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Invisible entrepreneurs – where are all the female founders hiding?

Kate Barnard is a former Engineering Programme Manager at Rolls Royce and now runs Enjoy the Air, which provides data-driven strategies to help cities improve their air quality in order to meet the World Health Organisation’s air standard and to fulfil the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

After leaving behind the corporate world to launch Enjoy the Air in 2020, Kate reflects on the challenges she faces as a female founder, and why the pool of women-led businesses is still so small.

Balancing business with caring responsibilities

In a patriarchal society, many female entrepreneurs face the juggling act between business aspirations and family responsibility.

While male entrepreneurs often have more freedom to focus solely on their ventures, it is still the case that mothers are more likely to divide their attention between business and home responsibilities. However, there are times when a more ‘hunter male’ approach is needed and times when the ‘female nurturing’ side is needed, so you need to strike that balance.

As a primary caregiver of two children, I am usually answering emails at the school gates and simultaneously scaling up my start-up while being expected to make cakes for the bake sale or fancy dress costumes for theatre performances. The need to keep those plates spinning is hardwired into me as a mother, and I am always working to maintain a delicate balance. 

This makes it challenging for female founders to dedicate the same level of time and undivided attention to their businesses as their male counterparts, perpetuating the stereotype that men are simply better at hustling. 

The Pursuit of Purpose-Driven Ventures:

From my experience, women entrepreneurs are more likely to launch purpose-led businesses that focus on creating positive change for others and for society. While this focus on purpose is undeniably important, it can overshadow the desire to maximise profits quickly. 

As the founder of a purpose-driven business myself, I have seen how this can result in a slower pace of growth and revenue generation, which in turn, can hinder funding opportunities and scalability.

In the competitive marketplace, female entrepreneurs may risk being sidelined if they cannot demonstrate immediate returns. Our fixation on short-term profits must not eclipse the long-term benefits and societal impact that purpose-driven businesses can bring.

The investment and business world must recalibrate its barometers of success beyond just numbers in a spreadsheet. The world needs businesses that want to do good, and ambitious female founders who challenge the status quo, regardless of immediate financial gains.

Underrepresentation of Women in Tech-Driven Ventures:

The tech industry has long been plagued by gender disparities and female founders face a double hurdle – the underrepresentation of women in the field and the prioritisation of profit-focused ventures. Technology tends to be a heavily male-dominated space even from school, which can create an unwelcoming environment for aspiring women tech entrepreneurs. 

Additionally, the most common sector for women-led businesses is the craft industry. This reality means the pool of potential women founders in the tech industry is even further reduced and for many it is unclear how to access adequate funding and support in a predominately male space. 

Personally, my ambitions for Enjoy the Air have always been set beyond just driving profits, I want to make a tangible and positive impact not only for my children but also for the future health of the population. 

As one of few women in the engineering space, I had to adapt to the system as I knew it wasn’t going to change for me. 

Bias and Stereotypes: 

Even in the 21st century, when seeking funding or presenting their ventures to potential investors, female founders still encounter bias and stereotypes. They may be judged based on preconceived notions about traditional business models or face scepticism about their experience and capabilities. 

These biases can lead to overlooked opportunities, and female entrepreneurs may struggle to break free from the traditional expectations placed on them of what a successful business is. 

Diverse Skill Sets and Perspectives:

Despite the challenges, female founders bring diverse perspectives, experiences, and skills to the table. Embracing and promoting this diversity of thought can foster innovation and lead to more inclusive and successful businesses.

However, in a world that sometimes values conformity over diversity, they may face societal pressures that push them towards conforming to a traditional view of entrepreneurship. 

Willpower and determination are not gender-specific attributes are the key differentiators as to whether a company will succeed or not. Success in the entrepreneurial world should be a result of mindset – a resolute, and perhaps delusional, belief that you can achieve your goals.

While female founders have undeniably made significant strides in the entrepreneurial landscape, it is essential to address the challenges we still face. Encouraging a diverse range of purpose-led ventures, promoting gender equality in underrepresented sectors and combating biases will pave the way for many more successful female entrepreneurs.

Turning these challenges into five tips to navigate success as a female founder.

  1. Be you. Everything comes down to people. Whether its investors, customers, or stakeholders – it’s you they are backing. Relax, you’ve got this. 
  2. Focus on the power of one and niche down. Three years on, I still don’t think I’ve niched enough as I want to help everyone. It will come. One business model, one product, one market sector. Nail it.
  3. Determination and tenacity. It’s not about being smart or techy, or having the biggest budget, it’s about sticking the course. 
  4. Keep moving. I can now run a marathon from the business fitness I’ve achieved. Our vision and values are unchanged but until we find the right market fit for us, and the right solution, we will keep going.
  5. Hustle. My biggest struggle. The engineer in me has so much integrity and tech knowledge that I need to know that whatever I sell works, is fit for purpose, and solves the problem – as a result we are slow to make revenue. Other solutions and companies out there are not better than us, but they hustle, sell, get the money, and then work out what to deliver.

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