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Improve the business support available to women

28 January 2015 - Rosemary French

Some of you will know that out of the blue I was recently honoured with an OBE for services to women in business.

You never really find out why you have been nominated but I have assumed it was because of the work I did in the 2000’s trying to improve the business support available to women thinking of starting and at the early stages of their business. After a bit of nagging and lobbying, both the Labour government with its various female cabinet ministers for women (Margaret Hodge, Jackie Smith and so on, they changed every year!) and the regional development agency, SEEDA, were incredibly supportive and we were able to run a series of women’s business training events, attended by thousands of women who were inspired, motivated and trained.

One always wonders if such events are ever successful in terms of outcome but the statistics later showed that women owned businesses in the South East had increased from 16% to 22% over a five year period so our events might well have contributed towards that increase. But since 2010 and the withdrawal of funding I have seen very few events for female start-ups. There have certainly been some very successful networking events for established business women held by various business membership organisations. But the absence of free start up advice for women is missing since government dropped Business Link and its one to one advice and training events, replacing it with online advice which women tell me just does not do the job.  Women at the early stage prefer peer to peer learning, collaborating and networking with women either in, or who have been in, a similar position. In my opinion, women thinking of starting up in business are being neglected.

Anyhow the OBE set me to thinking that I should celebrate by holding a similar event for women. I wanted to collaborate with other organisations and gathered together the local Chambers of Commerce and the Council where the event was to be held. I chose a golf club because it had large comfy sofas and armchairs to network. I also worked with a local successful woman running a small business who had a good understanding of the issues facing female led start-ups and introduced me to a number of strong speakers. I reckoned that after intensive tweeting and Linked In posts we could get around 30 to 40 attendees and budgeted accordingly. Was I wrong! The event is tomorrow and we have been overwhelmed with interest. I closed bookings when they reached 125! I also thought this event would be very local to the Gatwick Diamond but women are coming from far and wide, Oxford to Guildford to Brighton, through Surrey, Sussex and Kent.

So there is huge demand and a clear gap in the market. Certainly this event is free but I guess that such women would be prepared to pay a small amount. So what have women been telling me as they book up? 'I've just been made redundant'... 'I want to start a business alone/ with a friend'... 'I do not know where to get advice'... 'Online advice does not suit me'... 'I want to hear from another woman who has done it'... 'I want to talk to woman like me'... 'I am just not sure if this is right for me and it is too early for me to want to pay for advice from a professional'. This event of course will not give them the valuable one to one advice that they do need to seek further down the line from accountants, lawyers, etc. They just want to dip their toe in the water and find out enough to give them the confidence to make the next step.   At the event they will probably make friends with other women who will remain with them on their business journey for many years.

It is so true that 'women are from Venus' but they need to know that Mars is not the only place to run a business! And if only 10% of those 125 actually start a business and run it well, then I will feel that my budget has been well spent.


Article originally appeared in South East Business Magazine.

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