ANDE spoke to Diep Hong Ngo of the Women’s Initiative for Startups and Entrepreneurship (WISE) Vietnam about the organization’s ANDE-funded project under the Advancing Women’s Empowerment Fund to address the gap in seed and early-stage funding for women-led businesses in Vietnam by increasing market opportunities in the angel investing ecosystem.
Tell us about your organization and the work you do to support small and growing businesses.
WISE stands for Women’s Initiative Startups and Entrepreneurship. As the name suggests, our mission is to support women in starting up and growing their businesses. We offer a range of activities to support small and growing businesses. Of these numerous programs, our most popular activities include capacity building through training, especially business knowledge and skills training, for women entrepreneurs.
Our signature program is the WISE accelerator program, an annual program for women-led startups. This year, with support from ANDE, WISE held an accelerator program focused on building investment readiness in women-led startups and connecting these startups with potential investors. Additionally, WISE has mentoring programs, business networking events, and develops the entrepreneurial ecosystem by supporting startups in Vietnam. These activities work to support small and growing businesses, especially women-led enterprises, in Vietnam.
Tell us about your AWEF project and its theory of change.
Our AWEF grant project and its theory of change came from our knowledge of a funding gap for women-led startups in Vietnam. On the supply side, this gap comes from a lack of gender lens investment in Vietnam. Investors do not care that much about gender issues. As a result, they do not select many women-led startups for investment, nor do they take them very seriously. On the demand side, we see that women founders are not as ready for investment; they need to build capacity to prepare for investment and to be more confident in raising funds. They also need to be connected to appropriate funders and investors.
With the AWEF project, WISE is trying to address this gap both from the supply and the demand side. To address the supply side issues, WISE has run trainings on gender lens investing for NGO investors. We had nearly twenty different NGO investors join these training calls in late 2020. We also brought these NGO investors to networking events with startups and provided the NGOs with matching to specific startups. On the demand side, we launched an accelerator for nine female-led startups starting in March 2021, which provided them with an online bootcamp, mentorship, networking, and training opportunities. This accelerator program lasted for six months, and WISE is now in the process of launching virtual demo days for the startups to share their businesses with investors.
How have you navigated COVID impacts? What were the major challenges, or the silver linings?
Due to COVID, we had to move all of our programs into an online format. For example, the demo days following the accelerator would usually be an in-person event. While it was difficult at first, it was a good learning process for WISE. We now have the online skills and experience to run a successful virtual accelerator and investment training program.
The broader impacts of COVID-19 on the economy and small businesses were undoubtedly a significant challenge. Vietnam was often behind the world in terms of COVID waves hitting; while the rest of the world was beginning to shut down, WISE was still able to have some in-person training for investors in which we could meet and screen some potential startups for investment. However, as the pandemic hit Vietnam, the economic concerns definitely affected investors’ willingness to invest in new startups. Some deals were made in late 2020 and early 2021; however, many were delayed and as of March 2021, there have been no new investors. So, overall, many startups were negatively impacted by COVID, although some online-based startups were able to grow well during the pandemic. On the bright side, it was easier for more speakers and trainers to join in and facilitate training for startups online!
Beyond AWEF, WISE will continue to maintain and develop the network of gender-lens investors in Vietnam by continuing to match investors with suitable deals of their interest, facilitate co-investment and move forward to the official establishment of a gender-lens investment fund when the situation permits.