Women make up 51% of the UK population and while 46% are economically active, they constitute less than a third of self-employed people in the UK. Our research shows that women are half as likely as men to start a business and this is not driven by significantly lower aspirations. Lack of access to business finance, mentoring, role models and non-gendered business networks are all cited as barriers to starting up and succeeding in business. So what are we at NatWest doing to help overcome these barriers?
We have created a variety of leadership-driven incentives to equip ambitious women. We found that some women just feel more comfortable discussing their business issues with other women, and so in 2003 we launched our Women in Business Programme, which today counts over 500 accredited Women in Business specialists working across the UK. These specialists understand the different challenges that female business owners face as well as the way they think and run their business – we have set a target to increase the number of our WiB specialists by 180 this year.
In February, we announced that we will support 5,000 entrepreneurs a year through our UK-wide network of 12 Entrepreneur Accelerator hubs in-house, where I am proud to say women make up 48%. Here, all entrepreneurs can benefit from a comprehensive programme of free mentoring, insight and bespoke coaching, specifically designed to help ambitious leaders to scale up and grow their businesses. We further provide our entrepreneurs with free wrap-around care, connectivity and know-how – from free office space and business advice, to access to our supply chains.
There are fewer women getting access to financing and yet what I see from observing female entrepreneurs in our accelerator hubs, and through speaking to customers and colleagues, there is this ongoing determination, passion and an innate entrepreneurial spirit existing throughout the UK. By encouraging a debate around these topics, we hope to make it easier for women to both be empowered to speak about these issues and to feel equipped to overcome the barriers.
Ultimately, if we can encourage more women to start their own businesses, by giving them easier access to funding, we will solve the productivity gap which is of vital importance to the UK economy. According to BIS, if women started businesses at the same rate as men, there would be an additional 150,000 extra start-ups each year in the UK. If we had an equal level of female entrepreneurs in the UK as the US, there would be approximately 600,000 additional women-owned businesses. This is why in March this year, we announced a £150m fund specifically available for female-led SMEs. With pre-assessed lending limits, we are proactively contacting customers to let them know we want to support their growth aspirations.
Personally I was incredibly honoured to have been asked by Robert Jenrick, the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury to lead a review on behalf of the UK Government to identify barriers faced by women when starting a business. From my work so far I feel like we still have a way to go in overcoming the barriers in female led entrepreneurship. But we will get there. And events like the ‘Inspiring Women in Business’ Conference, and the long standing commitment of NatWest to support female business leaders, are instrumental in making that happen.
Alison Rose was a speaker at Management Today's Inspiring Women in Business Conference.