Late last year, Vodafone and its agency Dentsu looked at women entrepreneurs in Ireland to discover the challenges they faced in starting and succeeding in business. They reviewed a wide body of research already carried out, consultations with experts, mapping of services currently available and in-depth interviews with female micro business owners.
The exercise showed that female founders, like their male counterparts, have a powerful self-belief in their vision, ambitious plans and are resilient at overcoming setbacks and business challenges, contradicting some of the assumptions included in much of the existing literature. The research showed there are many supports available to help entrepreneurs.
However, it can be difficult to navigate these supports, particularly for entrepreneurs without a business background. There is no centralised resource to help them identify and navigate the most appropriate support, whether it be from local enterprise offices to Enterprise Ireland, including incubators, accelerators, global supports and universities.
Enterprise Ireland was seen as a key supporter and driver of business development and growth, but due to its remit does not cover all businesses. Founders expressed mixed feelings about female only versus inclusive supports; most believe that there is a role for both. Most female entrepreneurs expected and accepted some level of sexism and felt that while it was a challenge, it was seldom acknowledged as a core challenge in starting a business.
Dentsu’s strategic consulting director Dael Wood (pictured) said three core themes emerged through thematic content analysis of the interviews with female founders –
- Professional loneliness and isolation
- Ambition and belief
Professional loneliness and isolation
Professional loneliness and isolation was a common theme which emerged for the female entrepreneurs who had set up their business without a co-founder. Setting up a venture is both incredibly exciting and challenging and many spoke of the desire or need to have a network of people who understood, beyond their informal network of friends and family.
Founders spoke about the importance of an entrepreneurial network, programmes, networking and finding people who were forging similar paths. However, there was a perception that finding these networks was difficult as many networking events and networks were seen as stale, too corporate, or were family-unfriendly for those with children.
Finding the right mentors helps tackle professional loneliness. The founders advised future entrepreneurs to not be afraid to ask for help, to leverage all networks and where possible to find trusted advice on business growth. Entrepreneurs further along the track may already provide advice and mentorship and were happy to share what worked for them.
Ambition and belief
There was some references to female entrepreneurs being more risk averse and lacking in ambition and belief when compared to men. The partner collaborations and interviews found no evidence of this. There was a consistent acknowledgement that sticking to core goals and maintaining focus was key to the success across all business owners. There was a theme of bravery and determination across the panel and strong ambitions and inspirational growth strategies.
While women and men face many similar challenges and barriers when starting a business, there are some gender imbalances still impacting women specifically. Most female entrepreneurs expected and accepted some level of sexism and felt that while it was a challenge, it was seldom acknowledged as a core challenge in starting a business.
Most of those interviewed had experienced big business challenges or setbacks, but said these had only spurred them on to find solutions. Again, the women spoke about the importance of having the right network and mentors as support. Vodafone Ireland and Dentsu work on ways to help women connect into networks with its Female Foundry initiative.