Business

The many challenges faced by women-owned businesses

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Belfast for events to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Belfast for events to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Belfast for events to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement

I HAD the opportunity to attend the Women in Leadership Conference in Mandela Hall as part of the 25 Year Agreement reflections, thanks to an invitation from Women In Business Group.

It was my first time in the building and I’d like to congratulate Queen's University on creating such a truly vibrant, positive and modern space for our young people. It is a tangible investment in our future leaders.

Progressive building aside, it wasn’t lost on me that I was also in the presence of women whose leadership made a significant contribution to creating peace in our society. Not just those on the stage - Secretary Hillary Clinton, Professor Mary McAleese and Cherie Blair, but also many others in the audience.

The theme of the day – ‘Women in Leadership’ - gave me time to reflect on the current climate for a particular type of female leader, those women who own and run their businesses here. The challenges we share with women-owned businesses across western Europe as well as the issues that are unique to this area.

First off, it is clear there are not enough women- owned businesses in Northern Ireland. In 2020, UENI carried out a UK-wide survey and Northern Ireland showed the lowest level of female founders than any other part of the UK.

Only 27.5 per cent of our businesses here are owned by women, that’s just over one quarter of all businesses and this is in sharp contrast to the 32.3 per cent average in the rest of the UK.

We lag behind by almost 5 per cent to the rest of the UK. What’s contributing to the imbalance? Significantly, like other women-owned businesses, we continue to struggle to attract any useful level of investment, at every stage of business growth, as well documented in the recent Rose Review.

While things are improving, through emerging initiatives such as Barclays investment in the Female Innovators Labs, there is still so much to be done to level up the playing field.

But supposing the funding was available to make a difference, we still have a more local and fundamental challenge.

The UENI report also set out some key criteria that makes a region fertile ground for those looking to start and grow a business, including - an appealing location, a community spirit and a concentration of opportunity. With these elements in place, it is argued that an area has the best chance of growing thriving small businesses.

We certainly have the first two in abundance, but the concentration of opportunity is where we still struggle. For those women-owned businesses that are operating here, all of us do so in a small market on the northwest periphery of Europe.

This means that one of the greatest prospects to start and grow a business with any longevity, is built on the opportunity to supply to, or subcontract with, larger businesses.

With a continued low level of inward investment, 25 years after signing the peace agreement, unfortunately, there are still no great strides being made to support women-owned businesses in the way that is happening in Dublin, Manchester or London.

:: Michelle Lestas is a women running a business in Northern Ireland and is the published author of “In Business With Yourself” (Orpen Press, Dublin, 2021).