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Success can be diverse, female and funded

Friday 06 March 2020

For International Women's Day, RGU's Innovation Learning Manager, Sally Charles, shares her experience and views on scaling-up businesses with female founders for all of society to receive the economic benefits.

Successfully inspiring women to start businesses comes with an obligation: to seek out and encourage models of investment and funding that they can access without compromise. Denying the infrastructure to support the scale-up of those businesses is to deny us all the economic benefits.

2018 marked a century of women’s right to vote in the UK and, more personally, a century since my grandmother’s birth. 2018 was also the year Harvard Business Review (HBR) chose to look at investors and how they punish entrepreneurs for stereotypically feminine behaviours. It reviewed how gender affects pitching success, crucial in securing those all-important rounds of investment funding. However, it found that gender stereotypes, as opposed to actual gender, played a part.

“Our findings suggest that it’s not women who have a harder time raising money from investors, it’s anyone who fits certain feminine stereotypes. It was behaviours, not gender, that mattered. You can’t change your gender, but you can control how you present yourself. Pitching a business is like any kind of performance — you need to know your audience.”

Examples of the differences that caused women to be rejected included clothing and presentation style. They were considered to lack ambition. The investors would have preferred a bigger, bolder vision; more like the male founders. The subjective bias illustrated here chimes with one definition of “businesslike” that I came across through my own research: “exhibiting qualities believed to be advantageous in business”.

The need to compromise your style to secure investment by portraying masculine behaviours doesn’t speak to the increasing call for authenticity in business, and doesn’t recognise the value potential offered by diversity. Instead, we should look to rebuild the system.

Female entrepreneurs face greater difficulty in securing funding than their male counterparts. On average, women launch their businesses with 53% less capital than men. Female-led businesses are less likely to secure investment, inhibiting scale-up, and only 1% of all venture funding goes to businesses founded by all-female teams. At every stage, women are less likely to make the next step in the entrepreneurial journey than men. The cumulative result is that five times as many male-led businesses achieve scale beyond £1m turnover.

My role over the last 18 months as Innovation Learning Manager in the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Group (EIG) at Robert Gordon University (RGU) has brought me into close contact with numerous entrepreneurs. Many are established and have shared their wealth of experience through our Masterclass talks and by providing mentoring. Others are at basecamp, just starting with the development of their ideas and soaking up the support provided in our accelerator programmes.

RGU’s Startup Accelerator Programme comes with funding as part of the support package, alongside mentoring, education and other resources. Removing the startup-funding barrier is presumably one reason why the programme has recorded much higher female participation than the 1 in 3 average for the UK. In 2019, we had 44% female participation, and in 2020 we have 67% of teams with female founders and the overall percentage of female founders in the group is 47%.

We must find or create investment models, like our Accelerator programme, to encourage and value the differences that women bring, instead of perceiving them as unbusiness-like risks. We need more role models; more visibility that success can be diverse and achieved by diverse people.

So, as we mark International Women’s Day in 2020, I am still hoping for a future of real equality; equality of attitude and perception of the value of human qualities, regardless of gender, race, belief or physical manifestation – a future of ‘Collective Individualism’. Achieving this by 2030 – as the UN Women hope – might, perhaps, provide a utopian future into which a granddaughter might be born.

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