‘Do you work from home?’ That's the question I’m often asked at dinner parties when, seated next to a middle-aged man I’ve never met before, I mention I run my own company.
Unsurprisingly, that's not a response my business partner, Peter Cowie, has ever experienced. Nor has he watched the fast-blink look of surprise at the revelation that I have not just one office but a number of offices, including one in Hong Kong and a partnership in the US; that the marketing consultancy I co-founded in 2008 now works with 80% of the FTSE 2050; and that I recently sold the business to Centaur Media for several million pounds. Jaws drop even further when I say I also own a gin company, Bunker Gin.
Such reactions are ridiculous and outdated. But they do suggest the time is right to reassess our assumptions around entrepreneurship.
Entrepreneurs are starting new companies at a record pace. Eighty new companies an hour were launched in 2016 according to research by StartUp Britain published last year. And more than 650,000 new businesses were launched in the UK last year.
Against this backdrop, a ‘golden age’ for women entrepreneurs has finally begun. In CNBC’s recently published Upstart 25 list of promising young start-ups, ten were founded by women in a host of industries, from neuroscience to finance and retail http://www.cnbc.com/2017/02/28/why-women-entrepreneurs-will-be-economic-force-to-reckon-with-in-2017.html.
But there are still biases and barriers.
Say ‘self-employed’ and many will immediately think of women. Say ‘entrepreneur’ and people are more likely to think of men. Say ‘female entrepreneur’ and the assumption is that we’re talking about female-oriented markets and businesses. Of the world’s 16 most powerful women entrepreneurs listed by Forbes, a clear majority were in fashion or cosmetics. Five were in media, three in technology and two in real estate.
Female entrepreneurs contribute £3.51bn to the UK economy and created 77,000 jobs in 2015, according to the Royal Bank of Scotland. And yet the lack of female entrepreneurs is costing the UK economy an estimated £1bn each year with female entrepreneurship since 2012 officially labelled 'in decline' according to a NatWest study.
So, considering the value female entrepreneurs already contribute to the economy, how can – and should – we foster and support more women entrepreneurs?
One indicator comes from a strategic report published last year by Deloitte for the Women’s Business Council to assess the impact of women entrepreneurs on the national economy. It estimates that targeted help for early-stage women entrepreneurs could provide a £100bn boost for the UK economy, and makes two recommendations for developing women entrepreneurs:
1. The creation of a Women’s Enterprise Academy, which would provide developmental support and help the most ambitious and talented female entrepreneurs to scale their businesses more effectively and reach true potential.
2. The development of a new digital platform, which would provide women entrepreneurs better access to relevant role models, support groups, business mentors and a wider network of assistance.
So, to this wish list I’d like to add three more…
3. I'd like to see leading organisations across every sector commit to identifying and championing women mentors within their ranks to inspire future generations of female leaders. Providing role models and guidance to show the economic, social and lifestyle benefits of business ownership could greatly enhance female entrepreneurship rates.
4. Better access to capital. There’s still inequality when it comes to providing women with financing to start and grow a business. Women-owned business in the US, for example, receive just 7% of venture capital investment money, significantly out of step with their role in the economy. Meanwhile loan approval rates for US female entrepreneurs are 15-20% below those for men.
5. More education. More women fear failure with lower confidence levels than men. NatWest’s study reported that the majority of women cited fear of failure as the reason they’re not launching their own business. Not all businesses have to be a Unicorn to be deemed a success. I firmly believe that entrepreneurship must feel accessible to women, and that means challenging their perceptions and understanding of risk. Failure is an important part of the journey towards success, and while it might take being told ‘no’ 100 times to get a ‘yes’, that one ‘yes’ will power us forward to be more successful than we are today. Successful businesses come in all shapes and sizes.
Above all else, I'd like to reframe the conversation around female and male entrepreneurs away from gender. And this will come, but only when we have a credible commitment at all levels of business – from government legislators, through industry bodies to individual businesses of all sizes across every sector – to a genuine levelling the playing field that currently hold female entrepreneurs back.
The future success of our individual businesses and our shared economy depends not on tokenism or special favours, but true equality of opportunity.
Suki Thompson is the CEO and founding partner of Oystercatchers