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The rise of the female titans: unveiling the next generation of scale-up founders

Women receive less than 5% of all VC funding. Often described as a “man’s game”, women are under-represented when it comes to running companies and holding top positions.

However, recent data from the Corporate Governance Institute confirms that companies boasting diverse boards and leadership teams don’t just offer a more inclusive environment; they also significantly outperform in profitability. But how easy is it for female founders or CEOs to achieve a level playing field?

Unconscious bias

According to Nicola Ebmeyer, co-founder of Gain.pro, there has always been room for female founders, but it has also been much harder for them to achieve success.  She reveals that unconscious biases can be shocking and present a real challenge – offering no choice but to fight to overcome them. She implores that as a female founder, you need to work so much harder to earn the trust of investors and clients.

“I remember a potential investor consistently referring to me as managing HR when my co-founder and I met him, even though we had twice explained how we split the work between us and I lead our full go-to-market operation of marketing, sales, customer success and business operations.

Ebmeyer goes on to say, “I was also ‘uninvited’, quite openly in an email, to a business event by another potential investor because it was assumed I would have to stay at home to look after my child, whereas my co-founder – who is also a parent – was invited. I declined for both of us”.

Garnering attention

Sutin Yang, head of scale-ups at Virgin StartUp has worked with many female founders through Virgin StartUp’s investment readiness and accelerator programmes, reveals that there’s change in the air:

“We’ve noticed a definite increase in the number of female founders pivoting their businesses into the tech space, even when they are not tech-based founders, which is really encouraging to see. My experience is also that more female founders naturally gravitate towards building purpose-driven businesses that are on a mission to solve global problems and have a positive impact on the world.

“From reusable period products through to circular fashion, recyclable hair extensions, more natural beauty products and new peer-support focused social media platforms, there are lots of exciting female-led businesses that are doing really well and capturing the attention of investors,” she adds.

Improving all the time

The UK climbed to second place in the international rankings for women’s representation on boards at the FTSE 100 level, with the FTSE Women Leaders Review showing nearly 40% of UK FTSE 100 board positions are now held by women, compared with 12.5% 10 years ago.

Amy Zapantis, founder of Amatus asserts that female founders are driving transformations across various industries, not only through their innovative ideas and products but also by reshaping workplace culture and business practices.

“Female-led companies are making waves with new ideas that challenge the norms. From tech start-ups to sustainable fashion brands. They contribute to well-rounded decision-making and innovative problem-solving. Many female founders are driven not only by profit but also by a desire to make a positive impact on society.

“This shows in the increase of purpose-driven businesses that have an emphasis on sustainability, ethical practices, and social responsibility,” she says.

Breaking barriers

Having co-founded a health-tech company, under 30 years old, Jenna Earnshaw, co-founder and COO at WiseDocs, can set the tone for her workplace by encouraging all ages to participate, as well as females who may not have seen the opportunity in this field before.

“As a female co-founder, I want to break barriers by showing how elements that could’ve held us back in our careers, such as age and gender, can now be a source of strength. Traditional industries like technology and healthcare are innovating, and while work needs to be done in terms of progression, I’m excited to see more young females enter this space,” she enthuses.

Likewise, Kelly McCabe, founder of all-female-led Perci Health, is optimistic. She notes there’s been a huge increase in female-founded businesses, referencing the Rose Review Progress report 2023, highlighting that in 2022, women in the UK established over 150,000 new companies – more than twice as many as in 2018.

“Our experience of working with VCs and other investors has been wholly supportive of female founders too, so it definitely feels as though things are changing but there is still work to be done,” she says.

The time is now

With the FTSE 350 setting a target to achieve 40% women representation on boards by December 2025, the prospects for women in leadership are brighter than ever.

According to Rebecca Armstrong, managing director at Making Energy Greener, the world is rife with uncertainty and hunger for positive transformation.

“I want to emphasise the importance of collective action towards a brighter, sustainable, and equitable future. Being a CEO goes beyond the role. It’s about passion, leadership, and the courage to voice and challenge.

“Women today aren’t just seeking change; they are the harbingers of it. They are striving for a new age characterised by both sustainability and equality, shaping the future not only for themselves but for generations to come,” she adds.

Catherine Seagrave, Director and Co-Founder at The Living House established the business and focused on doing things differently, their own way and for themselves.

“Despite the obvious risks (single parent family, mortgages etc.) we have never looked back and are thriving. We tackle every new challenge that comes our way together, from the website design to the marketing plan and pricing structure. It has been a very steep but rewarding learning curve,” she says.

“We would attribute our success to our solid foundation of support for each other. We are not only co-directors and founders but friends who can pick each other up, and truly understand our individual strengths and weaknesses. Although we are all at different stages of life (in our 20s, 30s, and 40s) we each bring our own perspective to the business and use this to drive our success and stay relevant to our customers,” she adds.

More to be done

This burgeoning spirit of change, backed by continuous education and data, has begun to shape a more open mindset amongst men in business, according to Armstrong. We need to see more change.

“Recognising the undeniable advantages of a diverse board, there’s a newfound respect and understanding for the pivotal roles women can play in steering businesses towards success.

“For women eyeing those high-powered roles, the message is clear: Seize the moment, harness the opportunities, and lead with conviction. The time is ripe for change, and the boardroom’s doors are open wider than ever before,” she says.

The need for ongoing work is reflected in recent data from the global leadership advisory search firm Russell Reynolds Associates. According to data, just 27%  of CEO appointments on the FTSE 100 in the first six months of the year went to females.

What now?

In the UK, tech start-ups and scale-ups with at least one woman co-founder recorded a 24% increase in capital in 2022, compared with 2021. There is evidence of progress is in Europe too, with the German Startup Association’s Female Founders Monitor report highlighting the share of female founders has risen to 20% last year from 15% in 2018.

Ebmeyer is positive about the future.

“There are many signs of progress if you look for them, for example, most award categories which recognise individual achievements provide a platform to celebrate the achievements of women. And there are important networks where women provide mentoring and support to other women in start-up leadership positions. Whilst there is still much work to be done, we are making progress,” she adds.

Zapantis points to the increasing number of success stories emerging from various industries. She adds that more VC firms and investors are recognising the potential of female-led start-ups and are actively seeking opportunities to support them.

While there has been remarkable progress at the boardroom level, there is still more to do. How the future plays out depends on people continuing to push on those glass ceilings.

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