Comment: 54% of clients are women – what are we doing right?

54% of women

54% of clients, across all our work and at all stage of the journey from start-up to scale up, are women. The challenges to gender equality have been known for decades, so why is it taking so long for it to be achieved? Here are 5 things we do to ensure we maintain this balance.

1. Engagement is key

Women can sometimes have a more tentative approach to starting a business, particularly those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, and that means that it can take longer for them to recognise that their idea can be a successful business, or even that they have the potential and skills in the first place.

Established women-owned businesses are often ambitious for growth, but simply aren’t sure of the right way to go about it, or where to find high quality, affordable support from the private sector that they can trust, without a lot of paperwork hassle, and that is provided in a such way that makes it easy to engage with.

We reach and engage women through a triple-braided approach. We use lots of outreach activities in the community, combined with pervasive, sustained marketing activities, and all reinforced with a lot of partnership working. Messages, imagery and graphics are targeted to resonate with the particular audience, with inspiring role models, and we never, ever, paint it pink!

2. Challenging stereotypes

Almost half of the women who start a business choose to do so part-time. They tend to start businesses in areas where they have some experience, skills or interest, and large numbers start are in the service sector, food, caring and retail. And for many business women, achieving a great quality of life-work balance is the key driver and motivator, so relatively few existing businesses choose to go down the scale up, equity invested, never-have-a-life route. Understandable in our view – having been there ourselves, we know what that is actually like – unlike most organisations in the business support sector.

These and other factors mean that female entrepreneurship is often simply dismissed as “lifestyle business” – even when their turnover is into six figures! Assumptions and stereotyping about the speed of start-up and growth, and the amount of finance needed ‘if you’re serious’ are patronising and unhelpful. Continuous growth (at whatever cost) is not the only definition of success – for us, “success” is whatever the ambition and vision of that women happens to be.

3. Building confidence through knowledge

Building women’s self-confidence in parallel with their business ambitions is central. Confidence building, enabling women to recognise and value their existing skills and empowering them to make informed decisions are important foundations that cut across all projects. We also actively promote and enable opportunities to network and develop support groups with other women in the same position.

At start up stage, and compared with men, women are more likely to let fear of failure stop them from starting a business. They are also less likely to know an entrepreneur and less likely to think they have the skills to start a business. So we work with our clients to help them de-risk and validate their ideas and understand their transferable skills.

4. Creating positive, accessible role models

We provide access to ‘achievable role models’ as we believe that too often the only images of women in business are ‘superwomen’ with high-flying careers and glamorous lifestyles that bear no relation to most women’s experiences. Real, inspiring stories can give women the confidence to say, ‘I can do that’. We bring successful businesswomen from our communities into workshops and events to talk about their experiences, and promote them in all our online activities, as women get inspired to hear about other women running successful businesses. Our staff are also important role models, acting as positive re-enforcement of women in business.

5. Flexible learning

One of the key benefits of our StartSmart and GrowSmart interatcive e-learning portals is that it enables women with caring responsibilities and other family commitments to get the support they need when they want to access it. It also allows time for reflection and then to revisit the learning and apply it. For established businesses looking to grow, not having to take time out of busy days can be particularly helpful, and GrowSmart provides 10 days of flexible, modular learning to help businesswomen lay the foundations for sustainable and successful growth.

62% of our users on StartSmart are women. As one of our clients, Pip Hayler, says: “StartSmart was the perfect support for starting my business, allowing me to work at my own pace and at times that suited me and my family.”