One size does not fit all – unlocking the growth potential of female entrepreneurship

Today, female-led businesses represent around 15 per cent of the UK’s total business base, with more than 700,000 currently contributing approximately £75 billion[1] to the economy. Research and evidence tell the same story: these women-owned businesses have greater potential than mainstream firms to provide jobs and growth. Yet they are still encountering specific barriers that hold them back from achieving their true potential and making a significant contribution to economic recovery.

Enterprising Women, the largest business community focused solely on women entrepreneurs, carried out its own in-depth research across the UK with female business owners who were ‘stuck’ in achieving their ambitions.  More than 220 women responded, to provide specific insights about their barriers to growth.

These were not all micro businesses. Claiming a total turnover of £47m at the time of responding, some had multi-million£ turnover, some employed between 50-100 people.  All, however, had ambitious plans for growth, which, if those barriers were demolished, would represent a cumulative contribution of £232 million of sales and the creation of more than 3,500 jobs.

If the goals of this representative sample were replicated in every women-owned business in the UK, an additional 240,000 jobs could be created. That is six times the job creation being promised by the £950 million Regional Growth Fund.

Is this level of employment and growth realistic? The women responding to the survey were confident and determined, but they clearly needed specialist help to grow.

Enterprising Women has trained more than 3,000 existing women-owned businesses and helped more than 350 new businesses to start up, delivering a survival rate of more than 80 per cent after four years.  Women business leaders engaged with the Growth Programme report significant job creation, GVA growth and return on investment, none of which have been replicated in traditional business support initiatives.

In Cornwall in 2011, with a group of just 14 businesswomen, the Growth Programme reported – only six months later – turnover increases between 10 – 250% on sales between £100,000 and £1 million. It also revealed greater profitability; significant investments in infrastructure, including expansion into larger premises for four of the businesses; expansion into new markets, including South Africa, Canada and Italy; eight new full time and three part-time jobs – and more forecast.

Participants reported greater strategic direction and focus, growth planning and execution abilities, confidence and vision; and tangible benefits from working in a group of supportive, like-minded peers.  Leadership, sales, growing teams, understanding risk, marketing strategy and tactics, and financial skills improved greatly.  Benchmarked across 14 personal and functional attributes before and after participation, improvement percentages ranged from 130% – 193%.

Further evidence of the longer-term impact of the Growth Programme came from women taking part in Northern Ireland nearly two years ago.  More than 80 per cent said that they were still using learning from the course to grow their businesses, and that their confidence, motivation and determination to succeed endured.  As one respondent commented:

“The impact was profound for me.  The spirit and ethos of the programme, and the tools and knowledge I gained, continues with me to this day, especially when I’m pursuing new business.”

Two new products and three new services had been developed and launched, including into new export markets, four businesses had expanded into larger premises – and first year turnover increases had continued into the second year, with sustained increases between 30 – 120%.  32 per cent of women contacted had created new full and part-time jobs.

Of equal validity, the Growth Programme helped two women to realise that their business idea could not deliver the sustainable growth they sought. Undeterred, they have since set up new companies, applying the skills and knowledge they had gained. Considering that the economic recession struck particularly hard in Ireland during this period, such results are a strong testimony to the Growth Programme’s legacy.

Growth Programme results are so good because content is relevant and pragmatic. It is based on 30 years of practical, first hand experience of growing businesses – and a decade of supporting women entrepreneurs in particular, with the benefit of real-world experience at its core.

The focus is on the individual as well as on their business; you cannot grow a business without growing the founder at the same time. Effective management and leadership skills are imperative for growth. Results from Enterprising Women Growth Programmes to date very clearly demonstrate the value of a different type of intervention, shaped according to the size of the business.  Aggregating everything from sole traders to businesses with 250 employees together under the broad heading of SME – and trying to address the widely disparate needs of such a broad band with generic support – is bound to fail.

The Growth Programme is therefore directed at different levels, in a variety of ways, to suit not only the numerous trials that most micro, small and medium businesses face, but also to address the specific challenges faced by women in business.

This is where the employment and enterprise agendas for women start to come together. Unlocking the huge potential of women entrepreneurs to drive their businesses through successive stages of growth will reap significant economic rewards. This, combined with the government’s campaign, following Lord Davies’ report, to encourage more women into leadership and directorship positions, will increase the performance of the UK economy as a whole. But one size does not fit all.

At No. 10 recently, YTKO Group Chief Executive Bev Hurley was encouraged to hear the Prime Minister speak about the importance of the latter agenda; but frustrated that there was absolutely no mention of support for the former. Enterprising women are demonstrating that this could be a serious oversight – and the Growth Programme will continue to support them, as they target the kind of growth that makes jobs and delivers almost unparalleled returns.

[1] 2005, the DTi estimated the annual contribution by women-led businesses to GVA5 as £70 billion. With a modest increase for inflation and growth, we can reasonably assume the current contribution is at least £75 billion.