Business management

What’s Next Fest: how to thrive in the new normal

In a recent panel at this year’s virtual gathering, a select group of female founders and entrepreneurship experts discussed the transformational effects of Covid-19 on the way we live, work and do business.

What's next?

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, What’s Next Fest 2020 united experts from around the globe to share business guidance with entrepreneurs facing this uniquely challenging business environment.

Staged by the Female Founder Collective, in partnership with She’s Next, and empowered by Visa, one of the key events was Rebuild for Success: How to Thrive in the New Normal, which looked at how we can navigate the challenges of the post-pandemic world.

The session was led by Jeni Mundy, managing director, UK & Ireland, Visa. Contributors were:

  • Julie Baker, head of enterprise and community finance at NatWest, who leads the delivery of new ways to support enterprise within the bank’s SME customer base.
  • Dr Jackie Mulligan, founder and CEO of ShopAppy, a digital platform that encourages customers to shop locally and helps small businesses get online.
  • Lakechia Jeanne, founder of Girls In Science, which encourages young women to pursue scientific careers.

Launching the discussion, Visa’s Jeni Mundy outlined the impact Covid-19 has had on businesses. “It’s thrown up opportunities as well as considerable challenges, and it’s been those who can adapt that are thriving.”

Mulligan described the rapid expansion of ShopAppy, with more people shopping locally and small businesses needing to reach customers. “The purpose of ShopAppy is supporting local businesses, so when Covid hit, I pivoted our platform, introduced delivery and offered free business support. We grew from 29 towns to 103 in three weeks.”

Baker also played a part in guiding SMEs through Covid-19. “My team supports businesses around the country, especially in hard-to-reach communities and minority groups, including women founders. Without physical accelerator hubs, we digitised our Business Builder programme.” With a digital offering, NatWest is reaching more entrepreneurs than before.

Conversely, Girls In Science was already a digital platform, and Jeanne found lack of face-to-face contact the biggest challenge. “We’re struggling with losing that interaction, the ideas we got while we were together, able to bounce off each other. But it’s given me an opportunity to connect with our broader audience virtually. Hopefully that online community can motivate them to find ways to make what we’re all going through work.”

One of my team said they feel like they’re living at work, not working at home. We’ve got to recognise it’s different for everybody. We’re in the same storm, but different boats

Julie Baker
Head of enterprise and community finance at NatWest

Mundy identified a common theme of resilience and adaptability, with which Mulligan agreed: “The resilience we saw was based on loyalty to customers not wanting to lose that connection,” said Mulligan. “A guy with an events business, which was gone overnight, created cocktail kits, and showed you how to make cocktails via Zoom. That idea cross-pollinated to a pizza café that couldn’t open. He made pizza kits, utilising his fresh supply chain, jumping on the trend of people wanting to bake at home.”

Working on well-being

Business resilience is shored up by personal well-being, and Mundy asked the panel how it had fared during the pandemic. “Mental health is a big thing we’ve been pushing forward with,” said Jeanne. “Lockdown’s been tough for a lot of our network, but at the same time it’s grown their independence.”

Baker noted that businesses have been putting well-being at the fore. “It’s encouraging to see a lot of organisations doing well during Covid because they offer the right sort of well-being support.”

Baker said that for entrepreneurs, surrounding yourself with a good support network is crucial: “Whether that be in your home – especially if you have caring responsibilities – or in the office. We can’t be an expert at everything and if we’re tackling something we don’t really understand, this leads to stress.” Having access to a network of people who can answer questions on the areas you are unsure about is therefore essential, says Baker, adding that support is readily available via Local Enterprise Partnerships and Growth Hubs or through experts such as the NatWest entrepreneurship team.

Mulligan suggested that women founders in particular may have suffered during lockdown, finding their professional needs subsumed. “Women tend to take the main caring responsibilities. I’ve been on video calls with top executives, and seen a partner hand over a child into the room. I don’t think that’s particularly productive. Women are constantly compromised like this, and Covid has thrown that into sharp relief.”

Mundy said that, more than ever, it’s important for women founders to focus on themselves. “Deprioritising goals is something to watch out for. In this environment, you need to remember what you’re trying to achieve, particularly if you’re trying to drive through a new business.”

Digital working, meanwhile, has created new opportunities for women founders to access support. “We’ve seen huge increases in the number of females attending digital networking events,” said Baker. “We’re attracting more people that need the information, that need to be inspired, because they don’t have to travel.”

But working from home isn’t always easy. “One of my team said they feel like they’re living at work, not working at home,” reported Baker. “We won’t go back to the patterns we used to have, but we’ve just got to recognise it’s different for everybody. We’re in the same storm, but different boats.”

Invention is the daughter of necessity

Fresh thinking has been born of necessity during the crisis, posited Mundy. “When you’re put in a hard place, you don’t have an option but to make do and get creative,” agreed Jeanne. She believes the key is continual learning. “When it comes to education, nothing is wasted. Having the right mindset for going forward is about investing into yourself and investing into every opportunity that’s presented to you, and being aware of the opportunities as they occur.”

The blending of the virtual and real worlds has been a transformational product of Covid, said Mundy, and asked how that might play out for the SME community. Mulligan predicted the rise of hybrid businesses that span both. “Online or offline is a false division, because even if you think you’re offline, you’re not, because your customers are comparing you to online offerings. But while online has become the norm, the lack of social interaction we’ve experienced has made us realise how valuable it is. We need to ensure that those tangible experiences are still there when we’re ready for them.”

Building communities for the future

Mundy asked the panel what their best advice was for dealing with the unprecedented events of 2020. Baker cited “a close-knit, valued support network” as vital, and the others concurred. “Recognise that it isn’t so much about know-how as about know-who,” added Mulligan. “If you ask, you network, you listen, there’re always people around you who will help.”

Jeanne agreed. “Make friends, not contacts. When you are building a community around yourself, it’s important to have people who are aligned to who you are as a person, because that allows you to be an authentic entrepreneur.”

This material is published by NatWest Group plc (“NatWest Group”), for information purposes only and should not be regarded as providing any specific advice. Recipients should make their own independent evaluation of this information and no action should be taken, solely relying on it. This material should not be reproduced or disclosed without our consent. It is not intended for distribution in any jurisdiction in which this would be prohibited. Whilst this information is believed to be reliable, it has not been independently verified by NatWest Group and NatWest Group makes no representation or warranty (express or implied) of any kind, as regards the accuracy or completeness of this information, nor does it accept any responsibility or liability for any loss or damage arising in any way from any use made of or reliance placed on, this information. Unless otherwise stated, any views, forecasts, or estimates are solely those of NatWest Group, as of this date and are subject to change without notice. Copyright © NatWest Group. All rights reserved.

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