Supporting female entrepreneurship benefits everyone

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When women play a smaller role in growing the economy, we all lose out. Women make up 50% of the population and the female employment rate is over 55%*. Yet until a few years ago, female-led companies comprised 7% of Enterprise Ireland’s High-Potential Start-Ups group, just like the international average.  Fewer female entrepreneurs meant fewer ideas, less innovation and export potential. Over the last number of years, Enterprise Ireland developed a range of supports specifically designed to encourage female entrepreneurs, including a dedicated Female Competitive Start Fund, offering women entrepreneurs €50,000 in start-up funding. The initiative drove the highest ever number of female-led companies backed by Enterprise Ireland in 2016. In addition to accessing those supports, here are six areas you can focus on to develop as a female entrepreneur.

Fuel your ambition - Women have high levels of ambition for their businesses, setting clear targets and goals. But women can also lack confidence, particularly in financial areas. Aversion to debt and a conservative approach to risk-taking can hamper ambition. Men often apply for the maximum amount awarded in Competitive Start Funds run by Enterprise Ireland. When the first dedicated Female Competitive Start fund was launched to help address known barriers, no one applied for the full amount. The fact that the latest competitive call had over 220 applicants for ten places shows that the strategy is working, with more female entrepreneurs taking the first step to building their own businesses.

Build your skills - Accelerator programmes, like DCU Ryan Academy Female High Fliers, supported by Enterprise Ireland, target challenges facing female entrepreneurs and help women to fast track business development and leadership skills. By joining a programme, you become part of a supportive group of like-minded female founders. The long-lasting relationships these programmes foster in the female start-up community have helped achieve big improvements in just a few years.   

Ask - No business owner knows all the answers or has all the skills it takes to succeed. It can be difficult to work alone or as part of a small team when starting a company. Women can be especially reluctant to seek support. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or advice when you need it. It is important to step outside your comfort zone and remember the adage - if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Perfect your value proposition - Be completely clear about your value proposition and the problem you are solving. Be clear on your differentiator. You don’t have to use highly technical or scientific language; you need to be understood. Clodagh Cavanagh from Abbey Machinery says that your product or service must have value for the end user. Know their needs, not what you think they need. 

Perspective changes attitude - The way you look at something alters your approach and attitude. Thinking about perspective allows you to understand investors and customers better. When meeting an investor, imagine what your business looks like from their perspective. Alison Cowzer from East Coast Bakehouse advises asking: How much do I want? How will I use it? How much will I return? Thinking about answers from an investor’s perspective helps you to understand the value of your business to them.

Above all, persevere - Perseverance doesn’t mean sticking with your idea at all costs or doggedly pursuing a start-up that doesn’t meet the needs of the market. Perseverance means recognising that you are on an entrepreneurial journey. The start-up space can be tough but also rewarding. Aim high and keep going.

While there is still a lot to do, supporting female entrepreneurship is paying off with continued growth of female-led start-ups. Of the 229 start-ups supported by Enterprise Ireland in 2016, 28% are female-led. More than €5.5m was invested in female-led companies in 2016, the highest level in the history of the agency. Enterprise Ireland will continue to support ambitious business women because diversity drives performance, and that benefits everyone.

Sarita Johnston is Female Entrepreneurship Manager at of Enterprise Ireland’s High Potential Start-ups Division.

(Source *Eurostat).

This article was first published in the Sunday Independent.