Growth & Customers

How female entrepreneurs can access resources and financial support to get ahead in business

What are the barriers holding back the female entrepreneur and what resources are available to help the potential female founder get started?

The statistics are stark. Only 20% of entrepreneurs in Ireland are female. And that’s despite more than half of university graduates being female.

However, it’s an improving situation. In 2005, a meagre 7% of entrepreneurs were women.

But why is the female entrepreneur much less common? The answer is complex.

We cover those details in this article plus advice to help those thinking about starting their own businesses to take the plunge.

Here’s what we cover:

Barriers women face when it comes to entrepreneurship

Access to funding

The old girls’ club? Growing networking opportunities

Resources and financial support to get ahead

Untapped potential

Barriers include an under representation of women both as founders and as business leaders in industry sectors that see the most HPSUs (High Potential Start-Ups), such as technology, manufacturing, engineering and construction.

Then there is childcare, with the burden mainly falling on women.

On top of this, coronavirus has put an even higher burden on working women. A report from Rethink Ireland (formerly Social Innovation Fund Ireland) shows that rising unemployment during the pandemic has heavily affected women and the burden of home care and home schooling was carried disproportionately by women.

However, the pandemic could also possibly have a silver lining, if such a thing is possible.

A survey from learning company Pearson says the pandemic has made many women rethink their careers, with 20% planning to set up their own business in the next year.

One woman at the coal face of female entrepreneurship is Mary McKenna. She previously co-founded Derry-based e-learning company Learning Pool. Now primarily an angel investor, she recently, with a small group of other women, set up AwakenHub, whose mission is to provide the same opportunity and access for women founders as for men.

In terms of the state of play at the moment, she believes there’s growing interest from women to start their own business.

McKenna adds: “The challenge is getting them out of the starting blocks with the right business idea, skill set, tenacity, resilience and leveraged connectivity (community of peers and allies) to underpin their chances of building scaleable and investable companies.”

One of the major stumbling blocks for women is access to funding.

A report from Enterprise Ireland says only 3% of angel investors in Ireland are women, with less than 10% of funding going to women-led companies. That is a dismal statistic.

McKenna is one of those 3%. The first time she attended an angel investor meeting, she was one of only two women at the meeting among 30 investors – with the other woman giving out badges and topping up glasses of water.

She says: “Everyone wondered why I was chatting with them about the companies. I only really gained acceptance from the investors by proving that I understood technology.

“They all wanted to invest in tech companies, so they used to get me to explain the products to them in layman’s language, after the companies had pitched and left the room.”

With the majority of investors being male, this disadvantages potential women founders, as people tend to relate better to people that are like themselves and this leads to an unconscious bias from investors in favour of men.

Also, male investors often don’t understand, for example, a product that’s targeted at women. In addition, women tend to start different types of businesses that are outside the main interest areas such as HPSU and these companies are often considered less scaleable or investable.

However, some women are also holding themselves back to an extent. It might be a bit of a generalisation but they are inclined to be more risk averse and often lack confidence.

What McKenna is aiming for through AwakenHub is to facilitate a women-led investor community for women founders.

She says: “We want to democratise the process of investment for women by making it accessible, affordable, sustainable and equitable.

“Changing the investor landscape for women as prospective investors and founders is the circle squared as far as we are concerned in AwakenHub. You cannot achieve one without the other.

Opening up the world of investment for women who have some spare cash (and you don’t necessarily have to have deep pockets) to give them the confidence, basic understanding and an open community to be a part of is key.”

Networking is also another obstacle.

The whole entrepreneurial ecosystem for generations has been led by men.

Men tend to be prolific professional networkers and there’s a long-established old boys’ club of golf, rugby and GAA-type networking opportunities and women also have to learn how to network.

There are now several organisations that offer women-only networking opportunities, where you can be inspired by other female entrepreneurs, or be in a safe space to thrash out your ideas with like-minded people.

The Local Enterprise Office’s Women in Business Network is a good place to start.

In 2020, Enterprise Ireland launched a six-year Action Plan for Women in Business, which has four objectives:

  • To increase the number of women becoming entrepreneurs,
  • To increase the number of women founders in HPSUs,
  • To increase the number of women-led companies growing internationally,
  • To increase the number of women in senior leadership positions in companies in Ireland.

As part of this action plan, Enterprise Ireland offers an annual fund for startups in Ireland that includes a category specifically for female entrepreneurship.

The maximum level of funding per successful application is €50,000, which is split into two payments of €25,000.

If your business is based in rural Ireland, the ACORNS (Accelerating the Creation of Rural Nascent Start-ups) programme supports early stage female entrepreneurs.

Run over six months (part time), the programme stages interactive roundtable sessions with a lead entrepreneur, based on four key areas of business: strategy, marketing/sales, finance and implementation.

A past participant of the ACORNS programme is Kim Young, who runs hugely popular food truck Misunderstood Heron in Leenane, Connemara.

She says: “I found ACORNS priceless, as it allowed me to discuss ideas and problems in a safe space. Without that sounding board and wealth of knowledge, around the table, I don’t believe the business would be where it is today.”

The Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology’s innovation hub is also running a well-respected EMPOWER programme for female entrepreneurs in the West and North West.

There are two programmes;

  • EMPOWER START for early stage ideas or businesses operating for less than 18 months
  • EMPOWER GROWTH for females with established businesses looking to grow and scale their enterprise.

Sandra Divilly Nolan, the Empower programme manager, says: “There is a strong community of ambitious and capable female founders in the West and North West of Ireland.

“Initiatives like EMPOWER raise the profile of these entrepreneurs and offers them the training, support and connections to fast track their business development.

“There in a clear interest and demand from female founders for this support; in 2021 over 250 applications were received for only 34 places.”

One participant on the 2020 programme was Helen Nolan, who runs Spraoi agus Spórt, an award-winning social enterprise based on the Inishowen peninsula.

She says: “Inspirational, motivational and fun are the three words I would use to sum up my experience on the Empower Growth programme.

“I applied for this programme as I wanted to develop new ideas and get support from other women about how they managed their businesses, I got so much more.

“The monthly speakers are insightful and very relevant to the challenges faced by business today, the peer-to-peer support from the other female participants is pure magic and is the icing on the cake.

“Friendships and connections made for life.”

Also, in 2021, Visa announced a new grant programme for women-owned small businesses in Ireland and AwakenHub also runs an accelerator programme.

Increasing the number of female entrepreneurs is not just about improving the situation for women, it will also benefit the economy.

For instance, research by the Harvard Business Review found that women score higher than men in most leadership skills, such as team working, innovation, problem-solving, showing initiative, resilience…

Women only score slightly higher but the research illustrates that given a level playing field in areas such as capacity building and access to credit, many more women could become successful entrepreneurs.

McKenna adds: “To create the future, you have to be the enemy of today. We can’t accept the status quo and we have to challenge society to be more inclusive, diverse and equitable which will ultimately position us all for greater success.”

Editor’s note: This article was first published in November 2021 and has been updated for relevance.

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