10 years of supporting women in business – a story of two halves

7 March

With Enterprising Women celebrating its 10th Birthday this year and International Women’s Day almost upon us, Bev Hurley, CBE and CEO of YTKO Group, reflects on how far we’ve still got to go…

A decade. Ten years. It sounds like a long time. And yet, when you sit back and reflect on what has changed in the last 10 years, it’s surprising to see that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

If we look at technology, travel, communication and culture – we can certainly see significant changes to the way we do things, particularly how technology has enabled more participation in the global economy, remote and flexible working practices, and the more equal access to knowledge and peer relationships.

However, what I am struck by is the glacial pace with which gender equality progresses and, with International Women’s Day on the 8th March, this is a topic that will no doubt feature heavily on the agenda… well, for a few days at least.

According to the latest Gender Gap Report, women are only now earning what men did a decade ago. According to a Guardian namecheck of the FTSE 100, there are more men called John leading the UK’s biggest companies than women! Depending on which figures you choose to believe, female entrepreneurs are still only somewhere between 12 – 20% of the SME business base, the lifeblood of the UK economy.

But at least a decade ago, female entrepreneurship was on the political and economic development agenda – now it is noticeable by its almost complete absence, despite the ISBE estimated £50 – £70 billion annual contribution to GVA it contributes to the economy. Why are we so invisible now? What happened?

Yet still the mantra “if only women started up businesses at the same rate of men” persists, together with the parallel complaint “why aren’t there more women high growth business?” If only I had a pound for every time I’ve answered those questions….. and tried hard not to get irate at the overt implication that this is due to some failing or deficit in women. If only we were a bit more like men, eh?

We have known for a decade or more what the barriers are to women start up in business, all the research and evidence bases and women’s voices repeatedly and consistently say the same thing. Likewise, we’ve known for years what the biggest challenges to sustainability, scale and growth are.

I founded Enterprising Women ten years ago so that members could benefit from a wide range of business and peer support, from high quality training for start-up, innovative, practical and effective growth and access to finance programmes, local networking events and mentoring and practical advice from business women who’ve been there, who are there, and who are getting there.

We won funding at that time from the government and Europe to help provide these gender-friendly and highly tailored services to address those barriers and challenges, to provide women with an alternative to generic, off the shelf support services. And they came to us in spades – over 3000 of them got support to start or grow.

When female entrepreneurship and its funding fell off the political agenda, we embedded all the award-winning best practice from Enterprising Women into our two other “mainstream” services, Outset for start-ups, and GetSet for Growth for established businesses. Guess what happened?

In the last five years, well over 50% of the nearly 5000 businesses started by Outset clients have been by women, with 3 year survival rates far outstripping the national average. And for GetSet, 47% of the clients are women.

There is a massive, untapped, unsupported economic powerhouse just waiting to be unlocked for UK plc – still waiting to be unlocked. Its name is women. It seems no amount of campaigning, persuading, or influencing by the few credible specialist organisations that still survive – to say nothing of simply presenting the hard facts from the substantial evidence base – can access the key to opening this door. “There’s no money”. Wrong. You have made a choice not to spend any of the money that you do have on female entrepreneurship.

So as we approach a celebration of women on IWD, and I reflect how Enterprising Women has grown into UK’s largest community dedicated to female entrepreneurs, reaching and supporting over 45,000 women across the UK, I’m both utterly delighted and utterly dejected.

Delighted, because there are so many amazing women in our community who have achieved fantastic things and who really inspire and give back to others. And dejected that, after a decade of making the economic case, proving the point, showing the evidence, there is still no sustained investment in, or commitment to, the female economy.

So enjoy your one day in the spotlight on 8th March, ladies. Or for those of you who are also mums, your 2nd day in the spotlight. You deserve it.

GetSet for Growth and Enterprising Women are running a selection of free events to celebrate women in business. Visit the GetSet for Growth website to find out more.