“Trailblazers of Steppes” Book Celebrates 50 Inspiring Kazakh Women in Business

ASTANA – To create space for women’s voices and stories in entrepreneurship, Shumaila Yousafzai, an associate professor in entrepreneurship at Nazarbayev University, profiled the achievements of 50 female entrepreneurs in a book titled “Trailblazers of the Steppes: Inspiring Narratives of Women in Business in Kazakhstan,” which is published in Kazakh, Russian and English languages.

Shumaila Yousafzai during the presentation of the book at Nazarbayev University (NU). Photo credit: NU press service

The book features inspiring women who have advanced entrepreneurship and innovation across various sectors in the country. The themes covered include aspects of entrepreneurship such as resilience, innovation, community impact and leadership.

Ahead of the celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, the Astana Times interviewed Yousafzai on her inspiration to write this monograph and on the challenges and opportunities for businesswomen.

Before approaching Kazakh businesswomen, Yousafzai wrote the monograph “Together We Have It All: Women Entrepreneurs in the Tourism Sector, A Case Study of the Kyrgyzstan Community,” which provides a comprehensive examination of the experiences of female entrepreneurs driving community tourism in Kyrgyzstan.

Yousafzai said her journey to create both books was driven by a “deep-seated passion for showcasing the resilience, ingenuity and accomplishments of women entrepreneurs in Central Asia.”

“It all began with my fascination with the community-based tourism sector in Kyrgyzstan and the remarkable women who were driving positive change within it. Through ‘Together We Have It All,’ I aimed to shed light on their inspiring stories, highlighting their contributions to sustainable tourism development, community empowerment, and cultural preservation,” said Yousafzai.

Seeing how these women entrepreneurs transformed their communities, Yousafzai decided to expand the project to include Kazakh women in business.

The decision to embark on this endeavor stemmed from a recognition of the underrepresentation of women in entrepreneurship and a determination to challenge gender norms and stereotypes. By sharing the stories of these trailblazing women, I hoped to inspire others, foster gender equality, and contribute to the empowerment of women in Kazakhstan and beyond,” said Yousafzai.

Powerful businesswomen figures in the book 

The book served as a platform for women to share their stories of success and overcoming adversity in their own voices.

Craftswoman and ethnographer Bulbul Kapkyzy (R). Photo credit: Alexander Parkyn-Smith

One of the women featured is ethnographer Bulbul Kapkyzy, who revives forgotten handicrafts and national ornaments’ history.  

Bulbul’s dedication to preserving traditional arts and crafts while navigating the modern landscape of entrepreneurship is truly remarkable,” said Yousafzai.

Bulbul’s story embodies the transformative power of cultural preservation and entrepreneurship. Growing up in Mongolia with a strong connection to the Kazakh ethnic group, Bulbul inherited her family’s passion for needlework and craftsmanship. Despite facing cultural and linguistic challenges upon relocating to Kazakhstan, Bulbul’s unwavering dedication to preserving Kazakh cultural heritage through her art is inspiring,” she added.

The book also includes the story of Aigerim Karibayeva, the owner of the Art_Aika project, which creates artworks encompassing Kazakh ethnic modernism style.

Aigerim’s artistic journey serves as a powerful example of the intersection between creativity and entrepreneurship. By channeling her love for drawing into a vibrant art showroom and digital store, Aigerim celebrates Kazakh heritage through her unique artistic style, fostering a sense of pride and belonging among her fellow Kazakhs,” said Yousafzai.

Aigerim Karibayeva, artist-entrepreneur. Photo credit: Alexander Parkyn-Smith

There is also a story of Venera Tailakbayeva, who owns a farm in the Kyzylorda Region, which harvests and exports reed, mainly to European countries.

Venera’s entrepreneurial journey embodies the principles of sustainable business and the circular economy. Through the establishment of Asia Kamysh (Asia Reed), Venera not only created job opportunities but also harnessed the potential of a local natural resource in a sustainable and environmentally conscious manner,” said Yousafzai.

“Venera’s dedication to sustainable business practices and her vision for a thriving circular economy serves as a testament to the potential of local resources, community-driven entrepreneurship and the power of sustainable business to create lasting social and environmental impact,” added Yousafzai.

Social and cultural context

Historically, there was a cultural mindset that assigned gender roles for women as primary caregivers, discouraging them from taking entrepreneurial or leadership roles.

The patriarchal norms deeply ingrained in both Kazakh and Kyrgyz societies have historically relegated women to traditional gender roles, primarily centered around domestic responsibilities. These societal expectations often create barriers for women aspiring to enter the business world, as they may face resistance or skepticism from family members, peers, and even society at large,” said Yousafzai.

Setting up a business in male-dominated spheres brings its own additional challenges. 

In both Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic, certain industries and sectors may be more male-dominated or less accessible to women due to cultural biases or structural barriers. Limited access to financial resources, such as capital and credit, can also pose challenges for women entrepreneurs in securing funding for their ventures,” said Yousafzai.

Globalization and technological advancement allow women’s expertise and presence to be more integrated, but the change in mindsets regarding gender roles still needs to be addressed.

Despite these challenges, there are also opportunities emerging within Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that are conducive to women’s entrepreneurship. Increasing globalization and technological advancements, for example, have opened up new avenues for women to access markets, connect with customers and scale their businesses. Furthermore, growing awareness and advocacy around gender equality and women’s empowerment are driving positive change, leading to greater recognition of women’s contributions to the economy and society,” said Yousafzai.

Contribution of the book

This book can provide a powerful storytelling and visual medium to advance the role of women and remodel a society in which men have traditionally been granted privileges.

“Visibility is paramount when it comes to amplifying the stories of women entrepreneurs, especially in regions where traditional narratives often spotlight male figures as the sole protagonists of entrepreneurial success,” said Yousafzai.

​​That is not what the actual entrepreneurial world looks like.

“While the entrepreneurial landscape may have long been depicted as a male-dominated domain, the reality is far more diverse and inclusive. By shining a spotlight on the remarkable journeys and achievements of women entrepreneurs, we challenge these outdated narratives and pave the way for a more inclusive understanding of entrepreneurship,” added Yousafzai.

She wrote the piece to challenge the stereotypes of who can succeed in the world of business and to advocate for greater gender equality and inclusion in the entrepreneurial landscape.

The stories also inspire other women to empower them to take action in their respective businesses and achieve their full potential.

“By making these stories visible, we not only celebrate the accomplishments of women entrepreneurs but also inspire others to pursue their entrepreneurial aspirations. When women see themselves reflected in stories of success and resilience, they are empowered to envision their own potential and break free from limitations imposed by gender norms,” said Yousafzai. 

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