What are the challenges facing female scale-up entrepreneurs?


Business Leader recently spoke to female scale-up leaders, to talk about the challenges they are facing in their businesses and to hear more about their journeys to success.

The panel:
Julia Kessler, Co-Founder, Nix and Kix
Anna Cusden, MD, Look Fabulous Forever
Hannah Mann, Day One Strategy
Merilee Karr, Founder, Under the Doormat
Dyann Heward Mills, CEO, HewardMills
Lara Morgan, Investor & Author

What would you say have been the biggest challenges you have faced in scaling your business?

Julia Kessler: “Scaling a business comes with various challenges. You need the right operational structure, partners who you can trust and most importantly, working capital. That has been one of the toughest aspects of the business. We have a fantastic brand ready to scale and tons of opportunities to materialise and that is why we are currently running our first crowdfund on Seedrs.”

Anna Cusden: “Marketing and knowing what channel work best for us has been a big challenge. We had very fast early growth which happened without much marketing spend and, although we used digital channels like YouTube and Facebook, most our customer acquisition was relatively cheap because it came through PR and organic search.

“When we started to spend money on acquisition, mainly on Facebook, we found it a real challenge – it did not seem to matter how much or how little we spent, we could not shift the needle. We began to feel that it was going to be hard to reach an audience who were not digitally native, so we started to spend money offline – magazine inserts, direct mail and even TV adverts, and while some of this was effective, it was also expensive.”

Hannah Mann: “For a small business like ours working with pharmaceutical giants, one of the biggest challenges we have faced is trying to convince them that bigger does not necessarily mean better, or safer. Our clients constantly ask for innovation yet often do not want to move away from the well-known, large suppliers to get it. As a small agency Day One can innovate and implement new ideas and technology in weeks – as opposed to months or even years – so this can be frustrating.

“The pharma industry is also very conservative in nature so being too much of an innovator can sometimes work against you and getting the balance right is difficult.”

Merilee Karr: “Covid-19 was the biggest challenge for our industry in a century as overnight borders were closed; the country went into lockdown and our industry had massive falls in revenue. For my business this was the biggest test we have faced since we started. While we had set up to have a variable cost structure to help with seasonality, I never expected it to be tested so quickly and so radically.

“Thankfully, the structure we put in place helped us as a business to weather the storm, but we still needed to find a positive way to grow in a pandemic world.”

Lara Morgan: “Some of the biggest challenges I have faced are things that have been totally out of my control and everyone has been in the same boat. It really is a matter of survival of the fittest, and you cut your cloth accordingly. If you show agility and an ability to adapt, you will thrive.

“In business when you start to think ‘you have got this’, something comes along to knock you off your feet. In a previous life, my company survived SARS, Foot and Mouth and 9/11. This took some serious re-scaling, I had to make people redundant and come up with new strategies and plans.

“When I have come across barriers, things that I can control, I have always done my best to get around them. There is always another bank to listen, an expert to employ for the things you cannot master, a different path to take if something is not working, and tech systems to help you be more efficient and effective.”

What has your experience been as a female leader? Have you found barriers, or do you not feel there were any and the experience has been positive?

Dyann Heward Mills: “I have sadly encountered occasions of ‘misogynoir’ where both race and gender play a part in the biases directed at me. It saddens me that this is still the case in 2021. More needs to be done to tackle systemic racism. I remember times where men have assumed that I was of lower rank in a meeting due to my race and gender. These experiences work to discourage the next generation of black female leaders by eroding confidence.

“In terms of barriers, women are under-represented in the tech sector. Research from Cybersecurity Ventures showed that in 2019 only 20% of cybersecurity positions were held by women. All CEOs are responsible for the next generation of women coming up in tech. We must make sure the opportunities are there and our work cultures reflect the needs of all workers.”

Julia Kessler: “The most difficult aspect of being a female leader is receiving funding. According to a report by the Harvard Business Review in 2021, In 2019, 2.8% of funding went to women-led startups; in 2020, that fell to 2.3%. Investing is still to be seen as a ‘boys’ club’. However, it is great to see that there are more and more funds coming up like the Angel Academe who are supporting female founded businesses. We hope we will be seeing more of them in future.

“There are still quite a few barriers we experience too. Some relationships are still formed either on the golf course or at the cigar club.”

Anna Cusden: “I cannot say I have experienced any negatives as a female leader. When we went through our two rounds of fundraising, we found it relatively easy to attract investors (who are in the majority male) and we are an all-female business. The beauty business is filled with women at all levels so perhaps it is more accepted in our sector that women will be running businesses.”

Merilee Karr: “Like any ambitious entrepreneur, I set up the company with a big vision. Having left a successful global corporate career, I wanted to build a global business in a newly emerging sector (professional short-term rentals). In the early days I found a lot of people commenting that it must be nice to be a ‘lady of leisure’. That could not be further from the truth as I had customers, investors, and my own goals to deliver so I was working harder than ever.

“Most female entrepreneurs just want to succeed by building great companies, and I certainly do not want to have a ‘victim’ attitude by saying it is harder as a woman. I think the numbers speak for themselves- less than 3% of serious investment goes to fully female founded companies. I am fortunate to be one of them and I have amazing investors who believe in me, the business, and the team, both men and women.”

Lara Morgan: “When I started out, and still in some spheres now, it was mainly men in my business world. I like to think I can compete on my own terms. I love to encourage women (especially our younger generation of female entrepreneurs) to take the lead. Be bold, brave, where possible get the big girl knickers on and just be prepared to take on the world.

“All in all, I think I have had a positive experience. I have been lucky to be surrounded my many people who share my visions and passions, who have been on my mad lorry and taken the rough roads with the smooth.”

Hannah Mann: “My experience within market research has been very positive for the large part. I have been surrounded by very senior and inspiring women for most of my career, so I feel very lucky to have had that experience. Having said that, when you look at the very top levels within our industry there is still a disproportionate number of senior men to women and especially when compared to how many women sit at all the other levels, so there is clearly still work to be done.

“All of that aside, when I think about women and what holds them back in their careers, I think it starts at home and the rest is just a domino effect from there on in. I am lucky in that my partner has always supported me in my career. Societal norms make women feel it is them that should step back rather than men and we need men and women to challenge that thinking. Luckily, my partner sees it as much his responsibility to help manage the household and raise the kids as it is mine and as a result, the whole family has prospered.”