17 Dec

What we need to do now for female entrepreneurs

Written by Renata Cooper for Women's Agenda Dec 2014
What we need to do now for female entrepreneurs

The 19th November saw 144 countries, including Australia; observe the inaugural Women’s Entrepreneurship Day. Driven by the United Nations, the day was created to support and empower women-owned business and causes globally.

Women’s entrepreneurship has been gaining interest and momentum the last few years across the world. Forecasts are now pointing to an expected $6 trillion in additional earned income from women over the next five years.

In comparison to most other nations, our entrepreneurial ecosystem ranks high as conducive to this growth. The 2013 Gender-GEDI report ranked Australia as the second best place in the world to be a woman entrepreneur. However, we are still way behind in this space compared to the country that took the top notch – the US. During a recent trip to San Francisco and New York I noticed first-hand how much more progressive and supportive the market is to women starting businesses.

In New York, I attended Springboard Enterprises’ A Week with Springboard event and their annual Winners Circle Awards Dinner – both were women focused events aimed at connecting entrepreneurs with growth experts and venture capital networks. I noticed that US women entrepreneurs spoke a more assertive and opportunistic language.

Although the landscape seemed more developed, it was far from perfect. The US still has a long way to go to even get close to gender equality in this space.

My conversations with experts in Australia have drawn similar conclusions of the differences – and similarities between us. Laura McKenzie, CEO of Scale Investors thinks it is ‘crazy’ that only 4% of Australian high growth technology start-up founders are female. According to her, “Women struggle to raise capital. Even in the US, only 15% of companies with at least one female founder receives capital today”.

For women to truly take risks, disrupt the landscape and innovate, we need to develop a support structure with access to and availability of required funding.

In spite of limited access to capital and other hurdles thrown our way, we are growing and gaining traction. Democratisation of entrepreneurship with technological advances, community engagement, and crowdfunding has helped get more women into business by giving them the power to give birth to an idea and see it grow.

Businesswoman Kate Sutton, Owner of uberkate jewellery attributes the growth to the support that women entrepreneurs extend to each other – in a way men don’t. “It’s down to the way we communicate and believe that supporting each other won’t lessen our success, but add to it,” says Sutton.

Here in Australia, we know the gender diversity debate in any field is closely related to other factors such as access to childcare, traditional caring roles, flexible work opportunities and the cost of living. But, post my trip, it begged the question of how the US, a country with less support offered to women, is ahead of us in entrepreneurship? Could the fact that the laws are less favourable to women be driving more to higher degrees of competitiveness, business achievement and growth? Is it that that they are less risk averse and have stronger business networks? Or did they just get a head start in a bigger economy? There isn’t one clear answer. But, experts agree on the solutions to the challenges presented.

Nicole Watson, Senior Manager, Digital Channels, Commonwealth Bank – Women in Focus Community believes that more women need to be encouraged within the entrepreneur ‘systems’. She proposes change on a more fundamental level. “Grass roots programs – from school to university and founders institutes, women need to be encouraged – with promising data that entrepreneurship is a viable and valuable path to start on. Female entrepreneurs sharing their stories with young women is vital for this process,” says Watson.

Recognising the lack of funding options for women, the last two – three years have seen more women focused angel and seed investors enter the market to drive the change they want to see.

According to McKenzie, “We need more female investors for women entrepreneurs to raise more capital. We need to address the unconscious bias and lack of encouragement in the venture capital (VC) community for both women entrepreneurs and female investors, who have been leaving the traditional VC firms (Aspect VC in the US, Arbor Partners in Asia), establishing their own women led firms or angel investing directly (Scale in Australia, Golden Seeds in the US).”

As we move on to the next Women’s Entrepreneurship Day, we need to consciously be involved in the change we want to bring about, take an avid interest in our investments big and small – from the holiday savings account to our superannuation and capital investments and, be more involved in supporting other women entrepreneurs. Each of us has a role to play in creating an ecosystem that supports women entrepreneurs. Let’s start today, so we can share our own stories of success in a year’s time.

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