The importance of inspiring more women to become successful entrepreneurs – especially within the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sectors – is no secret. The UK government initially identified the problem in 2003, publishing the country’s first coordinated and collaborative Strategic Framework for Women’s Enterprise. Since then, a mound of examples has surfaced to highlight the benefits of attracting more female entrepreneurs. With Brexit looming and fears over national skills shortages rising, it’s clear we need to make better use of the talent available on our own doorstep.
Defining the deficit
Research by the Women’s Business Council has shown that the UK economy is missing out on more than 1.2 million new enterprises due to the untapped potential of women. This is despite several policy initiatives by successive governments and the business community to inspire and engage the next generation of female founders. Sadly, as late as 2014, research by the Royal Bank of Scotland Enterprise Tracker found that women continue to be far less likely than men to want to start a business (30 per cent vs. 38 per cent of their male counterparts), and even less women take the plunge into the start-up world (3 per cent vs. 5 per cent). Likewise, more than 900,000 businesses would be created if the UK achieved the same level of female entrepreneurship as the US, adding an additional £23 billion gross value to the UK economy. We’re talking huge sums here – a gold mine of opportunity – just waiting to be discovered.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the underlying causes for these startling statistics. There are so many theories as to why successive governments over the past 20 years have failed to solve the skills crisis, which is so vital to our economic survival and the furtherment of social mobility. A lack of educational direction – especially in core STEM subjects – is an obvious reason, as is the limited access to financial aid and appropriate local frameworks to incubate and support fledging female entrepreneurs. Truth be told, we’ve seen solutions to these issues packaged up, bandaged and repackaged over time, to limited effect.
What is already being done?
The Strategic Framework for Women’s Enterprise was relaunched in 2011 as the social enterprise, Prowess, to provide business support and information to women. Additionally, the Women’s Business Council was launched in 2012 to advise the UK government on how women’s contribution to growth could be optimised, culminating in the publication of a report which highlighted a range of recommendations, not too dissimilar from the above. Today the government allocates £13 million annually to drive public engagement with science, setting up schemes such as the STEM Ambassadors Programme and the National Science Learning Network, as well as the Athena SWAN initiative, launched to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science and technology. We’ve also seen innovative university outreach programmes, providing flexible STEM degrees for students without science qualifications and financial support for women wanting to study a second degree.
So, what’s next?
It’s well known that entrepreneurs with a STEM background are more likely to build their companies on innovative foundations. Encouraging such enterprise will yield long-term economic and social dividends. It’s also well known that female founders tend to be more numerous in areas like health and social work or personal services. I believe that, to inspire the next generation of female entrepreneurs – at the cutting edge of science and technology – we need to do more to captivate the imagination of young women and encourage them to believe they can ‘make it’ in the exciting world of Britain’s bustling start-up scene.
To do this, not only do we need to educate girls about the endless opportunities available to them with STEM subjects, we also need to support female STEM students to explore their entrepreneurial potential. Although certain people – think Holly Tucker and Jo Malone – have a natural flair for ‘blue sky thinking,’ entrepreneurialism can be taught through the development of practical business skills which are so often overlooked by traditional university education. A Girl Scout Research Institute study showed that 73% of girls are interested in STEM fields, but without keeping them engaged and showing them future opportunities, they are more likely to choose other subjects at college or university. It’s up to us, as educators, government and industry experts, to work together to inspire girls from an early age and nurture their entrepreneurial potential.
Research tells us that access to appropriate role models for women is critically important. After all, the best form of inspiration comes from the horse’s mouth. Female role models and mentors play a key part in championing creativity and showing young women what can be achieved if they pursue alternative career paths. As well as making core business skills a major part of higher education, we should follow in the footsteps of the Scottish Framework and Action Plan for Women’s Enterprise, to provide a more strategic and co-ordinated approach to boosting women’s entrepreneurship. Women’s Enterprise Scotland runs a comprehensive mentoring and ambassador network, which seeks to inspire, motivate and engage with women-led start-ups. The rest of the UK needs to step up and help spread the word that Britain is a hub for female entrepreneurial talent, with hundreds of women launching successful – and often world-changing – businesses every year. Iris Lapinski is a wonderful example of a British woman making waves in the UK tech start-up scene. In 2010, she founded Apps for Good, which helps young people create apps through creative learning programmes. The courses have more than 17,000 students in the UK and in 2013 Iris won the Google Global Impact Award.
I’m lucky enough to be in an industry that is at the forefront of identifying and collaborating with the best of Britain’s entrepreneurial talent. I am inspired everyday by the people I meet, many of whom are on the cusp of launching game-changing businesses for our environment and the world we live in. Despite this, it’s still a male dominated field and we have a long way to go before women are fully represented in the start-up community. By teaching girls from an early age about the importance of STEM skills, nurturing their entrepreneurial potential, and providing inspirational role models, I believe it won’t be long before Britain becomes a torchbearer for female entrepreneurs.
Kate Jack is UK country lead for Innovation Hub by Innogy.