As most businesses across the globe have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic to different degrees, e-commerce stands out as one of the few industries that has not only survived, but significantly thrived during the past two years. In Southeast Asia, particularly, e-commerce is one of the most important forces behind the region’s digital economy boom. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Southeast Asian market has had 70 million more online shoppers, and now, it sees the fastest digital sales growth in the world, according to eMarketer report. By 2025, the market size in the region is expected to triple to $309 billion.
Yet, the number could be bettered – an additional $280 billion in revenue – once the gender gap in sales performance is closed with more women entrepreneurs joining the industry, at least according to a 2021 research piece conducted by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) with data from Lazada, the leading e-commerce platform in Southeast Asia.
Founded in 2012, Lazada operates in six Southeast Asian countries – the Philipines, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. In 2016, Chinese internet giant Alibaba acquired a controlling stake in Lazada, and has since invested heavily in the platform’s transition towards a “super platform” that integrates multiple services ranging from payments to delivery in an effort to fuel the growth of a digital ecosystem.
By offering accessible technology infrastructure and logistics services, e-commerce platforms such as Lazada have effectively lowered the barrier to entry for starting a business, thereby acting as an equalizer that enables traditionally underrepresented groups – such as women – to better utilize their entrepreneurial talent and contribute to the booming digital economy in Southeast Asia.
At present, women account for one third of Lazada’s vendors in Indonisia, and two thirds in the Philippines. Female entrepreneurs from China – a trailblazer in the world’s e-commerce sphere – are also venturing their way into Southeast Asia via platforms like Lazada. Notably, most of these women-owned e-commerce businesses are micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) with between 10 and 300 employees. “
There is certainly a business case, as well as a moral case, for platforms to help women entrepreneurs make their ambitions a reality”, said Alexa Roscoe, Disruptive Technology Lead of IFC.
Inaugurated in 2021, the “Lazada Forward Women Awards” represents one of those such efforts. Last year, the Award nominated six female entrepreneurs from across Southeast Asia in acknowledgement of their resilience and innovation in advancing e-commerce businesses on the platform. This year, in conjunction with International Women’s Day, the platform continued the celebration and awarded 21 female e-commerce entrepreneurs from Southeast Asia as well as China.
Together, these awardees represent the tens of thousands of women who have seized the entrepreneurial opportunities brought by disruptive technologies to bring their business ideas into reality. Beyond achieving economic success, they are also role models, giving back and creating impact within their local communities. Along the way, being a woman presents both an advantage and a challenging fact that needs to be further addressed by multiple parties from policy makers and e-commerce platforms, to the wider society as a whole.
Researchers have found that women tend to face more challenges than their male counterparts when securing financing for their business start-ups. For Wang Huachun, one of the seven “Lazada Forward Woman of the Year”, lack of finance did impede her very first entrepreneurial try-out back in 2012, which she had to give up half-way due to poor cash flows. “I loved it, but considering my personal economic conditions, I couldn’t risk applying for bank loans. Besides, as a girl, I could hardly get any support.”
After getting married, Wang Huachun moved back to her hometown in eastern Guangdong, China. There, she spotted opportunities from the local industrial cluster that makes women’s langerie and showed a promising supply chain. Wang decided to dive back into e-commerce once again. This time, with the help of relatives who were already manufacturing langerie and her own even “more determined heart”, Wang was able to set up a brand which saw her re-enter Lazada’s view in 2020.
Wang’s first child was born during promotion season, which brought her to the typical conundrum that every woman will have to face at some point in her life: work or family? In Asia, women are still largely confined to stereotypical gender expectations and take most of the caring responsibilities at home. “It was practically impossible to balance between childcare and work”, said Wang, adding that her husband had been supportive enough to share some of the child-caring responsibilities in order to let her focus on her business. Nonetheless, when asked about whether she likes starting a new business, Wang said, “No, because I am a woman, and our society is so much more tolerant to men than women when it comes to business. If you are a woman, and your business has failed, people will blame it on you. They’d say you should have stayed home taking care of the children, whereas if a man had failed, he’d receive more encouragement.”
While e-commerce and the technology infrastructure accompanying it have significantly lowered the barriers of entry for women to enter the labor force, Wang’s story powerfully exemplifies the challenges that remain for female entrepreneurs these days, such as limited access to finance, greater care responsibilities at home, lack of support networks, and pressure from society at large.
But there are also unique opportunities for women to utilize in the e-commerce landscape. As e-commerce platforms keep expanding and reaching wider populations in Southeast Asia, women vendors can expect increased market access. Đoàn Trần Thùy Linh, for example, was awarded the “Lazada Forward Woman of the Year” in Vietnam. She began selling coffee products on Lazada in 2016. Starting from zero experience in e-commerce, Thùy Linh is now one of the top sellers under the platform’s Food & Beverage category, managing a team of 19 members. For Thùy Linh, the sheer size of Lazada and the various tools the platform provides have enabled her to sell coffee at a scale that brick-and-mortar stores could never match.
Moreover, the aforementioned IFC research also found that in traditionally male-dominated high-value sectors, such as electronics, women vendors actually perform at the same level or better than their male counterparts. This presents another opportunity for women: participating in high-value sectors will help boost revenue.
Fu Dan, awarded Lazada’s “Enterprising Award” this year, sells electric tools cross-border from China to Southeast Asia via Lazada. In a recent interview, she explained why women could have an advantage even when it comes to products that are stereotypically regarded as “men’s expertise”, “I think women tend to view the product from different angels than men. Take drills for example. As a woman, I am more concerned about whether it is light-weight enough so that I can hold it easily, whether it is easy to use, and so on. It is these details that help customers make decisions rather than obscure technological terms.”
For others, being a woman also means they are more sensitive to market niches that may be less obvious to male entrepreneurs. Pattiya Thanasrivanitchai, for example, is the founder of Happi Cup. Inspired by a holiday trip in Maldives where she first tried a menstrual cup, a feminine hygiene product, Pattiya Thanasrivanitchai began looking for manufacturers in Thailand, hoping to introduce this more environmentally friendly approach to menstrual management to local women. She found a high-quality silicon raw material provider in the United States and, in 2020, opened her store on Lazada.
On Happi Cup’s social media channels, Pattiya also regularly posts content about women’s health and has gradually built a community where women can freely discuss topics such as periods and menstrual products that are historically regarded as taboo in Thai society. “I think my brand can transform society through education”, said Pattiya.
Raymond Yang, Chief Operating Officer of Lazada Group, said, “It is incredible to witness the remarkable achievements of female merchants across Southeast Asia’s digital commerce ecosystem. Our Lazada sellers have continued to innovate and adapt their businesses to the eCommerce environment, cater to their customers and enhance product offerings. We are proud to journey alongside these winners and create a world that is diverse and inclusive.”