Posted on Thursday 4 April 2019 by Ulster Business
Ulster Business sits down with a host of top female (and male) business leaders at one of Ulster Bank’s DSE dinners to look at the challenges facing women entering the world of business, what change is needed and how far we’ve already come
‘This is just the beginning’. That’s a general sense of where Northern Ireland and the UK sits as a whole around female entrepreneurship.
But it’s also widely agreed that a sea change is needed, from an early level, to develop the next generation of female entrepreneurs, and address a chasm in gender disparity across the business landscape.
Sitting in a room with some of Northern Ireland’s female leaders in business during a dinner at Ulster Bank’s Belfast headquarters, the experience, enthusiasm and depth of knowledge which exudes is very clear.
But there’s frustration at the challenges and hurdles which continue to prevent senior business and entrepreneurship being played on a level playing field.
The gathering of business leaders in Belfast heard one of the challenges is that many women starting up their own companies, don’t consider themselves ‘entrepreneurs’.
There’s issues around access to funding, but not only that, it’s about the lack of awareness of the funds which are out there – for both female and male would-be entrepreneurs.
There are also some stark figures and findings, including those in the Alison Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship.
The Rose Review, carried out by Alison Rose, deputy chief executive of NatWest Holdings and chief executive, commercial and private banking, found that just one in three entrepreneurs are women, and cast a light on the disparity and challenges facing women of all ages in business, developing ideas, finding the funding, and expanding.
It also predicts that closing the entrepreneurial gap between men and women, and creating a level business playing field, could add an additional £250bn to the UK economy.
On the ground in Northern Ireland, there are positive signs emerging for those at the very beginning of their entrepreneurial journey. Ulster Bank’s own Entrepreneur Accelerator, headed by Lynsey Cunningham, has already helped a raft of people on the road to becoming their own bosses and driving a concept to fruition – and refreshingly, around 53% of those using the scheme so far are women.
The Rose Review has outlined a range of areas which can help realign and balance the start-up market, including investing in a ‘female entrepreneurs’ code – committing financial institutions to the principles of gender equality and transparent reporting of gender funding data.
But there seems to be agreement that this sea change can, and should, start right at school – bringing in more hands-on skills and education, as well as fostering entrepreneurship for both boys and girls at an early age.
The challenges facing women also raises the issue of diversity, in general, across business and entrepreneurship. It’s fair to say everyone is in agreement that a wide variety of ethnic, religious or sexual backgrounds can only be a positive element for any business or economy.
That diversity should also feed into every element and strand of business – from the support at an early stage, to venture capital funding and further company development.
While STEM subjects have gotten a bigger push in recent years, the question was posed – why would a school pupil consider starting a business, straight out of school, if it’s not taught, fostered or encouraged?
Looking to the challenges facing successful women in business already, there’s one case in which a company owner – boasting a multi-million pound turnover – says she still faces both conscious and unconscious bias.
There’s also a strong sense of talking about failure, rather than just success. It’s something most agree can be a positive step in any entrepreneurial journey, and that a ‘fear of failure’ can hold people back from taking any steps at all.
In Northern Ireland, the top level of business leaders among our biggest companies is increasingly male-dominated. The Ulster Business Top 100 Companies 2018 showed just two of the businesses on the list were headed by women. That number has actually dropped from six, from just a few years ago.
But there is something of a gradual change happening in Northern Ireland and across the UK as a whole, albeit slowly. According to Dell, Belfast is among the top 50 cities for female entrepreneurship. But there’s still a long way to go.
Of course, one of the toughest steps in getting an idea off the ground is funding. Crowdfunder is one organisation helping fuel that, and assists small start-ups in getting backing from everyone from friends and family, to the philanthropic who just want to see an idea succeed. It’s partnered with Ulster Bank parent company RBS, offering up reward-based crowdfunding to help test their business ideas.
The conversation always comes back to education, key skills and changing the mindset of young people at an early age. If the next generation of school leavers can leave with a positive entrepreneurial attitude, free from any gender bias, then it could go a long way to balancing the breakdown of men and women in top senior roles in the years to come.