovery and overall business success. The recovery needs mainly concern access to loans and capacity building. Financial inclusion is essential for women who culturally lack collaterals and credit history and suffer from the gender bias of loan officers. While providing loans to successful entrepreneurship trainees is a beginning of a solution, a massive initiative to support women’s financial inclusion beyond micro-finance is required. Moreover, PARWEE also points out the requirement for quality entrepreneurship capacity-building programs enhanced with gender-inclusive soft skill development to support women’s entrepreneurial success. Another promising area of intervention is strengthening women-owned business organizations to be more problem-solving and capacity-building oriented as women entrepreneurs stay away from these “too generic forums” against experts’ recommendations.

Future research may assess suggested action items and monitor their impacts through a formal simulation platform. The presented methodology may also be tested in other contexts, such as women’s saving groups in the rural economy to optimize the entrepreneurship ecosystem. As an expert rightly mentioned, let us keep in mind that “Breaking social ethos and dogmas have a lot to do with the degree of participation of women in the economic domain”.


Staged co-creation approach to PARWEE

Figure 1.

Staged co-creation approach to PARWEE

COVID-19 impacts reported by WEs and grouped by tiers

Figure 2.

COVID-19 impacts reported by WEs and grouped by tiers

Aggregated individual priorities of adaptive behaviors and recovery needs

Tier 1 Tier 2 Total Ranking
Responses and lessons learned
Adopt hygiene and sanitization/safety protocols at the workplace 0.27 0.28 0.27 1
Ensure that staff stays productive 0.20 0.26 0.22 2
Invest in self-development 0.19 0.26 0.21 3
Maintain mental wellbeing and positivity for self and staff 0.19 0.14 0.17 4
Reach out to organizations that support women-owned business 0.16 0.07 0.13 5
Business Continuity
Build new business networks and partnerships 0.21 0.185 0.21 1
Expand to new markets and client base 0.17 0.18 0.173 2
Respond/adapt to changing behaviors and demands of the clients 0.17 0.175 0.171 3
Transform/innovate operations, services, and offers 0.168 0.18 0.171 3
Embrace digital marketing, social media, and online operations 0.15 0.18 0.16 4
Build a competitive edge 0.13 0.10 0.12 5
Financial Management
Budget for emergency funds to face future adversities 0.29 0.30 0.289 1
Seek financial support from government and/or other sources 0.33 0.03 0.286 2
Downsize staff and/or reduce pay 0.19 0.47 0.23 3
Cut down costs (other than staff salaries) 0.19 0.20 0.19 4
Familial and Social Support
Adjust schedule to balance work and family time 0.43 0.50 0.46 1
Support broader societal good and serve the needy 0.32 0.25 0.29 2
Involve family members in households duties and business matters 0.25 0.25 0.25 3
Wish list – PARWEE Action Items
Need for capacity building support 0.17 0.20 0.18 1
Increase awareness of, and enable expedited and easy access to, loan opportunities offered by the government and their disbursal processes 0.18 0.16 0.17 2
Increase awareness of, and enable expedited and easy access to, investment and/or seed capital from private and charitable sources 0.16 0.14 0.15 3
Need for better access to supply/chain networks and marketing channels 0.14 0.14 0.14 4
Need for public-private partnership and collaboration initiatives, including subsidized programs, that support women-owned businesses 0.13 0.14 0.13 5
Need for lobby/support/advocacy groups supporting issues and concerns related to women's owned business 0.11 0.15 0.12 6
Need for universal health-care coverage for all types and sizes of women-owned business 0.12 0.09 0.11 7


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This research was supported by the Centre for Women's Empowerment and Gender Equality at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham. We are immensely grateful to the Chancellor of the University, Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, for giving us the opportunity to serve and learn.

The authors would like to express their deep gratitude to Dilip Chenoy – Secretary General of FICCI, former CEO of NSDC, Rajesh Agrawal- Executive Director, India Trade Promotion Organisation, Department of Commerce, GOI, Anand Selvakesari – Head-US Consumer Banking at Citigroup, Inc, Meg Jones – Former Chief, Economic Empowerment, UN Women, and Ela Lonescue – Partnership Specialist with UN Women for their contributions as a webinar panelists to discuss the results of this project and interact with women entrepreneurs and provide them concrete action items to move forward in these times of COVID-19.

The authors would also like to acknowledge the contribution of women entrepreneurs in this study's co-creation process and wholeheartedly thank them for their passionate participation throughout the process of interviews, workshops, and/or the webinar. We thank the following women entrepreneurs in particular, who participated in the interviews and the workshops Dhanvita Sathyanand, Dr Shabana Khan, Gowri S Ramani, Krishnamani Ballal, Kulpreet Freddy Vesuna, Monika Vasudeva, Monita Sethi, Richa Khetarpal, Sandhya R. Rao, Sukanya Rao, Thakur Reshma Singh, Tripta Garg, and Vani Sharma. Finally, we acknowledge the amazing contribution of the representative women entrepreneurs who took part in the interviews and workshops and volunteered to interact with panelists during the final webinar Darshan Kaur Khalsa, Dhanvita Sathyanand, Manmeet Singh, Nisha Dhanuka, Pooja Singhal, Sriparna Das Chakraborty and Suchana Bera.

Corresponding author

Sandrine Bonin can be contacted at: yamuna.bonin@ammachilabs.org

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