A new frontier

The star of the female entrepreneur has steadily been on the rise thanks to increasing pressure on government to improve access to finance and resources. But what more can be done to unlock the potential of the nation’s women?

A new frontier

It wasn’t too long ago that the word ‘entrepreneur’ conjured up images of a dodgy Del Boy type flogging handbags and hi-fis from the boot of a clapped out estate. But, in the last decade, the entrepreneur has become a much more respected and aspirational figure, and many of the most acclaimed people to have set up businesses have become icons – both in and out of the business world. 

But the most high profile of entrepreneurs share a common characteristic: they’re all men. There are, of course, examples of highly successful businesses that are started by women, but when asked to name an entrepreneur the first name that comes to mind to the British public is undoubtedly Richard Branson. Or Alan Sugar. And across the Atlantic it’s likely to be Donald Trump. The archetypal idea of an entrepreneur is white, middle-aged and male.

Why is this? The fact of the matter is that men generally do start more businesses than women. What’s more, the businesses they build tend to be bigger, too. In 2011, a government survey found that just 21% of start-ups in 2010 involved female founders, and the proportion fell to just 13% for small firms employing more than 10 people.

Labour MP Seema Malhotra, who is the parliamentary private secretary to Yvette Cooper, the shadow women’s minister, says that female entrepreneurs broadly fall into two categories. “One is the grassroots-led business. So they may be the women who are setting up businesses in their local community, maybe providing local services,” she explains. “That’s a different category to the women who might be more at the high end and starting larger enterprises which require much more capital to start with.”

Malhotra also says that women frequently start businesses at a different stage in life to men. “Women are often in their early thirties to their early forties when they start companies. Often this is a life-change point. They may have been in the workplace until this point, or they may have been the main carer in their household and looking for a way they can balance work and home in a more flexible way.”

This often means that women are ineligible for government finance schemes, which are typically aimed at people under the age of 30, or under the age of 24. The government’s Start-Up Loans scheme, which has pledged to loan £110m over three years, has recently raised the age limit from 24 to 30 – but that doesn’t go quite far enough, according to Malhotra.

But Anne McPherson, managing director of RBS Group’s Diversity in Business scheme, is leading the charge when it comes to making finance more accessible for women. “We started looking at the strategy back in 2007, and we recognised it was a business opportunity, but secondly, we were picking up on feedback from our women business-owner customers that there were some slightly different things they wanted us to help them with.” 

NatWest’s own figures spurred the bank into action too. “We did some research that showed that, while women represent 51% of the population, they’re only representing 17% of businesses in the small- to medium-sized enterprise space,” she says. 

While it has partnered with women’s network everywoman since 2003, NatWest’s support geared towards female entrepreneurs has really ramped up in the last year. It now has women in business ambassadors in every town and city in the UK. “We put them all through an accreditation programme to make sure they are really skilled and knowledgeable about the things that are important to women in business,” explains McPherson. 

But it’s not just financial support that women need – it’s access to support, guidance and role models. “What we’ve been able to do over the last ten years with everywoman is recognise some amazing female entrepreneurs who’ve been able to act as role models for other women entrepreneurs,” said McPherson.

The lack of support for women wanting to start of businesses was what spurred on Maxine Benson and Karen Gill to found everywoman in 1999. It is now the UK’s largest business community, with more than 40,000 members – and is still growing. “As we were beginning to look at starting a business, we found it very, very difficult and discovered that all of the mainstream providers were very geared towards a male conversation,” recalls Gill. 

Karen Gill, co-founder, everywoman

What’s more, the entire process was daunting, says Gill. “It was very intimidating,” she admits. “I’d been a VP in a large organisation so I wasn’t easily intimidated, yet it was a very intimidating experiencing – especially dealing with the banks, the accountants, the legal profession.”

But Gill says there has been a shift in mindset among some of the big service providers. “NatWest said they categorically would never treat women any differently or have any different products or services for women, but now they deploy women as business ambassadors across the country to look after customers because they know it’s a different conversation,” she explains. 

“They really do understand that when a woman walks over the threshold of a bank in the high street and says to someone, ‘I’m interested in talking to someone about starting a business’, they need to have the right conversation from the get-go.”

It seems that organisations such as everywoman are prompting more women than ever to consider joining women-only networks – even those who have never before considered their gender to affect the way they operate in business. Liz Doogan-Hobbs, founder of events company the Liz Hobbs Group was named the winner of the 2012 NatWest everywoman award.

Having grown up in the fiercely competitive, male-dominated environment of water-ski racing (Doogan-Hobbs was twice world champion in the sport), the entrepreneur wasn’t ready to let her gender interfere with her grand ambitions. “I’ve never actually deliberately viewed myself as a woman in business,” she says. “I don’t believe in letting things hold you back – I believe if you’re good enough, you could step up to the plate and do it. I guess that’s because of my sports background.”

Despite this, when she won the NatWest everywoman award, Doogan-Hobbs was thrilled to have her success formally recognised. “I didn’t realise just how important that was to me until I won it,” she says. “I guess I’d never really stood back and taken stock of how much we’d achieved, as stupid as that sounds,” she continues.

