Today, the 8th March, is International Women’s Day: a day which each year is globally celebrated to highlight women’s rights. As a woman in business I wanted to take the time to reflect briefly on what this means to me in the context of the start-up world that I operate in.
Firstly, I firmly believe that there hasn’t been a better time to start a business in the UK. Barriers to entry are lower than ever thanks to the internet and social media; government backed schemes like EIS and SEIS provide brilliant incentives for young businesses to gain investment from early stage investors; and there is so much readily available information and tools for entrepreneurs to access, for free!, in order to educate and learn the basics of business. Yet I have to admit that it dismays me that there still remain some serious barriers to entry for women when it comes to starting a business; in fact only 1 in 3 businesses are started by females. Of those that do start, female led businesses are less likely to go on to scale. Research shows that male-led SMEs are five times more likely to scale up to £1 million turnover than female-led SMEs. The reality is that whilst there are some fantastic female led businesses in food and drink in the UK, I still find myself outnumbered by men when I look at both the SME space and at the top of the bigger players in FMCG.
There are so many factors that play into why women think starting a business is not for them. A lack of confidence, lack of access to finance, the male bias in the VC/PE world, the general lack of female investors, imposter syndrome, challenges of juggling childcare, appetite for risk…the list goes on. However, for me, one of the fundamental things that I think is necessary to break down the barriers is to bring more examples of female entrepreneurs to the forefront. As I describe below, I was most inspired by entrepreneurs that looked and sounded a bit like me. Seeing people like me at the top of their game helped me visualise how I could go about starting a business and made the landscape more accessible to me as a woman.
What I find encouraging to see is how the press and social media are doing a pretty decent job to help demystify what running a business is and raising the profile of women in business too. The more space women can take up, the more people like you and me can start to feel like the world of commerce is where we belong and fundamentally helps shift the narrative that you don’t have to be a Steve Jobs-esque entrepreneur to successfully start and scale a business. As women we bring a different sort of energy and leadership style to the room and one which we need to own and shout more loudly about.
With that in mind I wanted to flag just a handful of the women that I’ve been lucky enough to meet and who have truly inspired me to keep on pushing forwards on my journey. I highly encourage you to follow them and take daily inspiration that if these amazing ladies can do it, so can you!
Michelle Kennedy, Founder of Peanut
I met Michelle whilst doing a piece for the press on Imposter Syndrome. She was so open and honest about her advice on how to start up a business and what her wobbles were (that frankly we all feel but don’t always admit to!) when she was getting Peanut off the ground. Michelle launched Peanut in 2017 as a matchmaking app for modern day motherhood, initially connecting like minded mums with one another, and has recently branched Peanut out to also support women who have miscarried as well as those that are struggling to conceive. For me Peanut is a great example of how technology can be used as a force for good in creating community and a space for women to talk about some of the incredibly challenging issues that we face.
Holly Tucker, Founder of Not On The High Street & Holly & Co
Holly kindly asked me to feature on her podcast 'Conversations of Inspiration' , and oh wow, I could have spoken to her for hours! She's smart, witty but most importantly incredibly passionate about changing the face of business and encouraging everyone to follow their passion and start a company through her second business Holly & Co. Her energy and verve for life is totally infectious, in fact it's hard for it to not rub off on you when spending even just 10 minutes in her company! I often tune into her IGTV channel to get a burst of Holly when I’m feeling a bit flat – I highly encourage you to do the same!
Asma Khan, Darjeeling Express
Asma and I crossed paths back in 2014 when we both attended a start-up school, when Pip & Nut and Darjeeling Express were just twinkles in our eyes. Since then she's opened her restaurant in Kingly Court & been the first UK chef to feature on Netflix acclaimed series "Chef's Table'. The culmination of years of work and of course great food means her restaurant is booked solid for months! What really amazes me about Asma is the fact not only is she totally smashing it from a business perspective but she also finds time to give back, whether that be allowing residencies in her kitchen to allow people to trial their new food concepts, as well as having an all female kitchen and starting up The Second Daughters Fund, a charity which encourages families in India to celebrate the births of second daughters by sending packages of sweet treats to be shared with neighbours.
Me and Fleur go way back. She was the first mentor I ever had when I started on the road to starting up a business just over 7 years ago now and to this day we remain good friends. In the early days she helped me navigate the world of crowdfunding, stopped me from bringing on a co-founder that wouldn't have worked out well for me or the business, and encouraged me to re-look at my early stage branding that I'd initially created for markets in order to make it more mainstream (ultimately leading to the brand identity you see today!). She's straight talking and in her words 'totally wild' – a trait I admire. Today she spends her time debunking the myths around what it takes to start a business and provides bite-size advice specifically focused on encouraging more women to start up their own businesses.
Cassandra Stavrou, Founder of Proper
I remember seeing Propercorn in Benugo cafes in the Science Museum, back in 2013, when I was still working as a theatre producer there. Upon picking up the product I instantly thought how cool and distinctive this brand was and what a brilliant evolution of popcorn this was. With a bit more digging into the brand I found out that Cass started up the business with no experience in food and drink just a passion for the product and a drive to change the face of snacking in the UK. For me, you can't be what you can't see, so seeing a young female launch and scale a food and drink brand really helped me on my journey with the attitude of... 'if she can do it, so can I!'. Since then Proper has scaled throughout the UK and internationally and branched into new categories too with their unbelievably tasty ProperChips!