Thursday, 18 March 2021
In the past year, Covid-19 has created additional challenges for female entrepreneurs, on top of historic barriers such as gender bias, problems securing finance and imposter syndrome. However, challenging environments can breed brilliance, and many businesses have adapted and flourished in this difficult time.
Championing Change, an online event hosted by NatWest for International Women’s Day, explored the practical ways in which female entrepreneurs can break down barriers and create lasting success. Hosted by journalist and broadcaster Kate Silverton, the event brought together a line-up of leading businesswomen to explore the insights gained from their careers.
The first session, titled ‘Breaking down barriers for female entrepreneurs’, featured Afia Sirkhot, a successful McDonald’s franchisee and winner of the Asian Women of Achievement Entrepreneur Award 2020; Karen Gill MBE, founder of Everywoman, an organisation that supports women in business; Umerah Akram, head of ELITE UK, London Stock Exchange Group, which aims to deepen engagement between ambitious companies and capital providers; and Laura and Rachel Beattie, founders of inclusive clothing business Careaux.
Discussing the barriers she faced when founding her business, Sirkhot recalled the antisocial behaviour centred around her first McDonald’s site in central Birmingham. Her solution was to have conversations with those involved, showing them the human face behind her business.
“I was trying to make people understand that it wasn’t a corporation, it was just me,” she said. “It was a matter of continually trying to get people to understand what it was that I was trying to achieve.”
The power of personality was a strong theme throughout the event: panellists highlighted how confidence and a sense of purpose can help women overcome a range of challenges, from building a support network to securing funding.
“People buy from people, and people want to know about you and your story – so your profile, your personal brand, is extremely powerful in your business”Bianca Miller-Cole, founder, The Be Group
Sirkhot initially found it so difficult to secure finance for her business that her parents had to remortgage their house to back her. This brought particularly high stakes to her first business venture and may not have been necessary if she had been a man: when seeking finance, she found bank managers repeatedly mentioned the fact that she was a woman and a mother.
Other panellists agreed that unconscious gender bias continues to be a significant challenge for women – and Everywoman’s Karen Gill highlighted how subtle but powerful it can be.
“Sometimes it boils down to getting excluded,” she said. “People exclude you from the after-work drinks, for example. That’s where you need the courage to challenge it and to say that you do want to be included.”
Umerah Akram found that gender bias became more evident as she progressed in her career.
“As you become senior and see there are fewer women at the top, you definitely recognise the unconscious bias that does exist,” she said. In the face of this, she emphasised the importance of forming a support network.
“Being an entrepreneur is an extremely lonely job, so surround yourself with other entrepreneurs, maybe getting a co-founder,” she said.
This approach has served Laura and Rachel Beattie well: the sisters have been able to support each other while building their business, but they have also benefited from building a wider support network.
“One of the toughest challenges we faced at the outset was not knowing anyone who had run a business before,” said Rachel. This changed as they found support from various quarters, including NatWest’s Entrepreneur Accelerator, The Prince’s Trust and Everywoman.
“Having people around you really helps,” said Laura.
Gill also emphasised the strength that comes from a support network that provides inspiration and encouragement. “It becomes exciting, and from the excitement, you get the positivity, courage and confidence,” she said.
Akram echoed this view, describing confidence as a muscle you need to train. “You have to just do your thing, and push yourself to do it, and overcome the naysayers,” she said.
Watch the session here: