Key Takeaways

Kamila, a 37-year-old woman from Almaty, initially pursued a career as a psychologist but decided to put it on hold to prioritize raising her three children. After eight years of devoted parenting, and with her children a little older, she embarked on a new venture, starting an upcycling business from scratch.

Kamila's entrepreneurial journey began with her passion for nature and upcycling. She had a remarkable talent for transforming discarded clothing into unique products. She first experimented with various creative ideas, such as repurposing a large skirt into a beautiful dress. Recognizing the potential in the upcycling niche, she focused her efforts on crafting eco-friendly shopping bags.

Yet, Kamila's natural flair for embroidery and creating beautiful products could only take her so far. "I opened the upcycling studio in August 2021, but the expenses exceeded the income. I needed to improve my business knowledge to understand what I was doing wrong."

She began to look for opportunities to improve her knowledge of how to run a business and that’s when she found the Women Entrepreneurship Development Center in Almaty.

Supporting women-led SMEs

Opened in October 2021, the center provides tailored support programs for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) owned by women – which make up around 43% of all SMEs in Kazakhstan. Through personalized training, mentoring, and networking opportunities, the center's staff – all of whom are female – help to address the unique needs of women entrepreneurs.

The Almaty branch was one of three pilots launched in 2021. Operating within branches of the Atameken, Kazakhstan's National Chamber of Entrepreneurs, the initiative has now expanded to include 20 centers across all regions of Kazakhstan.

Kamila's experience illustrates the impact that targeted support for women entrepreneurs can have in Kazakhstan. As of July 2023, the centers – financed by the Asian Development Bank under a COVID-19 pandemic response program – have trained around 7,000 women in business fundamentals such as social entrepreneurship and funding.

By 2025, the centers aim to deliver specialized training and capacity building programs to over 15,000 women entrepreneurs across the country.

For Kamila, support from the center helped grow her client base and improve her bottom line.

"During personal meetings with a mentor, they gave me the direction to reach corporate clients," she said. "After rethinking all the knowledge gained, I went to corporate clients, changed the financial business model. Now, it has started to make a profit."

She learned how to develop sound financial models and effective marketing strategies, such as promoting her Instagram page and establishing a strong online presence. She also picked up a better understanding of how to apply for grants, expanding her funding options.

The programs not only provided Kamila with practical knowledge but also a supportive community. She had the opportunity to meet and network with other aspiring entrepreneurs, creating a platform for sharing experiences and ideas.

"Thanks to the training and support received at the center, my business has flourished, bringing about a positive transformation in my quality of life," said a smiling Kamila.

She now employs three people, and her improved income means she is better able to support her family.

The program has also sparked Kamila's ambition to explore new areas of business. She has embarked on a new line of bags, pillows, and boxes made from felt, specifically for weddings, featuring a distinct Kazakh national pattern.

Expanding opportunities for women

Impressed with the impact of the ADB-funded centers, the Government of Kazakhstan has decided to finance future operations from its national budget, with some $6 million approved in December 2022 for the next three years.

"Gender equality is fundamental to an inclusive and resilient Asia and the Pacific," said ADB Country Director for Kazakhstan Nariman Mannapbekov. "We must expand women's access to quality, higher-paying jobs, and invest in women's entrepreneurship to help close the gender pay gap. We are committed to investing in women as agents of change – and Kamila’s experience shows what is possible when that is done in a targeted way."

While Kamila may no longer be a practicing psychologist, what she learned in that discipline continues to help in her new business career.

"Each complex project, each mistake, makes it possible for me to understand a business more broadly, like a psychologist," she said. "Since putting a business in profit requires a lot of patience and work on yourself."