Annabel Denham: Britain will benefit with more female entrepreneurs. Here’s how

How can more women become entrepreneurs in the City of London and elsewhere?
How can more women become entrepreneurs in the City of London and elsewhere?
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THE revolution in women’s lives over the past century has been phenomenal. From the right to vote to equalising pay and the increasing visibility of females in senior leadership roles, we are not short of advancements to celebrate. Equality – global and national – has dominated news cycles in 2018. In the UK, we now find as many female as male employees in fields from medicine to marketing. However, the job isn’t finished.

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THE revolution in women’s lives over the past century has been phenomenal. From the right to vote to equalising pay and the increasing visibility of females in senior leadership roles, we are not short of advancements to celebrate. Equality – global and national – has dominated news cycles in 2018. In the UK, we now find as many female as male employees in fields from medicine to marketing. However, the job isn’t finished.

One accelerated route to equality is entrepreneurship. And with 85 per cent of British women saying they were inspired to set up their own businesses because it would enable flexible working, and a sizeable proportion being lured by the ability to create their own culture, it looks as though the traditional workplace remains unsuited to the modern woman.

It is encouraging that the gender gap in entrepreneurship is closing, with recent research from Aston University suggests the actual rate of entrepreneurialism in the UK has grown much faster in the past decade among women rather than men. We have encountered countless female founders up and down the country who have broken the mould, struck out alone and created businesses which change the way we work, shop or communicate.

Where women come unstuck, however, is at the scale-up phase – and we notice an even greater gender disparity in the regions than we do in London. The North-South divide has been well-documented – Britain is now Western Europe’s most geographically divided nation and while successive governments have acknowledged our two-speed economy, political solutions have yet to make enough of a difference on the ground.

We know that companies which secure external funding scale substantially quicker: some studies claim as much as 80 per cent faster than companies which don’t seek financing. While it is positive news that investors were throwing record levels of investment into the UK tech sector last year, it is less encouraging to hear London accounted for around 80 per cent of all venture capital funding.

And while, according to data from Beauhurst, Barclays and The Entrepreneurs Network, the highest raise by a company with one female founder in 2017 was triple that achieved in 2016, Neyber (which raised a whopping £143.5m) is headquartered in the capital. As were the next four highest investments into businesses with a female founder.

The current government is certainly making the right sounds around the economic disparity between North and South. Its flagship Industrial Strategy, published in November, lays down the national plan to boost economic growth – drawing on the country’s strengths as a whole in order to push for technological change. In anticipation of the financial implications of Brexit, it is also planning to devolve more financial resources for local growth to Local Enterprise Partnerships (of which there are three in Yorkshire) and local administrations that would eventually replace funding from the European Research Development Fund.

But Yorkshire entrepreneurs still fear being overlooked. Innovate UK’s Catapult Centres have put down roots in areas from Cardiff to Alderley Edge, but not Yorkshire – despite the region hosting five science or innovation parks and three research institutions with strengths in science and technology. While Liverpool and Greater Manchester’s newly-elected mayors are working to boost northern prosperity alongside the Northern Powerhouse initiative, Yorkshire founders lament that more attention is being given to their neighbours west of the Pennines.

This regional disparity affects women in particular: the less entrepreneurship is celebrated in a given area, the fewer female role models. Our work on mentoring makes clear the how crucial visibility is to support, encourage and inspire more girls into STEM, more students into tech, and more women to start business that will scale.

Government must open its doors more regularly to convene female founders from the regions into the corridors of power. Starting and running a business can be a lonely endeavour, and entrepreneurs appreciate this formal validation of their efforts. Inviting female entrepreneurs into Parliament would also provide an opportunity for MPs to understand the challenges that female entrepreneurs from across the country face, and set about making legal and regulatory changes based on those insights.

But government’s power to reverse the trend is limited. We want to see other female entrepreneurs pay it forward, both literally – by investing in fellow female founders – and in “softer” ways by mentoring other founders seeking to learn to build a business. We want the media to move way from focusing on gender – and the capital – when profiling Britain’s most successful entrepreneurs.

Our new report brought to light the difference between male and female entrepreneurial journeys, often revealing unconscious biases against the latter. However, regardless of gender, nationality or location, far more unites entrepreneurs than divides them. No entrepreneur wants to be put in a box, confined to a stereotype. All they want is a level playing field and a fighting chance to succeed. Government: take note.

Annabel Denham is editor at The Entrepreneurs Network.