Driven by a desire for independence and a need for a flexible lifestyle, women entrepreneurs are providing a new cultural backcloth for UK plc.
A brief glance at the Sunday Times Rich List reveals that marriage, followed at the earliest opportunity by widowhood or divorce, is still a woman's quickest route to serious wealth. But the list shows something else too: in the last 20 years a number of women who have started their own businesses in humble and obscure ways, with tiny amounts of capital and almost no training, have built such large-scale empires.
While a recent survey carried out by the Institute of Management informs us that less than 5% of directors of UK companies are now women (up on the 2% figure of 1990), the picture in the entrepreneurial sector is changing rapidly. The roll call of women who have built multi-million pound businesses is diverse. They have built their businesses across all sectors, from IT, transport and financial services through to the more traditional stamping grounds of retail and food. Women have also emerged from widely different racial and cultural backgrounds. What they all appear to have in common is immense drive, a great flair for what they do, and an exceptional ability to focus.
In the small-to-medium-size sector the picture is particularly striking.
Women founded almost a third of all new businesses in 1997 (a figure which does not include the many micro or 'lifestyle' businesses run by women).
With a large number of start-ups, we are beginning to see the development of a new business culture, not always dedicated to the pursuit of profit.
A recent survey conducted by Barclays - Women in Business - records that women state independence as the primary motivation for starting their own businesses, closely followed by a need for flexibility in terms of combining work and home life, with money coming a poor third. For men, money is stated as the main reason.
'I started my own business because I was tired of working in a corporation where most of the directors and senior figures were men and the culture was dominated by values I didn't always feel particularly comfortable with,' says one woman who worked for a major consultancy before setting up her own multimedia company.
'I don't have to experience any friction with workplace culture now I run my own business.
I love the independence it gives and I also don't think I would have achieved nearly as much if I hadn't done it.' Interestingly, though, the gap between men and women's objectives seems to shrink after time. Although independence is stated as the primary goal at start-up, 45% of women in the Barclays survey see financial growth as their main objective after a few years of running a business successfully.
Both men and women agree that women face more difficulties in setting up their own businesses. The main reasons for this are the difficulty of finding adequate child care; the fact that at the outset colleagues and business contacts do not take women as seriously as men; and the fact that some customers and suppliers still seem to prefer to do business with men.
Where 30% of women record these as obstacles to start-up, less than 10% see them as continuing problems once they have been trading successfully for a few years. It also appears that over time women find ways of balancing home life and work life more effectively and that they experience enhanced confidence and higher levels of ambition through seeing the erosion of discrimination.
Whatever the motivation, the greater involvement of women in entrepreneurial activities is providing a new cultural backcloth for UK plc. And it is clear too that women have been extremely resourceful in dealing with one of the most notorious obstacles to their power: unequal access to capital. While women in this country do not have to face some of the more extreme forms of discrimination - women have access to approximately 2% of the world's capital while forming over 50% of its population - they may still face an unequal struggle when they present themselves to a bank or venture capital company. It is worth noting that many of the women who are now successful businesswomen have built their businesses organically, without recourse to venture capital or stock-market listing and with a fairly minimal use of bank loans. Many women entrepreneurs openly boast that they never had to take a loan or sell a single share in their businesses.
There is evidence to suggest that women may be better than men at surviving the crucial first three-year period of a start-up, during which over 40% go bust. Arline Woutercz of the British Association of Female Entrepreneurs attributes this to women's financial management skills, honed through housekeeping and multiple tasking: 'Women tend to expand more slowly and carefully. They don't go for the high-risk strategy and will seek venture capital less than men. They tend to put away more for a rainy day and, in the recession of the early 1990s, more businesses run by women survived than those run by men.'
Finally, few are in any doubt about women's people management skills.
Both men and women entrepreneurs affirm their belief in women's superior communications skills and the significance of these for building a successful business.
Woutercz says: 'Most women entrepreneurs have had some bad experience of the workplace in the form of the glass ceiling and that tends to make them more sympathetic to their staff. Also women have a more team-oriented approach. They like to work with the emotional support of their staff and to have co-operation and openness rather than opposition and leading from the front. This attracts customers and builds business. It can also make them great fun to work for.'
LINDA BENNETT LK Bennett
PRODUCT: Own-design shoes and clothes
MARKET: 10 shops
TURNOVER: £7 million
After a degree in land management at Reading University, Linda Bennett went to work in France in the factory of shoe designer Robert Clergerie. She later did other design courses, before starting a small company making handbags to her own design. She only had a few hundred pounds, just enough to buy a few bolts of leather from a wholesaler. But she was always ahead of her cash-flow, selling the bags before going out to buy more leather. Her break came when she got an order for bags from Harvey Nichols and Pied aTerre. They paid her £13,000 upfront. With this money she was able to go to the bank and say: 'Look, I've managed to get hold of £13,000. Now give me another £15,000.'
With money from the bank, she founded LK Bennett as an accessories shop in Wimbledon in 1991. The shop was an immediate success in spite of launching in the middle of a recession. Bennett attributes this to the quality of the merchandise she was buying and also to the design values of the shop (oak floors, flowers, stylish display) and the fact that it was a warm and friendly environment to enter.
