For Scotland's future
“We are the only country in Europe that has got this kind of collaborative policy framework, [so] that we can now go forward and actually create an environment that is more supportive.” Jackie Brierton, a 30 year business veteran – employee, owner, franchisee, industry policy adviser and start-up mentor – was reflecting on the recent launch of the Scottish Framework and Action Plan for Women’s Enterprise.
Scotland’s attitude to an overt strategy of supporting women in business has ebbed and flowed over the past 15 years. Today though, there is a widespread realisation that such an approach is both an issue of social justice and cold economic reality. Scotland would have an additional 108,480 firms if women’s business ownership rates equalled those of men; a 32 per cent increase in the business base.
At the moment, women-led businesses contribute £5bn to the economy; if the rate equalled that of men, the contribution would increase by £7.6bn to nearly £13bn; a 5.3 per cent increase in the size of the Scottish economy. After graduating, Brierton worked for a media company in marketing and publicity. She then bought and turned round a small retail business.
That fuelled an interest in entrepreneurialism and she ran a fashion franchise. In turn that led to roles in economic development, community-based at first and then – after the Scottish Executive and UK Government took note of various initiatives – as an adviser on women’s enterprise policy at the then Department of Trade and Industry.
“There wasn’t a precedent for what we were doing and it wasn’t always easy to get people to understand that a gender-based approach to enterprise would actually produce results,” said Brierton. “But it’s good to see that a lot of the ideas we tried in Scotland in the late 90s, such as micro-credit for women, are becoming mainstream today.”
Since then, Brierton has continued to work in the areas of women’s enterprise, community and social business. Today, she is co-founder and chair of Women’s Enterprise Scotland (WES), which promotes female business ownership as an economic driver, and enterprise coordinator of GrowBiz, which provides community-based mentoring for start-ups and growing businesses in Perthshire.
“There are clearly still challenges,” she said. “The whole ‘women on boards’ agenda has highlighted that. But from an entrepreneurial perspective, I think we are in a really good place in Scotland because we have seen a steady increase in women starting businesses.”
Not only that, said Brierton, but there is a well of ambition within the sector; a WES survey found that 87 per cent were planning growth and 27 per cent wanted to grow rapidly. The framework and action plan, launched in March by Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth, John Swinney and Minister for Youth Employment, Angela Constance, aims to support this ambition.
“There are a number of organisations and initiatives in Scotland which provide enterprise support to new and growing businesses, and many women starting and growing businesses - including social enterprises - have benefited from their services. The enterprise ‘ecosystem’ is arguably more developed here than in any other part of the UK.
“[But] most of that support is what we’d call ‘mainstream’, designed to suit the needs of the majority and with little specific focus on tailored support targeted to specific groups such as women, minority ethnic businesses, or people with disabilities for example.
“Mainstream support works well for many people but there is a body of evidence which highlights the benefits of giving women the option to have a more gender-focused approach. This may be having the choice of a male or female business adviser, female-focused training courses or networking events for women.
“This may particularly be the case for women from minority ethnic communities, women who have limited experience of running a business, or those who have been out of the workforce for a number of years. But it can also be the case for women seeking to grow existing businesses.”
Examples of gender-focused approaches include the Women into Business networking events which are available in some Business Gateway areas. There are also a number of business network organisations for women, including affiliate members of the Association of Scottish Businesswomen. And there are now five RBS Inspiring Enterprise projects in Scotland which provide specific support to women setting up businesses or social enterprises.
“We recognise that many women, especially those within already established businesses, view the prospect of women-focused business support mechanisms with reservation.
“But there is an equally well-founded concern that mainstream support, particularly support which is offered to businesses identified as high-growth firms, in practice excludes women-led businesses as fewer are able to meet the thresholds for inclusion. In this regard, gender-blindness may be disadvantageous to women-owned firms with different growth patterns.”
The framework and action plan proposes a series of measures, including mentoring and networking and a role-model project which has seen the creation of women’s enterprise ambassadors. It highlights the need for collaboration across the enterprise network, as well as corporate players like RBS and We Connect, and is an integral part of the Government’s ‘Scotland Can Do’ strategy promoting innovation and entrepreneurship.
The plan will also promote gender-specific support, including encouraging banks to focus on their female customers’ businesses, and “will ensure that ‘women in enterprise’ is clearly comprehended as being an area of economic priority and that women’s enterprise is supported across government and agencies”.
The aim this year is to raise the profile of the strategy – particularly through the ambassador project - and implement the action proposals. Two conferences – focusing on the opportunities in public sector procurement and on international best practice – are planned for the autumn.
“It’s a huge opportunity, not just for Scotland’s economy but also for the social fabric and for Scotland’s future,” said Brierton.
Download the Women's Enterprise Framework and Action Plan here. And join in the conversation on Twitter @WEScotland or onFacebook.com/WEScotland
The first five women’s enterprise ambassadors
Dr Margaret Anne Craig, CEO of Clyde Biosciences, Glasgow
Kirsteen Stewart, owner of Kirsteen Stewart, Kirkwall, Orkney
Lynn Mann, owner of Supernature, Midlothian
Anja Baak, owner of Great Glen Game, Roybridge, Inverness-shire
Morag Malloy, Managing Director of Fission Creative, Paisley
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