Wednesday, 21 April 2021
From lack of confidence to gender bias, there can be significant hurdles on the path to success. Speaking at NatWest’s International Women’s Day event, a group of leading businesswomen shared insights from their careers.
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 first session here:
This theme continued in an afternoon session titled ‘Inspiring confidence’, which explored the personal and professional importance of a positive mindset, inner confidence and the ability to communicate your personal brand.
Award-winning entrepreneur and The Be Group founder Bianca Miller-Cole offered insights from her career, while Meg Matthews shared lessons she has learnt from going through the menopause and creating her new book The New Hot: Taking on the Menopause with Attitude and Style.
Looking back over the past year, Miller-Cole said that her buzzwords have been “purpose” and “clarity”.
“It’s so important that we are clear about our purpose, and our why: what are we doing, why are we doing it?” she said.
For Miller-Cole, having a personal brand is a key part of this – and it matters every bit as much as having a brand for your business. “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,” she said.
Having a clear idea of your personal brand, and being able to embody and communicate that, can help you present yourself confidently and connect with the people that matter to your business.
“I’m a big believer in first impressions, but I’m also a strong believer in long-lasting positive impressions,” said Miller-Cole. “I can’t convey enough how powerful your profile is, whether that’s online or offline. People will search for you, people will look on your profile, and they will make a judgement on who you are and what it is you offer.”
Asked how to overcome the fear of taking the first step in business, she emphasised the value of one-to-one support.
“Find someone you can trust, whether it’s a mentor like myself, or a friend or family member,” she said. “You need someone you can trust to explore that idea with, someone who is going to take you seriously, is going to listen to you, and is going to help you get on that journey.”
Matthews agreed that it’s vital to team up with people you trust, relating her own experience of working on her book. She had been advised to use a ghost writer but did not click with the first person she tried to work with – so she had to find the courage to walk away from this partnership and look for someone new. She emphasised the importance of working with people you do connect with, and who bring to the table the skills or abilities needed to help move your project forward.
“I was not going to put my book out until I had the right ghost writer,” she said. “I had to get the person that I truly believed got my voice.”
Despite being a confident entrepreneur, Matthews found herself suffering from anxiety as she entered the menopause. Her book aims to increase understanding of the menopause and its effects. This and other experiences in her life – from facing negative press coverage to overcoming alcoholism – have forced her to be courageous, and she urges budding businesswomen to have courage when it comes to realising their ambitions.
“If it’s something you truly believe in, get out there and do it – give it a go,” she said.