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Ireland’s New Femtrepreneurs

Get your sunglasses, grab your beach towel and imagine the following scene of children playing in the sand: Seven boys, ages five to eight, are engineering an intricate series of dams and rivers by the water’s edge. They even build a small hot tub and are enjoying their time in this mini spa when along come the girls – first one, then two. As the third attempts to find a seat in the tub, two boys protest. “No girls allowed.” The girls argue but eventually move along. Minutes later the mothers arrive and demand equal rights for the girls. The boys protest, but the mothers stand guard as the girls are begrudgingly allowed in the tub.

“No Girls Allowed”

Clearly everyone is having less fun. As soon as the guards leave, the chanting begins anew, “No girls allowed.” The scene repeats several times. Eventually, the mothers become distracted and the girls grow tired of trying. Then one lone girl starts to dig a short distance from the boys. She is far enough to maintain respect for the rule of separation but close enough for the engineers and construction workers to see her. Other girls join in. They build elaborate scenes creatively using beach flora, fauna and debris to make bridges, houses, trees and people.

A curious boy inches his digging project closer to the girls’ scene. Within minutes he connects his trench to their landscape. Other boys take note and edge closer. They build connecting roads as well. Soon the groups’ combined engineering and creative talents result in a complex and ingenious landscape filled with people, cars, pets, trenches, dams and a bigger coed hot tub!

This thought provoking story of boys and girls at play on a summer’s day was shared with us by Dr. Anne Perschel, friend of ThinkTank, organizational psychologist and president of Boston based Germane Consulting and while sweet and endearing has a serious underlying message.

A better club

In this story the girls on the beach quickly turn from the waiting game – waiting for some adult to demand an invitation on their behalf to the boys hot tub – to figuring out that there is a smarter way– and like the girls on the beach, many Irish women today have worked out that demanding inclusion to the boys club is a long and arduous path, so why not create a better, more attractive club? Instead of trying to force issues or crack the glass ceilings (a term which tends to trivialize the issues), many women are taking their assets and creating their own sandboxes. In fact in 2010 nearly 800 women in Ireland every month are constructing their own solution by starting their own businesses and although this is down from a high of 1,050 per month in 2007 (versus 1,650 for men), it’s still an impressive number in a seriously challenging economic climate.

This growth and success of women owned enterprises is one of the most profound changes affecting the global business landscape. International comparisons highlight that the world’s most entrepreneurial economies have a high representation of female entrepreneurs. In the US women are the majority owners in 50% of all privately owned firms in the US, these businesses produce $1.9 trillion in turnover, employ 12.8m employees and grow at twice the rate of all US firms. Women entrepreneurs are expanding into non-traditional businesses like biotech, pharma, construction, manufacturing and transportation. These trends are consistent throughout the world, however, women are the largest under-represented group when it comes to enterprise in Ireland, just 15-18% of entrepreneurs are female, one of the lowest rates in the developed world, this represents an enormous pool of untapped potential.

New engine for growth

Government and smart businesses all over Ireland have recognised that from kitchen table entrepreneurs to international CEOs, women wealth creators in Ireland can be an important new engine for Irish economic development over the next decade. A key element of the government’s drive to increase entrepreneurial activity is supporting more women to become involved in business and business start-up to unlock their wealth creating potential, indeed to date through the Enterprise Boards 77,380 women have availed of training and business development programmes and have accessed €33.3m in grant aid.

The biggest challenge for many female entrepreneurs and one that is the focus of a new Government funded initiative called *Going for Growth is to successfully transition female entrepreneurs from early stage entrepreneurs to established entrepreneurs (usually a 3.5 year timeframe) and establish the necessary change in focus from survivalist and sole trader mentality to growth and company building mentality. Women in business need to think about structuring a business with the necessary physical, human, financial and information resources that will enable it to survive and thrive without 100% of their continued time investment. The bottom line is that unless the business is scalable (and ideally saleable) then the cumulative time investment can become difficult to justify. Quite frankly, for all the entrepreneurial effort that goes into launching and growing a successful business versus what you could have earned in employment over the same period with better terms and conditions, the final payoff must be worth it.

Going for growth

Going for Growth’s Paula Fitzsimons believes that “There is a need to move beyond just starting into growing. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report (GEM) tells us that of the 800 women setting up new businesses in Ireland each month, only about 70 have substantial growth aspirations and expect to be employing more than 20 after five years. My mission in Going for Growth is to support women entrepreneurs to achieve their growth ambitions and to get more women entrepreneurs into a growth frame of mind.”

Female entrepreneurs often start a business with different experiences, aspirations and motivations from their male counterparts. Particular issues include the impact on family life, a lack of high profile role models and a lower perception by women that they have the skills to set up in business. These differences need to be appreciated and understood if more women are to be encouraged to start a business and be involved in entrepreneurial roles here. The most recent GEM report states that women are 5 times more likely to set up their own business as a result of meeting other women entrepreneurs. Networking initiatives spearheaded by Cork County and City Enterprise Boards like NEW (Network for Enterprising Women) and networking forums like and along with events like National Women’s Enterprise Day and on-line forums like in addition to a new initiative by the European Commission – The European Network of Female Entrepreneurship ambassadors, of which there are three in Cork, are all extremely beneficial to those starting out.
I Can do it.

Stories to tell

Cork’s entrepreneurial women come from a variety of backgrounds and are involved in a range of sectors and each has a remarkable story to tell. ThinkTank has met with many of these enterprising women in Cork in the course of doing business. Like one woman we met recently who is in the process of developing the prototype for what is a high potential business idea that could translate into an innovative international company, while at the same time attending MBA classes and rearing four children under ten to boot, phew, it’s exhausting to even think about it but incredibly inspiring for other women and creates an “I can do it” mentality. Like another woman who quit a high finance job to develop a world class gluten free product range. Like so many highly educated women who are returning to Cork having gained international, corporate experience and are now looking at ways to leverage their skills and contribute to the re-generation of the economy – in new and different ways. These enterprising women help develop positive perceptions about entrepreneurship in Cork and inspire and encourage other females to take up the challenge and just “Go for it.”

ThinkTank’s vision is that in the new sandboxes, men and women play well together, honoring each other’s strengths and gifts. Maybe it is time we quit trying to break down the old structures. Instead, let’s create our own jobs and companies to be so attractive that all the most competent people will want to play with us, it could be one of the ways that we can Transform Cork and will be a driving force in accumulating the intellectual capital and diverse perspectives Cork needs to remain competitive in local, national and global markets.

Lisa lectures in Entrepreneurship in CIT.

*Invitations are now being issued to women entrepreneurs who would like to be considered for participation in the Going for Growth initiative, many Cork based female business owners have participated in the programme and found it to be extremely beneficial.