Northern Ireland is privy to powerful instruments of change, so let's embrace them

Lorraine Acheson

THREE years on from the Rose Review publication and for female entrepreneurs, there are still challenges to overcome. That much is abundantly clear.

The 2019 report, itself an independent commission of female entrepreneurship authored by Alison Rose, chief executive of NatWest, highlighted that if women started and scaled new businesses at the same rate as men, up to £250 billion of new value could be added to the UK economy. That's a staggering statistic from what was undoubtedly a landmark review into the unrealised potential simmering within female-led start-ups.

Glass ceilings and a gender imbalance – for any women in business, 2019's Rose Review was familiar reading. But perhaps the most pertinent takeaway was in relation to female-focused funding, or lack thereof, which was cited as the single biggest challenge facing female entrepreneurs across the UK. It's a persistent obstacle, too.

Fast forward to 2022, and February's Rose Review progress report identified that of the 140,000-plus companies established by female teams over the past 12 months, only one per cent of those were in Northern Ireland.

The level of female entrepreneurship on these shores is considerably lower than the UK average, that much we know. There are however signs that the tide is beginning to change.

In 2021, I had the privilege of chairing a taskforce sponsored by the Department for the Economy where the focus was placed squarely on increasing female entrepreneurship. The takeaway, as you might expect, was crystal-clear: we need a range of targeted programmes and support to encourage and enable women to start and indeed scale business at the same rate as their male peers.

Northern Ireland also needs to set targets and measure any tangible progress within the realms of female entrepreneurship – just as the Rose Review progress report has illustrated: measurement and disclosure are powerful instruments of change.

So let the 2022 mile-maker be drawn from an undisputed highlight of February's report: over 1,500 companies were established by women here in 2021, almost triple 2018's figure of 584.

Yes, Northern Ireland may still lag behind other parts of the UK when it comes to female enterprise. And yes, those age-old challenges and gender barriers are still present in some capacity, but we should wholeheartedly embrace these shoots of progress.

It's something we at Women in Business strive towards on our journey to creating a more inclusive economy.

Since joining the network in February, the reach of our work supporting female entrepreneurs has astounded me. Just last week, we celebrated the success of female entrepreneurs at the 2022 Women in Business Awards, as well as supporting aspiring young entrepreneurs through the InnovateHer Programme at Queen's University Belfast; we have collaborated with Venture Capital firm Techstart on NI's first ever female-focused Proof of Concept fund and also partnered with Enterprise NI, British Business Bank and Ulster Bank to help bridge the financing gap for our women entrepreneurs.

All of this is done in collaboration, working with partners and change-makers who share our vision for a more inclusive economy. Of course, there is more to be done, with a challenge so great and a reward so promising, there always will be. And this is the baton I am picking up. Who's in?

:: Lorraine Acheson is managing director of Women in Business

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