A New Sisterhood: Encouraging Female Entrepreneurship

As this week celebrates Global Entrepreneurship Week, and our team at Cause4 prepares for the events ahead, I was reminded of the time early in May 2009 when we were right at the beginning of setting up our business. 

In preparing to launch there were plenty of people who told me that we would struggle and that I was completely mad to give up a job with good prospects in the charitable sector. What happened if it failed? How would I pay the mortgage? How would I cope with the pressure and the risk?

But what was most surprising is that the majority of these detractors were women…there was no sisterhood here…!

A 2011 UK report from the Women’s Enterprise Policy Group talks about the untapped growth potential of women entrepreneurs. Women-owned businesses represent only around 15% of the total business base, representing some 700,000 women-owned businesses, but still contributing around £130bn in turnover and £70bn in Gross Added Value each year. 

Given that recent UK figures show that female unemployment is at its highest level for 23 years, and that record levels of young people including female graduates are currently unemployed, it would seem to be the perfect time – both in terms of opportunity and necessity – for women to take the plunge into enterprise. But all too often, women are invisible in the business arena, in the media and in influencing policy.   

I’m very far from a feminist, but given the opportunities, learning and empowerment potential inherent in setting up an enterprise it would be great to see a mindset and culture emerging that is supportive of women wanting to give enterprise a go.

There’s also a great philanthropy motive in running your own business, in building value in something and creating employment opportunities.

With the start up entrepreneurs that I mentor through the Aspire Foundation and the student entrepreneur initiative Emerge Mentor Labs, it is clear that there are definite challenges for young female entrepreneurs. It’s not only about mindset and aspiration, but also about unequal access to funding, networks and other support.

So what is needed?

There are some obvious things that would support female entrepreneurs, like increased financial assistance, investment and funding – including help with childcare and building awareness of new growth programmes such as one that Cause4 is currently part of – the Goldman Sachs 10,000 small businesses programme.  But additionally, I believe that there are four other specific areas where those of us running owner-managed businesses could help: 

1. Aspiration – let’s be honest

 It’s surprisingly difficult to find out what the reality of entrepreneurship is, the long hours, the pressure and the relentless nature of building a business – start up entrepreneurs are usually too busy to let others know the score, the reality is therefore often a best kept secret.  So for aspiring entrepreneurs wanting to know what is ahead of them – let’s all be honest. It’s incredibly hard work, full of risks and all consuming – at least to start with. The 80 or 90 hour working weeks are the reality not the exception, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. A bit of honesty helps with decision making and leaves aspiring entrepreneurs clear about the choices that they will need to make.

2. Do it for others – learn to lead

There are some brilliant female role models out there, the inspirational Julie Deane from the Cambridge Satchel Company, Lara Morgan author of ‘more balls than most’, and the young entrepreneur Zoe Jackson from Living the Dream Dance Company (and a client of Cause4) – but they are few and far between. We need to encourage more female entrepreneurial role models that are passionate about their businesses, prepared to say it as it is, and who are willing to mentor and train others.

3. Connections count – build the network

There is nothing so leveling as networking with other entrepreneurs, finding out the realities, sharing information and realizing that everyone is facing the same issues. The technical aspects of running a business are universal. We all need to be comfortable in being mentors, and allowing those starting business enough input to build a network that can provide enough support.

4. Let others help – don’t be a martyr

Pride has no place in start ups, we all know that we will do some things well, we will do some things badly, and we will definitely make mistakes – some that will cause us to cringe for months…Women can be particularly poor at suffering alone, or feeling that they need to do it all. We all need to reach out to other entrepreneurs and use the journey as a continuous learning opportunity, however painful that can feel!

So let’s not detract from those women that do want to give entrepreneurship a go, but let’s also be honest about the challenges ahead, and supportive about how to manage both growth and opportunity.

In celebration of Global Entrepreneurship Week, it would be great to see this female entrepreneurial community thrive….                  

Michelle Wright trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and played the violin professionally. A chartered marketer, manager and fundraiser, Michelle co-founded award winning third sector organisational development and fundraising enterprise Cause4 in 2009 after leaving the London Symphony Orchestra, where her achievements in private sector fundraising led to her being judged the Best Upcoming Fundraiser at the National Fundraising Awards in 2008.

Michelle was the winner of the female entrepreneur category in the Natwest Startup awards 2011 and is a top 10 winner in the Ernst and Young Future 100 awards 2011 for entrepreneurs under 35 that demonstrate innovation in progressing a responsible business venture. 

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