In Azerbaijan, women seek the perfect mix of soft and hard skills 

Azerbaijani women face some unique challenges when starting a business, but they are increasingly making their mark on society 

Earning more money, fulfilling a long-held dream of entrepreneurship, and the desire to work independently are among the primary motivators for Azerbaijani women who have started their own (new) businesses.  

However, these entrepreneurs face various challenges, including obtaining investments or financing, high competition, building and managing teams, unfavourable business conditions, finding high-quality suppliers, and facing cultural perceptions of women in business.  

The experiences of female entrepreneurs also reveal instances of gender barriers, discrimination, and difficulty building and managing teams. 

Despite the challenges, most entrepreneurs remain optimistic about their businesses’ future but recognise the need to enhance their skills and seek guidance from others to overcome obstacles and grow. As such, they need to strike a balance between technical expertise and soft skills while being receptive to learning from others. 

‘I had a mission’ 

In a recent survey Emerging Europe carried out under the She’s Next Empowered by Visa initiative, Azerbaijan’s female entrepreneurship were asked about their motivations, challenges, and prospects in doing business.  

The desire to earn more money was the most popular reason, with 40.6 per cent of respondents choosing this option. Additionally, 24.4 per cent of entrepreneurs indicated that starting their own business was a long-held dream, while 17.2 per cent cited the desire to work for themselves instead of working for someone else.  

Other reasons to start a business were to build a career (15 per cent), developing a great idea that they believed would benefit others (11.7 per cent), and wanting to be leaders and inspire others (11.1 per cent). 

When asked about motivations to start a (new) business during a series of in-depth-interviews, entrepreneurs revealed additional reasons. One start-up founder noted the lack of fashion-oriented businesses in the country and wanted to create opportunities for women in the workplace. “I had a mission,” she said, “and, this was going to be a place to grow, to hire women, a place that would be fair for women.”  

For a CEO of a large company, the motivation to lead by example was a driving factor. She stated: “It is a great opportunity to lead by example. It brings greater responsibility as well. But opportunity to show your capabilities in a wider scope, beyond engineering.” 

Lastly, one business owner shared her motivation for starting her own business, stating that it was always a part of her life plan. As she explained, “I wanted to become a lawyer from school, and I always knew that I would own something mine [own business] – it is in my blood.”  

Taking on the men 

The top challenges for female entrepreneurs in Azerbaijan include obtaining investments or financing (45 per cent), high competition (23.3 per cent), searching for workers and building teams (22.2 per cent), unfavorable business conditions (22.2 per cent), finding suppliers of high-quality goods (19.4 per cent), and the perception of women entrepreneurs in local culture (15.6 per cent).  

Other obstacles, including gender discrimination, building web presence, and high niche competition, were mentioned by less than 10 per cent of respondents but should still be considered important. 

Interviewees shared the challenges that they faced. One start-up founder who faced gender barriers noted that her father did not initially support her decision to pursue a career in business. She said: “He was right, there are a lot of challenges because I am a woman.” However, this did not deter her, and she was determined to succeed. 

For a large company CEO, being a woman in a predominantly male field presents its own unique set of challenges. As she puts it, “It takes about six-eight months for [male colleagues] to start to listen and appreciate views on the subject.” When there are board meetings, where she is often the only woman in the room, she said, “It takes a special skill and a challenge to talk [effectively].”  

Meanwhile, for a young start-up founder, the challenges are different, but no less daunting. She feels like people don’t take her seriously and dismiss her as too young. “They think you are not suitable,” she said. 

Additional difficulty is to find and build the right team to work with. A start-up founder highlighted, “it was difficult to find professionals to work with – more than 20 interviews to hire the right person.” Even after building a team, “finding a team to manage processes still remains a challenge.” 

Building a website can also be a challenge, as it requires the right expertise and vision to make it user-friendly. The founder of a startup faced several issues with her website. “The first one failed because it takes a lot of time to hire one developer. Unless he/she has the vision, the design and expertise in retail, the website will not be user friendly.” 

Reasons to be cheerful 

While there are still challenges to be overcome, most entrepreneurs (78.9 per cent) expressed optimism and expected some degree of growth or stability in the near future. Only 15 per cent expected to maintain their current state, while 6.1 per cent anticipated a drop in sales and operations.  

When asked about skills the entrepreneurs would like to improve to better manage their businesses in the future, digital marketing and managing social networks was the top skill, with almost half of them (49.4 per cent) indicating this area as a priority. The second most desired skill is to obtain additional financing, with 33.9 per cent of respondents showing interest in this area.  

Other skills that entrepreneurs would like to strengthen include trade-commerce and online operations, development of international business, strategic management and planning, connections with media and PR, networking, and financial planning and management.  

Networking – an integral component of personal and professional growth, was also mentioned by interviewed entrepreneurs. One company CEO said it is essential to be open to learning from others. “I would love to be mentored or connected to women that have the same challenges. If someone is doing [something] better, I would love to learn,” she said. 

Another start-up founder expressed her opinion about the importance of remembering that at the heart of every business is people. “Networking is very important,” she noted. “Everything is a people’s thing. If someone doesn’t like you, they won’t do business with you.”  

But, running a successful business requires a combination of technical expertise and soft skills, such as emotional intelligence, communication, and teamwork. However, not all entrepreneurs possess these skills, and many recognise that they need to improve in certain areas to achieve their goals. 

During an in-depth interview, one company CEO admitted to having “too much engineering” and that she needed to work on her confidence. She highlighted the need for improvement her soft skills, stating, “I would like to improve my soft skills, and work on my confidence despite being a CEO.” 

Indeed, other entrepreneurs expressed a need to work on their emotional intelligence. One start-up founder noted, “We are too emotional, and it damages our business.”  

Another start-up founder reflected on her Soviet education, which she described as “ego-centric” and lacking in team-building skills. She found it challenging to share responsibilities and ask for help, saying, “I faced a hard time to sharing responsibilities and asking for help.”  

Meanwhile, one company director acknowledged the need to improve her time management skills and narrow her training in marketing. In addition, one business owner recognised the importance of effective communication, acknowledging that she speaks too quickly. She also stated: “I need to tackle ‘altruism’ when it comes to negotiating.”  

All in all, while most entrepreneurs expressed optimism about the future of their businesses, they acknowledged the need to improve their skills to overcome challenges and grow. To achieve their goals, they must strive to develop a balance between technical expertise and soft skills and be open to learn from others.  

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