The women-led startups smashing the glass ceiling
“What’s the appeal of entrepreneurship? Personally, it’s freedom. I don’t have to be at work at 9am or take lunch at 1pm. I can opt out of the things I don’t like,” says Natalie Campbell, serial entrepreneur and co-founder of consultancy A Very Good Company.
Campbell started her first venture, a franchise of fashion chain Morgan de Toi, while at university. Now, alongside her consultancy, she is a director and board member of a number of other companies.
Enjoying serial success in her early 30s, Campbell is among a successful cohort of women serial entrepreneurs – 38% of serial entrepreneurs under 35 are female, according to a report (pdf) from Coutts and the Centre for Entrepreneurs. This age group fares better than women overall. When all ages are taken into account, women make up just 19% of serial entrepreneurs and they start both fewer and smaller companies than men.
Why is there such a stark difference between the genders? Cultural bias and discrimination have undoubtedly limited the number of female role models in business. Perhaps this is only just starting to even out. As Matt Smith, director of the Centre for Entrepreneurs puts it, female entrepreneurs are “playing catch up” with their male counterparts.
But could it also be that women and men have different motivations for launching businesses, which influences the number they start and how fast these grow?
Campbell certainly thinks so. “[For men] it’s about investment, it’s about money, it’s about being the best. They buy into the competitive nature of entrepreneurs, into the Alan Sugar and the Dragons’ Den proposition. [Whereas] women go into it thinking how can I have a life that I really enjoy? How can I work with people I want to be around? How can I be creative and make a difference?”
Smith, however, says it’s less clear cut than that. “There are women that are incredibly hungry for success and doing extremely well. And there are men that have a relaxed attitude to business and take their time. I don’t think it can be applied straight down the middle between genders.”
Nonetheless, Smith notes that another Centre for Entrepreneurs report (pdf) into women in entrepreneurship highlighted some clear gender divides. While women were shown to have just as much appetite and growth ambition as men, their risk-taking was more measured and few were willing to risk losing staff for the sake of growth. “This is perhaps a little bit of a healthier approach to growing a business,” says Smith.
Rachel Bell is one female serial entrepreneur whose businesses have proven her commitment to supporting staff. Now in her 40s, she was inspired to start her first business, Shine Communications (where she remains CEO), in 1999 due to her dissatisfaction with a former employer. Bell says: “I wanted to build a business where people felt encouraged to do their best work, the antithesis of what my career experience had been up to that point.”
She fulfilled that aim: in 2012 Shine was named the Sunday Times best small company to work for and Bell was also recognised as the UK’s best boss of a small company. It has been a formula for success – annual turnover stands at more than £10m.
Partnerships between Bell and her staff have also led to a number of other business launches in the PR and marketing industry, including John Doe, Mischief and Aduro, most of which were sold. Bell explains: “Part of my aspiration [with Shine] was to ensure that people never left the business through lack of opportunity to learn and grow. So it became important to me to provide a way of fulfilling people’s ultimate career aspirations. For some I recognised that would be best achieved by creating their own business.”
While Bell has never taken on investment, these spin-out companies provided profitable exits. She says: “Each business was created with the goal of making it sale ready, to ultimately exit, but the person I founded it with could dictate when the exit happened.”
Putting staff ahead of fast growth does not necessarily lend itself to attracting investment or to exiting a business for a substantial sum – both common in serial entrepreneurship. Nevertheless, a measured approach and serial success are not mutually exclusive.
The biggest hurdle to women growing numerous, large businesses is a lack of funding opportunities – exacerbated by the fact that the vast majority of investors are men.
According to a CrunchBase report, just 10% of global venture capital funds between 2010 and 2015 funded startups with at least one female founder. Meanwhile, in the UK just 14% of angel investors are women, according to a 2015 report (pdf).
Nancy Cruickshank is a successful serial entrepreneur who has faced this conundrum. Her businesses have included a property website and MyShowcase, a personal beauty shopping service through which women can set up their own business as stylists.
And yet, while her credentials have helped Cruickshank to catch investors’ attention, she still faces the challenge of pitching a business aimed at women to male financiers. “I’m fundraising for MyShowcase as I speak. Having done three rounds now, I’ve found I am largely in a room talking to men. I’m talking about beauty, which doesn’t relate to them, and I’m talking about women starting businesses.”
Cruickshank thinks women can overcome this challenge by emphasising the earning potential and market demand for their product or service. But she admits that getting male investors to really understand a female-focused product can be tough.
Two successful female entrepreneurs are trying to tackle this problem with a new funding platform aimed squarely at women. AllBright was launched last October by Debbie Wosskow, founder and CEO of Love Home Swap, and Anna Jones, CEO at Hearst Magazines UK. It includes an angel network, a crowdfunding platform and learning resources through its AllBright academy.
For Wosskow and Jones it was important to combine funding with support. In the UK’s business culture, where four out of five (pdf) of those that run businesses are men, it follows that women need more encouragement.
Boosting women’s confidence in themselves and their business ideas is the greatest challenge, says Wosskow. “Women are less likely to ask for financing and that obviously results in them receiving less. So one of the key messages for AllBright is to set a marker in the sand to say that this is a place for women to come for investment and advice.”
A confidence gap is a running theme when discussing the number of female entrepreneurs.
But positive changes are taking place, including the growth in the number of women angel investors, from 7% in 2008 to 14% now, and a fund such as AllBright’s that combines investment with mentorship and business support.
Campbell suggests the approach taken by women – growing sustainably, looking after staff, and building something they are proud of – is influencing men too.
“The big shift that I’ve seen over the last couple of years is that more and more women are saying actually, I don’t need to play the boys’ game. I’m going to do it on my own terms. Perhaps an increasing proportion of female serial entrepreneurs could lead to a culture shift in business.”