I don’t need to tell you that the history of women in business is a proud one. In less enlightened times, women tirelessly supported rural businesses invariably headed up by their male relatives, without pay or recognition. Indeed, ‘support’ is misleading; frequently, they were equal partners in terms of work with their contributions to childcare, budgeting, accounts and record-keeping, but remained in the background, their astonishing multi-tasking unseen and, let’s be honest, vastly underappreciated.
But times have changed. We know that women now head up a significant percentage of small and medium-sized rural enterprises, and we know that the Young report has acknowledged the valuable contribution these businesses make to the economy. The playing field has broadened, too - a ‘woman in rural enterprise’ is no longer a fancy way of saying a ‘farmer’s wife’, but covers a huge number of fields: women who work in the arts, tourism, the food industry, crafters, therapists and professional service providers to name just a handful. I frequently find myself in awe at the tenacity, dynamism and creativity of women in rural enterprise. The Hills was designed as an online platform to promote the very best of rural business, but I have to admit that I regularly find myself cheerleading most loudly for the female entrepreneurs pushing themselves to the forefront of diversification and innovation against all of the odds.
Whilst International Women's Day and the Day Without Women kick off Women's History Month every March, why are we not concentrating on supporting women in business or breaking their glass ceiling throughout the year? The proportion of small and medium-sized companies run by women is increasing, yet there is greater potential still: there are more women with great entrepreneurial ideas who need support to help their businesses succeed. Did you know, that if women set up businesses at the same rate as men, the UK would have an additional one million entrepreneurs!
Because of course, women in rural enterprise still face challenges; it would be irresponsible of me to try to claim otherwise. In practical terms, there are the long distances rural business owners have to travel - and account for in their invoicing - to reach suppliers and clients, or visit trade fairs and conferences etc - and there is also the ongoing issue of rural broadband. Rural areas are also far more at risk of ‘brain drain’, i.e. talented youngsters moving out of the area and heading for a nearby city to improve their employment prospects, making recruitment difficult for all rural business owners, male or female. All of this in addition to the usual stereotyping and cultural, systemic and institutional discrimination women can face in the workplace makes for a heady mix of what we might optimistically call ‘challenges’.
So how can we support the budding female entrepreneur in our daily lives? We have a some ideas for you to consider:
There is no better way to support business than use a business. Head out on to your local high street and into your community and seek out that passionate creative, shopkeeper or artisan and get to know their business. Small Business Saturday is coming up on the 1st December and now is the time to start planning ahead. As a non-commercial campaign, Small Business Saturday UK highlights business success and encourages consumers to 'shop local' and support small businesses in their communities. Whilst the day itself takes place on the first Saturday in December each year, the campaign aims to have a lasting impact on small businesses. Investigate local events and markets in your area - many small businesses take part in the day by hosting events and offering discounts. Last year an estimated £748 million was spent on the day!
Fewer women believe that they have the skills to start a business compared with men, which in itself is a huge barrier to the aspiring female entrepreneur. Have you ever considered doing a skillshare, a mutual training time swap or mentoring session? Confidence to jump in feet first is a massive benefit to any start up, and so cheerleaders are a valuable commodity. Whilst we can’t always provide funding; advice and pointing in the direction of apprenticeships and training are a great way to help that fledgeling business woman.
I’m a big advocate of seeking out networking events which cover large rural areas and offer a wealth of support, inspiration and opportunities to build relationships with other like-minded women. Does the thought of networking fill you with dread? Let’s work on this. After all, people buy from people - real people - but networking isn’t just a selling exercise. It’s also an opportunity to bounce ideas around, spark connections, even find a mentor with a wealth of experience in a related field. There are a wide number of business networks specifically for women. These networks offer events, support, advice and more. They range from very broad memberships to those targeted at more specific audiences, such as Women in Rural Enterprise (WiRE), Women in Business Network and the Federation of Small Businesses newly launched initiative.
Sandra Donoghue, Membership Advisor for the Federation of Small Business and instrumental in championing the Women in Business network in North Wales says: ‘More and more women are seeing self-employment as an attractive career option and are choosing to set up their own business. In particular, social enterprise and rural business owners are predominantly led by women and creating the women in business network helps to bring them together to share their challenges, triumphs, innovations and ideas. Our aim is to create a network to help women achieve their goals by enabling them to access support that is tailored to their needs. Speaking to other business women at different stages of the entrepreneurial journey, learning from role models and working with mentors helps them to develop their business ideas and identify strategies for future growth. The initiative focuses on the three key goals of; personal development & education, collaboration and empowerment for women both new to business and those looking at ways to learn new skills and develop their established businesses.’
Sandra goes on to tell us: ‘I was fortunate to present at an award winners event earlier this week, the Best Rural Business Award Finals. I was seated at a table that boasted three rural business award winners on the evening and all three winning businesses are owned by women! The aim of these awards is to give recognition to businesses operating right across the rural sector, to acknowledge the breadth and depth of opportunity presented by the Great British countryside, as well as to celebrate the achievements of our rural businesses, from engineering through to artisan food producers and professional services organisations.’
Awards are a fabulous platform for recognising and celebrating the great achievements of our rural business communities. Maybe you can nominate one of the amazing women in business that you know for an award?
Choosing a working life of entrepreneurial innovation may have its downsides - uncertainty being one - but with the help of a supportive community of like-minded women around us - virtual or otherwise - some strong coffee and some thoughtful advice, I honestly believe we can achieve anything. Add a bit of cake into that mix and - well, the world really is your oyster!