Why women entrepreneurs (Part I) – Not enough Rooney’s to go around

26 04 2013

Why women entrepreneurs?
(transcript of Common Business School lecture at Liverpool Hope University)

Good afternoon.
I’m Karen Birch and since you probably have little idea who I am, partly for some of the reasons we’re about to explore, I’ll introduce myself before getting started.

I was born just down the road from here but have spent the last 20 years running entrepreneurial businesses in Scotland. They have ranged from biotechnology to advertising, e-commerce to software design. These days I spend my time supporting women-led businesses and developing co-operative and community enterprises. A large proportion of my time is spent as CEO of the 3rdimagazine, an on-line business publication. We have women and men from all over the UK writing articles on all sorts of business issues. The key factor is that we look at business issues from a woman’s perspective. You might wander, with good reason, what that means and it is an important question with regard to the rest of this discussion.

As a way of introducing the idea it might be helpful to consider how the3rdimagazine started. Essentially Phil Birch, co-founder of the magazine and author of the groundbreaking ethical enterprise system, Ethiconomics, was working with senior men and women executives and found that it was a different experience in terms of their thought processes, business practices and ambitions. In researching these differences it became clear that there wasn’t a business publication that addressed these issues. There were business magazines, which tended to be testosterone fuelled and focussed on salaries, fast cars, big houses and beautiful wives and women’s magazines, which focussed on handbags and spa days, so in true entrepreneurial fashion we decided to create the3rdimagazine to fill the gap.

So, why women entrepreneurs?
Clearly this is a topic that could fill a whole module not just an hour long lecture so I’ll keep things simple. This will no doubt mean that you have lots of “please miss, what about…” moments which I’ll be happy to address at the end.

Before we move on it is worth taking the time to consider what I mean when I use the word entrepreneur. Personally, I’m not a fan of the ‘mumpreneur’. Writing a book about bringing up baby, self-publishing and then spending the rest of your life tweeting about it does not, in my opinion, make you an entrepreneur. That’s not to say that it isn’t enterprising or that it shouldn’t be applauded. It is and it should. But for me the term entrepreneur implies a little more ambition for growth. J.K. Rowling was smart, or lucky, enough to create a character in her books that had huge film and merchandising potential. Is she an author or entrepreneur? Some definitions are based on turnover and I find this problematic too. My current business would not qualify me as an entrepreneur on consideration of turnover – the magazine was created as a co-operative to ensure collaboration and independence rather than to generate vast wealth. My previous ventures would have qualified in terms of business value. So am I now an entrepreneur or not? Perhaps better to say that I am entrepreneurial? And what of someone who has just sold a business for a fortune as it at the early stages of creating a new one? Do they have their status as entrepreneur suspended until this new business reaches a certain size?

You can see the difficulties so for the purposes of this discussion I will use the term entrepreneur very loosely to simply mean someone who has started a business. I’ll discuss why we need women entrepreneurs, how they are different from male counterparts and why this difference is important.

So, we all know women. You only have to look at the shelves of magazines in supermarket to see how women are viewed; models, gossips, victims, celebrities. I’m not making a feminist point here as it is as much about how women present themselves as how they are presented. I was at a conference a wee while ago hosted by RBS and called something like “Women into Business”. It was aimed at new and early start women-led businesses. All of the speakers, apart from the senior bank executives (we’ll come back to that later), were women and without exception the first thing that they said was to draw attention to the ‘fabulous’ shoes that they were wearing and how tricky it was to walk to the lectern in killer heels. Now, I’m a biologist, was a biologist, and there is well respected line of research that looks at the adaptive advantage of seemingly debilitating physical features such as the peacock’s tail. It may be that high heels fall into that category, after all Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels, but I think not.

And we know entrepreneurs.
So who do we think of? Richard Branson? Alan Sugar? Maybe the internet billionaires such as Mark Zuckerberg. Most people would struggle to name a woman in their list. Even the recent Woman’s Hour poll of the top 100 most powerful women in the UK was woefully short of business women. The Queen was voted in at number one and the invisible Home Secretary that is Theresa May was in second. After that I pretty much lost the will to live.

So why is the lack of enterprising women in the public eye a problem?

Just this.
According to the study, “Girls’ Attitudes Explored… Role Models 2012”,

  • we have a generation of young women whose role models come from reality TV

In particular programmes such as TOWIE and Made in Chelsea where the female characters aspire to be nothing more than WAGS.

I go into primary schools and even girls as young as 11 say that they want to be pop stars, on the TV, work in a beauty salon or a tanning shop. And why are role models important? Here’s one reason why, according to the same survey,

  • One in six girls said that they were put off careers in engineering as they didn’t know that women worked in that industry.

I’ll give you an example from my own experience. One of my first jobs when I left university was as a water treatment engineer. For those of you that don’t know what one of those is, probably 100% of you as I didn’t know either when I applied for the job, it involves climbing up to the top of high buildings to check chemical levels in cooling towers and visiting dirty basements to check chemical levels in boilers. I was the only woman working in the industry and, to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have taken the job if I’d known that. But if we are going to get more women doing these jobs we are going to have to have more women doing these jobs. By the time I left I’d recruited two other women and suddenly water treatment engineer was a job that men and women could do.

And returning to the celebrity issue,

  • The girls asked could only name a handful of successful businesswomen, most of them because they have an established celebrity profile

Women like Stella McCartney and the grumpy woman from Dragon’s Den, who were known by dint of their celebrity profile rather than because of their business acumen. The lack of role models is important as it affects the attitudes of those thinking about starting a business, with women being far less confident of their abilities than their male counterparts. 45% of men, compared to just 29%, of women, felt that they had the skills, knowledge and experience to start a business. Role models play a crucial part in encouraging the “I can do that” mentality.

Again, from my own experience, I talk to many women’s groups, particularly to those women thinking about going into business. If anyone comes up to me at the end of the talk and says, “ I couldn’t do what you’ve done”, I know that I have failed. As a role model in these situations it is important that the women there do feel that they can do exactly what I have done – and hopefully much more. My fear is that the current ‘hero entrepreneur’ model, with a lone speaker talking wisdom to an audience much as I’m doing here today, is not a good one. It tends to, end is used to by many businessmen, illicit feelings of awe rather than feelings that it is possible to achieve similar success.

So the first reason why we need women entrepreneurs is to encourage aspiration and to broaden the horizons of the next generation of women. It is OK to want to be a singer or a dancer but it is about expanding the choices available. And anyway, not every young girl can be a WAG. There simply aren’t enough Wayne Rooney’s to go around!

And here’s where you all come in. For the women in the room to have the confidence to know that you can start your own business. And for the men in the room; you have a responsibility not to perpetrate the falsehood that there are certain jobs that are ‘men’s jobs’.

And we don’t have to speculate about what would happen if we had more positive role models. It has been fashionable, in the wake of the global financial crisis, to look at the Icelandic experience for guidance. True to form there is some great work going on to reduce gender imbalance across all sectors of business, including projects that help women to start their own business. Here’s what they have to say;

  • The increasing positive media attention on successful businesswomen has had an influence on the entrepreneurship culture. These women become role models, and the existence of role models is an important driver for women to start a business.
    (Bjarnheiður Jóhannsdóttir, Project Manager of Brautargengi )