Eight years and 10 shops later, LK Bennett designs its own shoes and is known for elegant and affordable clothes. Its growth rate is 140% per annum, and Bennett has done it without selling a single share. 'We tend to open one shop at a time and then see what happens before we open another. We don't open six at once - I would worry too much if that were the case. We don't borrow money - we haven't needed to since the opening of the company.'
As far as differences between men and women are concerned, she believes there is still a credibility barrier that women have to surmount at the beginning. 'When you are starting out I think you get taken a lot less seriously than a man would be. But once you're there, when you have the financial clout - there's no difference.
VIRGINIA LAPALCO Pasta Reale
PRODUCTS: Fresh pasta and pasta-based meals
MARKET: J Sainsbury, Safeway, Tesco and Waitrose
TURNOVER: £20 million
OWNERSHIP: 100% with her husband, Salvatore
After a spell as a kitchen maid at Eton and as a cook at Frank Muir's London house, Virginia Lapalco, with her husband Salvatore, a chef, decided to set up a restaurant, La Bella Venezia, in Croydon. The restaurant did well but required working 18-hour days, seven days a week. Under this sort of pressure, Lapalco had to send her two sons back to Treviso to be brought up by her mother. By 1967 she'd had enough. She wanted a 'normal family life' and decided to explore a business that might allow her more free time.
While running the restaurant she had become aware of the demand in the UK for fresh pasta.
She imported a pasta-making machine from Italy and began to do the rounds of delicatessens in London offering them fresh pasta on a sale-or-return basis. Nothing came back.
When she secured contracts from Harrods, Selfridges and Fortnum & Mason, it was obvious that her modest machines were inadequate to cope. Needing capital for investment (the banks had turned her down), she raised £12,000 from selling the restaurant and invested it in the UK's first fresh pasta factory.
Two factories later and with a multiplicity of product lines, Pasta Reale is turning over £20 million per annum. Lapalco makes no bones about having had to struggle as a woman. 'I think in general when a woman starts her own business you will find a force. She will have to have vision, common sense, the drive to overcome obstacles, and have to put in all the hours to make it work.'
She does observe a gender difference. 'Management is just common sense and I think, in general, women are very good at it. They know when to give those little things, praise or encouragement, which may seem small, but which matter a lot.'
NICOLA FOULSTON Brands Hatch Leisure PRODUCT: Motor-racing events
MARKET: Racing enthusiasts
TURNOVER: £16 million
OWNERSHIP: Following flotation, Foulston retains a minority stake
Although Nicola Foulston did not found her own business, she adopted a highly entrepreneurial attitude to expanding the one she acquired from her family. Brought up watching both her mother and father racing circuits in McLaren F1s at Brands Hatch, she was determined to turn the circuits from a single racing-circuit business into a larger leisure company. She dealt summarily with die-hard opposition as she did so. 'There are still men in this business who refuse to deal with me because of my sex. It takes guts to tell them:"If you don't deal with me, you don't deal with Brands".'
She was proved right in the long run. In expanding the company to include racing and rally schools, and 150 events ranging from go-karting to world superbike championships, she increased revenue from £7 million to £16 million.
In 1997, she took the company public, where it achieved a market valuation of £48 million.
Foulston is prepared to face down isolation and opposition to her position in a male-oriented sport. 'My industry will never hold me in any great esteem,' she has said. 'I don't think I'll win them over, but - and this will sound arrogant - I don't intend to waste the company's time by trying.'
PERWEEN WARSI S&A Foods
PRODUCTS: Ethnic, ready-made meals
MARKET: Safeway, Tesco, Asda, British Airways
TURNOVER: £30 million-plus
OWNERSHIP: Warsi family hold 70%; 3i have a 30% stake
Perween Warsi set up a tiny business supplying Indian finger foods - pakoras, samosas and so on - to local restaurants in her kitchen in Derby in 1986. The business grew rapidly and before long she was having to employ housewives in the area to help her out. When Warsi came top in a blind food-tasting competition at Asda, she realised that she was about to receive orders far in excess of her capacity to supply them. 'All we had was me and a kitchen.'
She sold a 75% stake in S&A Foods to the Hughes Group in order to raise money for her first factory, but when the group went into receivership, she fought a fierce battle to buy back her company, the only profitable part of the group. She succeeded by raising money from venture capitalists 3i who took 30% of the company. She then built a second factory, expanded into new product lines and now has an annual turnover of £30 million.
Successful entrepreneurs have some traits in common, Warsi believes, including great tenacity in the face of opposition. 'I go straight for what I want and I never take no for an answer. I have a clear vision of where I want to go and it never really occurs to me that I might not get there.'
She sees no essential differences between men and women. 'Business is business. I never make a distinction between men and women in terms of who I am talking to. However, I do know how much prejudice affects women in the workplace. I was fortunate: my husband supported me fully. I think men should encourage wives, sisters, daughters to do well.
It is crucial.'