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Female founders, or so called #shepreneurs, are on the rise. In fact, female-owned small businesses are the fastest growing type of start-up in the UK with the proportion of British women going into business up 45% in the three-year period between 2013-2016, according to a report by Aston University in Birmingham. It’s a step in the right direction, but when it comes to building substantial businesses that flourish beyond the kitchen table female founders face an uphill struggle. The latest Government-funded research suggests that for every £1 of venture capitalist investment in the UK, less than 1p goes to businesses run solely by women. But whilst it’s true that women have a harder time pitching to investors (who are on average 91% male, according to the UK Business Angels Association), the reality is that only 5% of pitch decks (shortened business plans outlining the investment opportunity) put forward are by female-led start-ups.
So, what’s stopping them? Well, for starters, there are discrepancies in cultural attitudes that can lead to differing levels of support and encouragement between girls and boys. Kimren Basi, whose hot sauce won her a BBC Good Food Champion title in 2018, recalls the significant disapproval she faced from the Asian community: “They laughed at me and said I shouldn’t have my own business – they said I should be a housewife instead”. And whilst not all face prejudice as overt as this, four in 10 female founders reported they had “frequently encountered” gender bias whilst running their start-up and expected it to remain that way as they scaled, according to a recent Unilever Study on entrepreneurship.
Challenging perceptions is something co-founder of Fresh Sauce Co., Victoria Monaghan, had to face when doing their first round of investment for the business last year. With her co-founder and partner – an accountant by trade – by her side, she felt that she had more to do to prove herself as an able part of the business. “It takes a while for them to realise that you know what you’re doing… that you’re not just the kitchen girl”. The key for her was facing those old-fashioned attitudes head on. “They definitely know now – I set the record straight!” she laughs. The success of which has been plain to see, with the business recently being named a Future50 company and a Co-Op Food Stores listing on the cards in the coming months, all within two years of starting up.
Looking beyond gender bias, there are some very practical reasons that the number of female entrepreneurs still trails their male equivalents. In most households women still take on the main role of raising children, and 65% of women with a youngest dependant aged three or four years old are unemployed; the highest rate of unemployment in all adults with, or without, children. However, the modern landscape of motherhood is shifting rapidly. The latest data from the Office for National Statistics showed women are kicking the trend, with almost three-quarters of mothers now in full or part-time work with a similar proportion (65%) considering starting a business from home in the next three years. Fuelled by increasing opportunities in flexible working alongside improved Wifi availability, ‘mumpreneurs’ now contribute £7.2bn to the UK economy each year, according to Mumpreneurs UK, and are expected to contribute £9bn by 2025.
For many food and drink startups, scaling up production from a rented or home-based kitchen to a manufacturer can be one of the biggest, but also one of the most important, milestones in gaining key retail listings and achieving substantial growth. As a young female founder, Rushina Shah, founder of Not.Corn, struggled with what she saw as a heavily male-dominated industry. “It was definitely intimidating for me to approach these men who had worked in this industry for years. To date, I still haven’t ever met a female manufacturer!” Being turned down by several manufacturers knocked her confidence but, inspired by other female-led food start-ups, she remained persistent. “The most important lesson that I have learned from setting up Not. Corn is that when someone states that something is impossible, they are stating their own limitations and not yours.” Eventually finding a manufacturer that “shared her vision”, she was able to launch a European first with her popped sorghum snack.
So what’s driving the rise in numbers now? Michelle Ovens MBE, founder of f:Entrepeneur, a campaign that celebrates inspirational women through events and digital content, suggests women are taking up entrepreneurship when faced with a corporate world that can’t satisfy their needs for flexible working, “A principle reason many women start their own business is to gain control. Of their own accord, they are growing organically, creating opportunities, and providing flexible working”. Intriguingly, she also suggests many women are shunning “the traditional, male-defined framework of ‘success’ – based purely on profit margins” and instead aspiring to start ethical businesses or those that benefit the local – or wider – community. A growing number of role models and visibility has also played a key role in making entrepreneurship more accessible. We now have female-led businesses who are starting to shout about their success on channels like Instagram; and in the process, inspiring other women to follow in their footsteps. Alongside these are a growing number of specialist support-hubs such as Hatch, who run a female founder accelerator, and Blooming Founders, a London-based female-focused co-working space that offers affordable desk space to start-ups. There’s a long way to go, but with female entrepreneurship on the agenda for both UK Government and investment firms alike, the future of business could well be female.
Image: Michelle Ovens