Women entrepreneurs – for a viable countryside

There is great hope that rural entrepreneurship will reverse the trend of economic decline in rural areas. Many of the new rural enterprises are owned and/or run by women – something that both research and rural policy often miss.

Researchers in the project

Helene Ahl, Professor in business economics

Karin Berglund, Professor in business economics

Katarina Pettersson, Assistant Professor in Social and Economic geography

Malin Tillmar, Professor in business economics

Birgitta Sköld, PhD in business economics

For three years, the Embla research group, with the support of the Kamprad Foundation, has been studying women's entrepreneurship in rural areas. Using register data, we have mapped the scope, industry, size, demographic data and disposable income for all women who run rural businesses in Sweden. We have analyzed rural policy from a gender perspective. We also conducted an in-depth study in which we interviewed 32 women entrepreneurs in the rural south-east of Sweden. To top it off, we produced a film External link, opens in new window. in which some women in their own words tell us what it is like to be an entrepreneur in a rural area.

The statistics are ready, you can find it here External link, opens in new window., in Swedish. An English version is forthcoming. The rest of the results will be published in the coming year, but we can already offer some summary observations. First, they are many. Women own almost a third of all rural businesses. Second, their businesses are in a variety of industries. The most common industry is forestry, but unlike the men who are mostly found in forestry, agriculture, construction and transport, women are found in many different industries - more specifically 572 different ones! Number two on the top ten list is hair care, followed by mixed agriculture, restaurant operations, accounting and bookkeeping, body care, organizational consultancy, physical therapy, literary and artistic creation and other consumer services. But these industries include only 37% of companies owned by women.

There are women who have large manufacturing companies with many employees, and these are usually also the most profitable. Accounting firms, consultancy firms, grocery stores and restaurants also often have good profitability. But most entrepreneurs have small businesses, without employees. They may need many sources of income to support themselves, so it is common to run several different types of business at the same time. Although entrepreneurship may not make women wealthy, having their own business offers a way for them to live the life they want to live, and above all in the place they want to live. Our respondents say that what motivates them most is the opportunity to control their own lives and to realize an idea, and in many cases they also want to do this in a specific place.

It is mainly women's companies that provide the services offered in rural areas. Women contribute to the rural economy with employment opportunities and with local services, and they often buy goods and services for their business locally, which benefits other companies in the area. In addition to this, they often take a great deal of social responsibility. They sponsor local associations, such as sports clubs for children, they participate in local development projects, or get involved politically. Several of the companies, not least the shop owners or the hairdressers often have the only remaining meeting places in a village and therefore provide vital social services to the area. Without these companies, the countryside would be frighteningly empty.

Most of the people we interviewed were anchored locally. They come from the place, have moved back to the place or they have moved to their spouse's place of residence. They often find important role models in the place where they establish their business –sometimes also in the family. For many respondents there was a family business to return to. Among our interviewees we found very few who moved from the city to the countryside without any previous connection to the area. So for those who want to benefit the business community in rural areas, it seems more effective to invest in the women who are already there, than to get the urban residents to move out to the countryside. Municipal advertising campaigns that promote a green lifestyle to the urban residents may not be the most effective.

What can be done to stimulate entrepreneurship in rural areas? Today, there are EU grants for farmers, which are vital to them, but which have no significant impact on women's entrepreneurship. There is also EU funding for community development projects. Some social entrepreneurs have benefited greatly from these, and have done important things for their communities. However, the majority of our respondents said that EU grants were far too complicated to receive so they saw no point in applying for them. What everyone emphasized, however, was the importance of a functioning infrastructure. There must be broadband, grocery store, post office, health care, public transport, state and municipal services and not least a functioning school. Without a school, families with children cannot live there. Therefore, there may be a point of public funding for a good service offering in rural areas, even if the population base is too small to sustain it – without such, it is difficult to reverse a downward trend. Among those we interviewed, we saw examples of how local business owners have managed to make their place attractive just by investing in a good service offering.

Project time: 2017–2019

Funded by The Kamprad Family Foundation for Entrepreneurship, Research & Charity.

Project leader: Helene Ahl