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Sites Cast Net to Bring Asian Women Online

Internet: Although they run 35% of small and medium-size firms there, they constitute just 22% of e-users. Ventures offer advice, support, networking.


For Hiroko Shimo, was teacher, support group and friend rolled into one.

Through the Web site for businesswomen in Asia, she was able to get advice not only on business plans and venture capital but also on how to overcome some peculiarly Japanese problems.

Like how to set up an office in a country where landlords don't like renting to women. (Her father ended up signing the lease.)

"Japanese business newspapers and magazines only have success stories, especially about men," complained the 30-year-old founder of, a Japanese women's lifestyle and shopping Web site. "I get frustrated."

Since last April's collapse of the technology markets, starting an Internet firm anywhere has taken a fair amount of nerve. But it is particularly tough for women in Asia, a part of the world that has traditionally discouraged them from climbing the corporate or political ladder.

Online communities such as, and Webgrrls International are offering Asian entrepreneurs such as Shimo a way to overcome their isolation and tap into a global network of corporate sisterhood. In Japan alone, more than 50 women-focused Web sites have cropped up in the last year.

Finding a way to make money from these ventures has been difficult, particularly with the collapse in tech fortunes this year. Most sites depend heavily on advertising; some offer e-commerce or charge commissions for services., a global Web site for businesswomen, recently closed its doors.

Tim Clark, strategy director for Tokyo-based Web Connection, predicts many of these women-focused Web sites will go bankrupt or be acquired by stronger companies.

"Portals are important because they are symbolic and inspirational, not because they present real business opportunities," Clark said.

But Rosemary Brisco, founder of the San Jose-based, believes the Internet's potential for women is huge in Asia, where they constitute half the labor force and head up 35% of the small and medium-size businesses.

The Internet drastically reduces the expense of launching a business, which can reach as high as $1 million in places such as Japan. Doing business online also is an attractive option for stay-at-home moms--still the norm in many Asian countries.

Brisco fears the "digital gender divide" will worsen unless these women are trained to use the Internet and get access to computers and low-cost Internet hookups.

Though female Internet users outnumber men in the U.S., 78% of the Internet users in Asia are male. In Indonesia, just 12% of the 15,000 members of the country's largest businesswomen's association even have e-mail accounts.

Brisco hopes to help correct that imbalance. In addition to a Web site that offers entrepreneurial success stories, a job bank and a database of women-owned businesses, she offers Internet training programs in Asia. Graduates agree to teach at least one other woman how to use the Internet within 30 days.

One of Brisco's success stories, Doan Thi Minh Chau, moved her Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam-based travel business online. She has pared down her overseas phone call bill from $2,000 to $200 a month and has been able to expand her business far beyond Asia.

Brisco, whose has gotten support from a few large companies, such as Northwest Airlines and CNBC, is trying to close a second round of funding. She is working with several governments in Asia to set up Internet training programs in their countries.

The challenges of bringing more women into the digital work force and Internet start-up boardrooms vary widely across Asia.

In Japan and South Korea, patriarchal attitudes represent a huge barrier to female entrepreneurship. Women face pressure to quit their jobs when they get married and have children. Those who want to work full time suffer from a shortage of good, affordable child care.

Kumi Sato, a Tokyo public relations executive and founder of, said sexist stereotypes and a lack of role models have kept Japanese women from contemplating entrepreneurship, even though they are highly educated (85% are college graduates) and usually control the household finances.

But female Net-savvy is rapidly increasing in Japan, where women make up 37% of the online population and are expected to constitute 50% by 2003.

To encourage entrepreneurial ambitions, offers an "Ask the Experts" column featuring female attorneys, businesswomen and doctors and presented an IBM-sponsored "Give us your best E-dream" contest.

Elsewhere in Asia, female entrepreneurs may face different barriers. In Hong Kong's heavily Westernized business culture, women are more likely to be found in top jobs in government and business, supported by a huge pool of inexpensive Filipino nannies. In China, where Communist leaders advocated women holding up "half the sky," female managers and shop owners are common.

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