At events or in interviews I often get asked: What should we be doing to address the lack of women entrepreneurs/women starting businesses/women accessing investment/women in tech/women in STEM/women in senior business roles/women in business generally? (delete and replace with your own soundbite as you see fit) and I’ve always been stuck to come up with a good answer or solution. There’s plenty happening out there to address diversity inequality but with worrying reports about the numbers of women working in IT actually being on the decline is any of it really moving the needle and making a difference? Don’t even get me started on the tiny percentage of venture capital finance that goes to female founded companies – thought to be somewhere between 3 & 5% of all VC investment and rumoured to also be declining.
Then a chance conversation with Stephen Keown, the vice principal of my local girls’ post primary school in Derry Northern Ireland, St Mary’s College, took place in the corridor as I was leaving the school during Global Entrepreneurship Week last month and it sparked a thought…or a series of thoughts.
Anyone reading this who knows me will know that while I admire the global changemakers and their big dreams I try to bring about positive change in the world by taking action closer to home and in ways that are within my own gift to make happen. I’ve done this to date by angel investing in 6 early stage tech businesses (so far) and by having a stated preference for investing in startups with female founding teams. I also spend considerable amounts of my own time pro bono to help other entrepreneurs – mostly informally but also formally by being one of the Entrepreneurship Experts with the Entrepreneurship Centre at Saïd Business School (University of Oxford) and locally by being one of the Entrepreneurs in Residence at Catalyst Inc (previously the Northern Ireland Science Park) and by being a board member of Young Enterprise Northern Ireland.
Whilst these activities are useful (I think) they don’t significantly address the issues in my opening paragraph and at best probably just tickle them a little around the edges. My interventions are overwhelmingly biased towards early stage or established entrepreneurs – beneficial to those who’ve already made the leap and opted in; but not really helping to bring more girls and young women into the funnel that eventually becomes the pipeline.
I often think about how when my sister & I were teenagers growing up in a working class area of Doncaster there were no entrepreneur role models for us to look towards. Hardly anyone we knew aside from the corner shopkeeper owned their own business. Our father and uncles all worked for other people. Our mother and aunts didn’t really have careers although they sometimes worked. My older cousins followed their fathers’ footsteps or went to work “in the bank” or “at the council”. It was the same for everyone else we were at school with.
Anyway, to cut a long story short I thought about the 860 girls and young women of St Mary’s for a few days following Global Entrepreneurship Week and then I sent a DM via Twitter to Marie Lindsay, inspirational head teacher at St Mary’s, asking her whether she’d be interested in me joining the wider school team as its first Entrepreneur in Residence. A flurry of exchanges happened, a bit of dialogue occurred between Marie, the teaching staff and me and it culminated last week when Conor Lynch (Head of Business Studies) put the suggestion forward to the entire school at assembly. At the time of writing we have over 100 pupils from right across the St Mary’s age range who’ve indicated that they’d like to be involved and we’re trying to figure out how to best accommodate that interest. It’s such an exciting prospect and I can’t wait to start working with the students.
So what will a good outcome look like? The honest answer is that at this moment in time we have no idea as we’re still brainstorming and I’m trying to figure out how to work with the school in a more structured way than perhaps I’m used to. My plan is to find a way to augment the work already being done with pupils by great teachers such as Gavin Molloy and Clare Doherty and by Young Enterprise Northern Ireland by bringing to life some of what the students are learning in the classroom about entrepreneurship. We’re launching our programme in the New Year and I’ll be documenting our progress, warts and all. As far as we’re aware this is the first time an arrangement like this has been tried in Northern Ireland and we’ve even struggled to find examples further afield – so if you’re aware of any please shout up and connect me.
I’m hoping to achieve early doors:
- Students better informed at an earlier age of what setting up a business really involves
- Clarity for students around the sorts of qualifications that will be useful for the careers they’re interested in
- Understanding about all the different types of business it is possible to start and the benefits & drawbacks of each
- Demystify the process about setting up a business and given some exposure to the practicalities of running a business
- An introduction to networking and building a positive online digital profile and personal brand
and further down the line I’ll be happy if this “connection” to me grows into a few mentoring relationships with students who do go on to start the sorts of business that I or people I know can help them with but maybe that’s a bit ambitious at this stage. In truth if everyone in the school ends up slightly better informed that will be enough to make it worthwhile.
Why am I doing this?
Primarily because it gives me an opportunity to influence the career choices of a large number of young women and open their eyes to a few options that they may be unaware of or uncertain about and maybe help a few of them to avoid career mistakes. I’ll be on hand to answer their questions honestly and in relation to the real world of work. The world is going to be a very different place by the time the 11-18 year olds I’ll be working with in the coming months and years leave school or university. The job landscape is about to change dramatically and in ways none of us can really imagine, no matter how hard we speculate. I’m worried that if more girls and women don’t embrace careers in STEM they may find themselves languishing in jobs towards the bottom of the work pyramid as the middle tiers get replaced by machines. There are loads of other reasons. I care deeply about this NW corner of Ireland and about finding ways that our young people can stay here and make their lives here instead of having to leave and go to the other side of the world looking for work. Teachers do a really great job but the nature of what they do for a living means they’re in a bit of a bubble and I want to help them by bringing the real world into the classroom. We are living in very uncertain times in this corner of Europe and it’s hard to prepare our young people for jobs that don’t even exist yet. I’m happy to do anything that will improve their chances.
Why did I choose St Mary’s College?
I chose it because it’s local and because it’s a girls’ school but also because it has a strong sense of belonging and celebration of common success that is apparent from the moment you cross the doorstep. I’ve been impressed by the enthusiasm and can-do attitude of the students and I love that the school is technology and STEM focused and that it’s led by a strong, inspiring and forward thinking woman and a great group of teachers. (As an aside, the school was founded the year I was born and – well – it has a great name…)
What can you do?
Instead of sitting back and bemoaning the lack of women in x (insert your own word there) you too can go along to your own local school and offer your services. Don’t wait to be asked as no head teacher would ever dare presume that a busy entrepreneur could spare the time or would want to volunteer in this way – but I know you can find the time! Failing that you can help me by offering your support in ways that will no doubt become apparent in the coming months.
Thank you for reading. I’m extremely happy to be joining St Mary’s College as its first Entrepreneur in Residence and the next time someone asks me that question I’ll be able to look them in the eye and tell them about what I’m doing practically to address the issues.