It is my conviction that the challenges women face in entrepreneurship are not crippling difficulties but chances for untapped potential. This why when Dr Rebecca Myers, Head of Education at the Cambridge Judge Business School’s Entrepreneurship Centre, invited me to research the needs of early-stage women entrepreneurs and design a programme to address those needs, I was eager to accept the invitation.
This research is motivated by a firm belief that helping women scale new businesses at the same rate as men unlocks enormous value for the UK economy. Although the UK is the start-up capital of Europe where over 1,100 businesses are set up each day, fewer UK women choose to become entrepreneurs than in best- practice peer countries. Only one tenth of growing businesses with revenues between £1m and £250m were started by women, a gender gap that is equivalent to about 1.1 million missing businesses. Moreover, according to a British Business Bank 2019 report, for every £1 of UK venture capital investment all-female founder teams get less than a penny. However, this is not merely a social justice or diversity issue, there is a strong business case for nurturing female entrepreneurship and investing in women-founded companies.
Value for the UK economy
The government-commissioned Alison Rose Review shows that female entrepreneurship holds a £250 billion opportunity for the UK economy. McKinsey estimates that bridging the gender gap in work would add £150 billion to the UK economy by 2025.
According to a Deloitte report in 2016, less than 6% of working-age UK women are involved in early-stage entrepreneurship compared to more than 10% of men. It predicts that increasing female participation to 10% would make the overall economic contribution of women-led SMEs higher than £180bn by 2025. The report also shows that targeted help for early-stage women entrepreneurs could provide a £100bn boost to the UK economy over the next ten years.
A promising market opportunity
Research by Boston Consulting Group further shows that women-led start-ups, on average, generate higher revenue over a five-year period than male-founded companies. Given the current lack of funding for women-backed companies, this presents a promising market opportunity to invest in innovative women-led ventures and diversify investment portfolios. A growing body of evidence also highlights the economic value of diversity.
Thus transforming the landscape for female entrepreneurship and tapping into the full unrealised potential of women entrepreneurs is imperative not only for diversity and for enterprising women themselves, but also for job creation and boosting the overall economy. These findings formed an invaluable starting point for our work.
Approach and findings
The goal of this research was to design a programme that enables women entrepreneurs realise their full potential and become more successful at being business founders, raising funds and scaling up. However, this is an undeniably complex problem that requires a human-centric, solution-based approach to gain a deep understanding of the issues and motivations of women during their entrepreneurial journey. Thus Design Thinking was the methodology adopted to develop this programme. My approach was to hear from women themselves, through interviews and focus groups, to understand their views and identify the obstacles and enablers throughout their journeys. Through this immersive approach that sets aside biases and assumptions, I was able to make a hands-on assessment of the current landscape. By analysing and synthesizing these observations I identified the core problems, barriers and key fall-off points and designed solutions and interventions that could make a real difference.
My research revealed that the most crucial factors that enable women founders to scale-up can be grouped into three broad categories: personal and business education, access to networks, and securing investment. However, all three categories are currently rife with difficulties. Some of those are educational such as financial literacy, business strategy and access to affordable and time-efficient executive education. Another barrier to scaling up is mindset including confidence issues, risk-aversion, building a team and board, and family-life balance for example. Dealing with bias was also highlighted as a barrier, as well as the lack of role models.
The cumulative effect of these challenges is the evident under-representation of women in the entrepreneurial UK scene. There is also a worrying gender bias across the entrepreneurial journey, particularly within the venture finance community. Research on female entrepreneurship by MIT professor Fiona Murray reveals that the “investor perception and evaluation” of women-led businesses play a role in women’s access to venture capital funding. Her research further suggests that there’s a lot more to be done, particularly building one’s network and boosting confidence and assertiveness. This is where EnterpriseWOMEN comes in.
How EnterpriseWOMEN can help
Based on interviews, focus group discussions and research, EnterpriseWOMEN is an outcome-driven, highly focused and time-efficient programme. It is tailored for women leaders and entrepreneurs who are starting or scaling their businesses.
It covers key education aspects such as business and personal development, and offers mentorship opportunities and access to networks. Personal development education such as leadership training, management, communication and confidence-building is a major differentiator from other SME growth programmes.
EnterpriseWOMEN is a dynamic programme that evolves to suit the changing needs of the fast-growing market. It is built on a solid foundation constituting of three pillars:
- Education that offers practical business knowledge, skill acquisition and personal development
- Network that offers mentors, strengthens entrepreneurial associations and business partnerships, and improves market access
- Investment by having investors on the programme and facilitating investment rounds
The programme participants are women entrepreneurs who are starting or scaling a business that shows high potential. They are selected through a detailed application process to ensure an optimal learning experience within a small cohort.
Through its two main activity streams, standalone workshops and a bi-annual lecture-intensive course, EnterpriseWomen cultivates key aspects such as ambition, leadership, financial savviness and visibility. It nurtures growth mindsets and ambitious strategies to power participants to grow their teams, scale their companies and expand their markets. An EnterpriseWOMEN participant envisions her business as the next big thing and she is ready to take responsibility and ownership of her success.
I thank everyone who has generously contributed their time and expertise to this research. By delivering world-class education, nurturing potential, and providing access to networks and opportunities, we aim for EnterpriseWOMEN to contribute to meeting the needs of women entrepreneurs to achieve their full potential.