Liz Doogan-Hobbs, founder of events company Liz Hobbs Group and two times world water-skiing champion 

What’s more, being recognised as being of the same calibre as some of everywoman’s alumni was an honour, says Doogan-Hobbs. “There are some pretty phenomenal women who’ve won that award. There’s Chrissie Rucker and Hilary Devey, among others,” she recalls. “I think it’s a good thing for women to be recognised in business.”

But once the glittering awards ceremonies come to an end and the last glass of champagne has been guzzled, it’s important for women to continue to build upon the networks that they have begun creating. This is why networks such as everywoman are so important, says Maggie Berry, executive director for Europe at WEConnect International, an organisation that champions gender diversity in the corporate supply chain. 

“Often women who attend these events for the first time say afterwards, ‘I wish I’d come before,’” she notes. “I’d say that until you try one you don’t know what it might be able to give back.” Not that she’s suggesting that women ditch the mainstream business networks and events to attend women-only ones. “But out of all the things you do, I think it’s always good to have space in your diary to be part of at least one women’s network.”

Gill Thorpe, founder of The Sourcing Team, which helps companies with promotional merchandise, was initially sceptical about women-only forums. “When I was asked if I would like to attend a women-owned business event, I thought, ‘Why? I don’t need to be part of that; I’ve always been able to get what I want in business’.”

But she did come round to the idea. “Now I understand it is more about the supportiveness of women to other women,” she explains. “Running your own business can be so tough and a really lonely place sometimes – you need reassurance, someone to share ideas and concerns with. That’s what I have got from joining a women-only network.”

Gill Thorpe, founder, The Sourcing Team

One of those concerns that women often have in common is the childcare conundrum. “It’s a big misnomer that starting a business as a woman is going to be a really great fit with kids,” says Thorpe. “I went into business at the same time as I had my baby. They went through their teething problems together, so to speak. It’s a difficult balance.”

Thorpe says having children was a difficult time for both her and her business. “My business went backwards when I had my son,” she admits. “I was lucky to have my parents nearby and I was back at my office in just five weeks – which in hindsight was detrimental for the business as I really needed time to readjust,” Thorpe continues.

She says she was driven by fear of how the business would cope in her absence. “I was terrified the business would fail. For me, this is one of the toughest areas – wanting to have a normal family life and having to work that into a really tough working environment. Knowing what I know now, I should have planned that in and ensured my team could manage without me there every minute, but at the time I didn’t have the knowledge or support around me.”

According to Malhotra, the people behind all sorts of business events need to be a little more considerate of people’s responsibilities outside of the workplace. “When organising a champagne reception at 7pm in the evening, they need to consider that there will be a lot of women who will be putting their children to sleep and won’t be able to attend. Or banks that close at 4pm or 4.30pm – which is the time parents may be on the school run.”

Aside from being a little more conscious of the parenting and childcare needs that people may have, what else can be done to encourage women to start their own businesses? Malhotra suggests large national campaigns aren’t necessarily the way to go – especially for women in the capital. 

“London is a large place and if you want to deliver something, it’s got to be delivered more locally.” She points to some of the Regional Development Agencies (RDA) outside of the capital as examples of excellence. “There have been coming through some of the RDAs outside of London much stronger women in business initiatives, who I think over a period of a number of years have contributed to stronger growth of women’s enterprise,” she says. “I think it needs a change in how we think about and promote enterprise in London.” 

There is help and support out there if women look for it. Local and national business groups play a part, as does WEConnect. Also, the RBS Group’s Inspiring Women campaign is helping nudge things in the right direction by pledging £1.5m over three years to help organisations with dedicated programmes working to enhance the role of women in enterprise. It is hoped this will help a further 20,000 by the end of 2015.

The fact of the matter is that the UK economy needs more female entrepreneurs. Figures from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills show that if the UK had the same level of female entrepreneurship as the US, there would be approximately 600,000 extra women-owned businesses, contributing an estimated additional £42bn to the economy. 

But it’s not just the responsibility of the banks or the business groups to make this happen. McPherson says that all stakeholders – including government – have a role to play if we are, as a nation, going to unlock the potential of female entrepreneurs. 

“All the statistics show we’re pushing it in the right direction,” she says, hopefully. “If we work on it together with government and our local business support organisations, I think we’ll continue to move it in the right direction.”


True grit

Janis Sinton, MD, TasteTech

Janis Sinton, managing director of specialist food manufacturer TasteTech, may have co-founded the business with her husband, Roger, in 1992, but she never suspected she would have to take to the helm solo. 

This became reality in 2007 when Roger died unexpectedly. “I was the most obvious person to do it. I’d always been his right-hand man,” she says. “In fact, I knew more about the running of the business on a day-to-day basis than he did.”

But what she was lacking was his technical skill. “I didn’t have that technical expertise,” she says. “I was very dependent on my technical people here and I needed them to work closely with me.” In fact, Sinton says the tragedy probably helped build a more closely knit team. “We’re probably a much better company because of what we’ve been forced to do as a result of Roger’s death. Everybody’s part of the jigsaw.”

The entrepreneur – who has doubled turnover to £9m since her husband’s death – credits her gender partly for her tenacity in the wake of such a life-changing event. “Women tend to be quite strong when it comes to dealing with situations like that. We have this innate ability to deal with situations when they occur. You just get on with it.” 


Janis Sinton was the winner of the ‘Hera’ category at the 2012 NatWest everywoman awards

Hannah Prevett
Hannah Prevett

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