A group of four millennials with girlpower placards

I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want…

diversity founder experience fundraising Feb 01, 2022

In sporting terms, it has been a year like no other. Emma Raducanu has just taken the tennis world by storm, becoming the first qualifier in history to win a grand slam. Last week, Europe’s women held their nerve to seal a breath-taking win in the Solheim Cup on US turf. Only a few weeks ago, Charlotte Worthington defied gravity, history and a first run crash as she secured BMX freestyle gold. Simone Biles courageously spoke about her mental health issues before returning to add a bronze to the silver she had already won. Dame Sarah Storey’s three gold medals made her the most decorated British Paralympian of all time.

This is surely a watershed moment. Not because the female sports stars are getting better – they have always had both talent and competitive success. But because men finally see and realise just how good female athletes are. It is depressing and a damning indictment on mankind it has taken so long. For many years, the idea that men and women can compete together was something of a joke, epitomised by the Billie Jean King ‘battle of the sexes’ tennis match against Bobby Riggs in 1973 (a match she won). The Tokyo Olympics has made mixed gender competition a reality. Who wasn’t enthralled by the mixed relay races in the triathlon, 4x400 and swimming? More please. The Solheim Cup wasn’t an inferior version of the Ryder Cup. It was sublime. One could pick any number of highlights, usually involving the draining of insanely difficult long putts. But my favourite would be Nanna Koerstz Madsen’s approach to the par-five second in her singles match. Austin Ernst had already put her ball to within a foot of the hole for a certain eagle. Rather than crumbling under the pressure, Nanna’s 180 yard shot rolled into her opponent’s! Golf became long distance bowls. Europe’s men will do very well to match the quality and skill levels we saw.

Going forward, female sports stars can look forward to more media airtime, more sponsorship, more competition, and more financial support. It is impossible to overstate how important this is for the future of our society. Studies of young children have shown that aged 6, girls have the same ambitions as boys. They want to become pilots, spacemen and firefighters. But ask those same girls four years later, and unintentional cultural pressures have forced them to moderate their dreams, and focus instead on more ‘gendered’ roles, such as teachers and nurses. This is crazy. We need more female role models and we need men to accept the glaringly obvious fact that on nearly every measure, women are superior beings. They can, after all, do everything men can and give birth!

We definitely need more female role models in business. Statistics for gender diversity, measuring female participation in the workforces or leadership teams of big companies, have been dire for ages. This is a better measure than looking at gender ratios across industry sectors, because it is an indication of how valued women are in their chosen careers. Today, there are a record number of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, but they number only 41. That’s 8%, when women make up 49.6% of the global population. According to Catalyst, women occupy 29% senior management roles and 87% of global mid-market companies had at least one woman in a senior management role in 2020. But there is clearly a ‘leaky pipeline’, with fewer women at each ascending level of business. This may be progress but the ‘glass ceiling’ has only been scratched, not smashed.

We hope that both existing and would-be female entrepreneurs are emboldened by the recent demonstrations of girl power. The macros trends are good. 38% of global private businesses are thought to be owned by women (BNP Paribas). In the UK, there are 4,375 female founders and 3,831 of their companies have raised funding since 2011. But we need many more female founders. Female founded start-ups helped stabilise the US economy following the 2008-9 recession, creating nearly 2m jobs. In the US, the number of women-owned businesses grew by 21% 2014-2019, generating $2 trillion in annual revenues. The Alison Rose review in the UK estimated that if women participated equally in the economy, there would be 1m more firms and £250bn of economic value created. Start-ups run by women are 10% more likely to survive, thanks to a culture of building financial stability rather than maximising profit. They are also making the world a better place for everyone: 45% of social entrepreneurs are female.

We all need to do more to help female founders succeed. Only 6 of the 43 countries monitored by The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor have a higher rate of female to male entrepreneurship, and none of them are in Europe or North America. The UK is 6th in the Mastercard global index of women’s entrepreneurs, but we need to be higher: Poland, New Zealand and Switzerland are all currently ahead. The UK is also below the global average female/male entrepreneurship ratio. Furthermore, the pandemic has had a negative impact. Only 10% female entrepreneurs planned to start a business in 2021 and 55% of female business leaders would not recommend they start a business in their sector.

Above all, overall levels of funding available for female owned and led businesses are still pitiful (2.3% of VC money in 2020). This chart from Beahurst shows that fully male-founded teams still dominate UK funding:

The bottom line is we need more VCs run by women (only 5.6% in the US) and more female VC partners (4.9%). In the UK only 13% of senior VCs were women, and 48% had no women at all. Only when there is a better ratio here will we get more female founded businesses. And we will also get more innovative start-ups. UK female entrepreneurs currently sit 17th out of 59 countries on the scale for measuring truly innovative marketplace products. I suspect this is not because they don’t have the ideas, but because they can’t bring them to market in the current ecosystem. They play safe, moderating their dreams just as those 6 year old girls do. We need them to be bold and unhindered. 

So let’s herald a new age for girl power, not just in sport and business, but across society. And let’s inspire young girls to not just found the businesses of the future, but to finance them.


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