The barrier: juggling a business and raising children

When corporate lawyer – and single mum – Geeta Sidhu-Robb discovered that one of her three children was especially prone to illness, she made the decision to ditch her current job and launch her own business. Today, Nosh Detox, the natural food and juice enterprise she started at her kitchen table, turns over almost £2m a year. But back in 2008, when Nosh Detox launched, it was a nerve-racking journey into the unknown.

“One of the hardest things was trying to be everywhere at once,” she says. “Being a single parent and a businesswoman are such different roles, and they both need 100% of your time.”

She did have help, electing early on to use some of her income to hire people to help around the home, instead of treating herself to material goods. “My friends would buy clothes; I bought a cleaner,” she laughs.

Being a single parent and a businesswoman are such different roles, and they both need 100% of your time

Geeta Sidhu-Robb

A strict schedule was also essential; Sidhu-Robb would put in up to five extra hours every night as soon as the children were in bed. This dedication, she says, led to success – and being able to pay the rent and school fees is ultimately what drove her on. Other inspiration came from her clients. “They needed and wanted the service, so they were keen for us to succeed,” she says.

Juggling a business and family life is now simply the norm for many women, she says, adding that the notion a mother is “abandoning” her children if she goes to work is hopelessly old-fashioned. “We go to work to feed our kids,” she says, “because the majority of families can’t live on one salary any more. When women start a business, it doesn’t all stop because of childcare. We work around it.”

The barrier: preconceptions, and a lack of female role models

Eighteen years ago, when Lindsay Willott was 24, she helped launch what would go on to become one of the UK’s largest tech marketing agencies. Her co-founder was a man in his late 30s and she recalls with a heavy heart some of the early meetings they had with other businesspeople. “I think there was an unconscious bias that existed back then, where when a woman walked into a meeting people would assume that she was there to take the notes,” she says. “That was very hard.”

It made the young entrepreneur want to come across as very serious and to be “more impressive”, but in doing so she says she lost a little of herself and, perhaps, the true value of what she could bring to the table. “Back then I would try and second-guess everything I was saying because I wanted to make sure I was 100% right,” she says.

Even now, there are still so few women in technology in senior roles, so it’s hard to find mentors or people who can help you

Lindsay Willott

During her career, Willott – whose second business, feedback survey tool Customer Thermometer, launched in 2010 – has also been struck by a lack of female role models. “Even now, there are still so few women in technology in senior roles, so it’s hard to find mentors or people who can help you,” she says. “There are lots of networking groups today and it’s certainly a lot better than it was, but I think because many women still do an awful lot of the home-life stuff as well as running a business, it is harder for us to spare the time for mentoring, perhaps, than [it is for] some of our male counterparts.”

Kathryn Parsons, founder of digital-literacy start-up Decoded, and Martha Lane Fox, founder of lastminute.com, are among those who have been a source of inspiration for Willott. “It’s really easy to assume that that world doesn’t want you if you don’t see other people like you in it,” says Willott. “But when you see other women doing amazing things you just think, ‘I could do that too.’”

The barrier: getting funding

According to recent reports, a paltry 1% of venture capital funding is awarded to businesses founded by all-female teams – despite the fact that a third of British entrepreneurs are female. There are obviously a multitude of nuances in the details, but it’s hard to shake off the idea that female founders who are looking for investment are going to be up against a myriad of challenges.

Caroline Plumb, co-founder of recruitment specialists Freshminds, says that this isn’t necessarily the case, and determined female entrepreneurs with a vision shouldn’t let the headlines deter them. For her own part, Plumb raised £2m in funding in 2017 for cash-flow management tool Fluidly, her latest venture. “We were really fortunate and it was a very straightforward funding journey,” she says. “We didn’t face many challenges and once we were in the pipeline I didn’t feel like we were treated any differently or in a negative way.”

The ability to be an entrepreneur is not split on gender grounds; it’s about having a real passion and an understanding of the problem you’re solving

Caroline Plumb

The real issue, she feels, is the lack of diversity when it comes to the people at the VC firms that are making the investment decisions. “I think one of the biggest things that needs to change is that the people putting money into the investment funds need to be asking if the funds are being deployed in a diverse way,” she says. “What is the diversity of the decision-makers within the fund and what is the split of their portfolio of companies?”

Success, she says, is really about the strength of the idea. “If it is venture backable, a business has got to be of a certain scale and size, and show ambition. The ability to be an entrepreneur is not split on gender grounds; it’s about having a real passion and an understanding of your problem and then being creative in what your solution looks like.”

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