‘We have stories to tell other markets’ 

With a positive outlook and entrepreneurial spirit, Uzbekistan’s female business environment is poised for success in the years to come. 

Uzbekistan’s women entrepreneurs are thriving, driven by a range of motivations that go beyond just financial gain. According to recent research conducted by Emerging Europe under the She’s Next Empowered by Visa initiative, many are pursuing their dreams or seeking personal fulfilment, while others are driven by the desire to be leaders or make a social impact.  

However, female entrepreneurs in Uzbekistan still face obstacles such as bureaucracy, competition, and unfavourable business conditions, in addition to cultural biases and discrimination.  

Despite these challenges, the government has launched initiatives to support women’s education and entrepreneurship, and private and public efforts are emerging to promote female leadership.   

Motivations and Ideas  

According to our research, entrepreneurship is a highly valued pursuit for women in Uzbekistan due to its potential for financial independence and stability. However, it is not only driven by financial motives; many women are also motivated by a desire to contribute to society and make a positive impact through their business ventures. 

Specifically, the primary reason for women in Uzbekistan to start their own businesses is to earn more income (43.3 per cent). For another 18.9 per cent, having a great idea or solution that would benefit others was a key factor, while 18.3 per cent of entrepreneurs reported that entrepreneurship has always been their dream. 

Some women see entrepreneurship as an opportunity to achieve personal fulfilment and make a difference in their communities. About 9.4 per cent of respondents expressed a desire to be a leader and inspire others.   

Additionally, 8.9 per cent of respondents reported wanting to build a career through entrepreneurship, viewing it as a viable path to professional growth and development. Social impact is also a consideration for some women in Uzbekistan when starting their own businesses, with 7.8 per cent of respondents stating that they wanted to help others. 

It is interesting to note that 7.2 per cent of respondents reported starting their own business because they were unemployed – suggesting that entrepreneurship is seen as a viable option for some Uzbek women who are unable to find employment in traditional job markets. 

During a series of in-depth interviews, social impact/mission was also confirmed by several entrepreneurs as a strong reason or idea to start their ventures.  

One business owner noted, “The idea of the company was raised by its social mission. I was motivated by my own experience when I was looking for high-quality food for my child and got international experience in Italy.” She saw that mothers are usually not fully prepared to get into the topic of healthy food for children, so she decided to take the issue in her own hands.  

Similarly, another business founder was motivated by the willingness to drive social change, as she stated: “That is a kind of internal mission – to make people’s lives better, if you have resources for it.” 

Financial rewards were also a common motivation for entrepreneurs. One business owner shared how she started a fashion retail business because she was interested in fashion and loved children. However, she also sought substantial financial rewards to provide for her family stating, “As a single mother, I was looking for sufficient compensation to be able to sustain the whole family – myself, child and parents.” 

Additional factors were also mentioned by entrepreneurs who were interviewed. One SME owner was motivated by the desire to have more control over her time and work with like-minded individuals stating, “You are the boss of your time. You can work with people who share your thoughts and ideas.”  

Some entrepreneurs were motivated by their desire to work in a specific industry or field. One business owner was motivated to start an IT company because it was “trendy and creative”, and because she was inspired by “the process of communication and helping others and the country”.  

Similarly, another business owner based her company on a website she created during an IT foundation class, noting that “I had never thought that I would be a businesswoman, but as it’s said, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’.” 

Battling bureaucracy 

Although the business environment in Uzbekistan has shown improvement, with fewer barriers to entry, bureaucracy remains a hindrance. As reported by a business owner, “there is a problem with bureaucracy.”  

This assertion aligns with the results of our survey, in which bureaucracy and the complexity of administration were identified as significant obstacles, accounting for 11.7 per cent of the responses and listed among the main challenges to starting a (new) business.  

Apart from that, Uzbek entrepreneurs also highlighted unfavourable business conditions (29.4 per cent), obtaining investments/financing (24.4 per cent), high competition (22.4 per cent), high niche competition (22.8 per cent), and searching for workers and building teams (19.4 per cent) as significant challenges.   

In addition, the perception of women entrepreneurs in local culture (7.8 per cent) and gender discrimination (0.6 per cent) were also identified as obstacles by respondents, indicating that female entrepreneurs in the country may face some degree of cultural biases or discrimination in certain industries. 

One business CEO stated, “there is a cultural dimension in the country that affects more women than men, especially in consultancy as business can be made in unusual places as pubs or restaurants. So, in general, women are at a disadvantage in such a male-dominated environment.” 

However, positive changes have been happening as one business founder stated: “There are positive changes happening in the domain of the attitude to women – the question of providing education to all females, allowing them to work is being raised on the highest level.”   

Yet, there is still a perception that education increases a girl’s “price” in the bride market, but it is unnecessary for her to work. The business founder also noted that, “There are still many cases where husbands forbid their wives to work.” 

To tackle these issues, the government in 2022 launched a programme to subsidise women’s education. “At the same time, these efforts remain unfinished,” the same business founder emphasized, “because there is no supporting informational campaign that would inform society that the goal of pursuing education is to get a job and work, not to increase the bride’s price.”  

Despite these challenges, “there are a lot of private and public initiatives [supporting female leadership and entrepreneurship] arising at the moment,” a business owner noted. “At the same time, many years of stagnation [in this area] affected the state of it, so the changes don’t happen as fast as one would like it to happen,” she said.  

In the same line, one business owner mentioned that “female entrepreneurship is highly supported now in Uzbekistan. Among others, there are initiatives that support female studies in the IT field.” 

In addition, another business owner noted that, “A lot of female entrepreneurs use financing programmes. Every two-three months we get a call from the authorities who ask if we encounter any problems.”  

Nonetheless, gender responsiveness in the business context is still lacking, and gender biases are not entirely absent. One business founder noted that, “the business context is not gender responsive,” while another business owner mentioned that, “gender biases are not frequent, but there are cases that men want to talk to men, not women.”   

What’s next

According to our survey findings, many female entrepreneurs in Uzbekistan have a positive outlook on the future of their businesses and are confident in the potential for growth.  

More specifically, 85 per cent of respondents expect growth in their operations over the next 12-24 months. In contrast, only 11.7 per cent of respondents expect to maintain their current state, and a mere 3.3 per cent believe that their operations may see a decline in sales and volume.  

The survey findings are supported by the statements of the entrepreneurs who are focused on expansion, internationalisation, and exploring new opportunities.  

One business owner stated: “We have things to tell to other [international] markets,” believing that her unique story has the potential to reach other markets, and that she wants to expand internationally.  

Another business owner expressed an interest in expanding into neighbouring countries. She said: “[I want to] internationalize to Kazakhstan, run a franchise and expand import activities. I want to get to something new – new idea, new direction for the business.”  

Yet, another entrepreneur is planning to expand to multiple countries, including Kazakhstan, Turkey, Egypt, the UK, the US, and the UAE, while still seeing Uzbekistan as her main market. She said: “I want to bring our country to the international level”. 

Lastly, another business owner wants to change the format of her business and place emphasis on female empowerment while expanding in Uzbekistan. She also sees the potential to “become a gateway to the whole Central Asia region”.   

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