Built for anything: how to encourage more women into entrepreneurship

Carrie Santos, CEO of Entrepreneurs’ Organization shares her thoughts on how to encourage women into entrepreneurship.

As business leaders, we have a responsibility to continue to unlock the power of women in business – and for me, no day is more important to highlight this than Women’s Entrepreneurship Day. In the UK alone, female entrepreneurs could add up to £250 billion to the economy if given the tools, confidence and opportunities to found and scale businesses at the same rate as men.

Women are already taking on the challenges of the world of business as entrepreneurs, and huge progress has already been made, with women now accounting for nearly a third (32%) of business owners in the UK, up from 17% just four years ago. While together we are achieving incredible things there is still more that we can do.

As the CEO of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) – where we are dedicated to helping entrepreneurs unlock their full potential – I want to see every business leader look at what they can do to support female entrepreneurs in their operations, supply chain and sector.

I believe there are three crucial actions businesses, NGOs and governments can take to continue to foster a healthy business environment for female entrepreneurs:

  1. Visibility matters: encourage role models

Four in five (83%) of would-be female entrepreneurs in the UK said that having a relatable role model would inspire them to start a business, but just 64% of 25-39 year-old women currently feel confident enough to make that leap.

There is also a financial value to this diversity – a UK Government report noted that companies with more women on their boards see a 42% higher return in sales than their rivals.

However, even in 2021, men account for over four in five (86%) executive directors on the boards of the UK’s top companies – which leaves few senior-level female role models for aspiring women in business. When you have high hopes of reaching the top, a lack of diverse images of success can be discouraging.

The future of female entrepreneurship is very bright. I am inspired every day by the innovation, resilience and tenacity of the female leaders I work with at EO. I want to see more role models like Roberta Elizondo, the 25-year-old 2021 Champion of EO’s Global Student Entrepreneur Awards (GSEA), who led her travel business through an international pandemic alongside her studies. And I want to see more female leaders like Lauren Messiah, CEO of School of Style, who is advancing the cause of entrepreneurs of colour, women and members of the LGBTQIA+ community within our network and Sara Blakey, the founder of Spanx, whose passion for supporting women entrepreneurs through the Sara Blakey Foundation inspires us all.

Just as EO encourages connections between inspiring women in our community, as a society we must recognise and celebrate these leaders.  It is vital that we provide them with the platforms they need to share their strength and confidence with the next generation of women in business.

  1. Provide Skills Development Opportunities

One of the most powerful ways to build an open environment for aspiring businesswomen is to put time, effort and energy into developing their skills. There is no one size fits all approach, we need a variety of opportunities, including workshops, incubators (which provide start-ups with the tools and funding they need to succeed) and education initiatives. Access to the skills, knowledge and opportunities required to run a successful business, we can dramatically increase the number of women who are empowered to bring their business plans to life.

The Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship found that only 39% of women in the UK are confident of their own ability to start a business, compared to 56% of men. The same report found that women are only 66% as confident of their hard skills, including financial management, as men, proving that programs and initiatives to develop these practical business skills are vital to the launch – and success of – women run businesses.

At EO, we recently partnered with WEConnect International, a global non-profit that connects women-owned businesses to buyers in the local and global marketplace, providing them with opportunities to grow and scale their businesses. We have already seen huge demand from our members for our educational workshops, with WEConnect, which will open up opportunities for personal and business growth. Partnerships like this will help transform the world of business as we work to provide more specialised support for female entrepreneurs, and I would encourage all organisations to seek out opportunities like this and to make a real difference for women.

  1. Create supportive communities

As the CEO of a global network that helps business leaders to achieve their full potential, every day I witness first-hand the power of community. In fact, almost two thirds (65%) of women entrepreneurs in the UK said that they feel at their most confident in their business when meeting like-minded individuals, and while women value networks more than men they are less likely to personally know another entrepreneur.  For female entrepreneurs, being surrounded by like-minded women can help to build the confidence needed to be a successful business leader.

I was recently inspired our ‘Women Supporting Women’ initiative from EO’s chapters in South Africa. Members provided free mentorship to women at the very beginning of their business journeys, sharing knowledge and lending valuable support. EO members involved in the initiative have said how valuable it has been in catalysing change and growth for the women involved.

The Rose Review Female Entrepreneurship Programme is a fantastic example of a UK government backed programme to support networking and mentorship among female entrepreneurs, providing a 12-week programme to build confidence and offer guidance. Initiatives like this will pave the way for further success for women in business. If governments and NGOs work together to provide these services, the breadth and diversity of women in business can continue to grow.

Entrepreneurial spirit thrives on unique perspectives, at EO we welcome those who think differently – through diversity and inclusion we grow and develop together, as entrepreneurs. As a business community, we have an incredible opportunity – and responsibility – to radically reshape the world of business to be inclusive of women. Not only should we celebrate the success and achievements of female business leaders on Women’s Entrepreneurship Day, but also commit to action and to making a tangible difference for women in business. The potential for women in business is huge and it is essential at this stage that we continue to offer the support, guidance and confidence to make true equality a reality.