everywoman celebrates 20 years of its awards for women in business

workingmums.co.uk speaks to Maxine Benson and Karen Gill, co-founders of everywoman, the organisation for women in business, as they prepare to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their groundbreaking awards programme.

 

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the leading awards programme for women entrepreneurs. Everywoman’s Awards were launched in 2012, 13 years after everywoman first started connecting women in business. Its aim is to provide a showcase for them, to share their stories of the challenges they have overcome, to boost their confidence and to redefine what success in business means.

Maxine Benson, who with Karen Gill founded everywoman, says that the feedback they have received over the years has been very encouraging. “The winners and finalists are often astounded to have been recognised. It is a huge confidence boost for them and their team and they get good media coverage. All this has a big impact on their business. Some get offers from angel investors as a result,” she states.

A 2020 study found In a 2020 poll of former awards winners found that 76% agree that their everywoman award has positively impacted their career, 63% say their award has improved their personal and professional confidence, 41% cite the award as a platform to connect to inspiring business figures and 88% would recommend the experience to others.

Background

Maxine and Karen had known each other for years before they set up everywoman. They met in Australia when they were in their early 20s and kept in touch while they developed their careers, Karen in Europe and Maxine in the US. When Karen became a mum and was struggling to maintain her busy role as VP Sales, Europe Middle East, Africa at InterContinental Hotels Group alongside family life, she started looking for how she could change her lifestyle. Meanwhile, Maxine had been out of the UK for 18 years, more recently working for casting director Avy Kaufman in New York, and wanted to return home. 

The two women decided they wanted to work together. Their initial project – focused on writing formats for tv programmes – failed, but the experience taught them that they were not alone in wanting to start a business they were passionate about. It also showed them that there was no network where women entrepreneurs could share insights and connections. “We could not believe that ours was a unique experience,” says Maxine, adding that hearing other women role models talking about the knocks they had taken would have helped boost their confidence. “We realised that we needed that around us if we wanted to start another business,” she states. “Then we thought why not create that community or role models and peer to peer mentoring ourselves?”

Initially they wanted to do that face to face, but they soon realised that was not possible so they started to build an online community for women entrepreneurs, based on other models such as women.com and ivillage in the US.

It was the late 1990s and they had to go to a library and get a book on setting up a business. They approached their bank manager who was very discouraging of two women trying to set up a business together and thought Karen should be at home looking after her family.

So they set about winning support. They started researching companies that understood what they were trying to do, beginning with IBM which had very progressive policies for women as well as being a leader in the technology sector which was useful as Maxine and Karen didn’t know anything about technology. “We felt that if we wanted to be credible we had to be aligned with a company like IBM which was the brand for technology at the time,” says Maxine.

They approached IBM and convinced them to become their first sponsor. Others followed, including Avon who were known for encouraging women to be their own boss. Once they had signed there was no going back.

Everywoman launched in 1999. It was a very different world from today’s tech-savvy one. At the time technology was very basic and they had to microfiche documents and scan them into an IBM pc. There was only very elementary flexible working and a culture of presenteeism prevailed. Women found it almost impossible to juggle big careers and families, especially if travel was involved. Industry was finding it was losing many women after they had children. Everywoman started organising conferences around the country on women entrepreneurs.

Karen says: “It was like opening Pandora’s Box.” Corporate sponsors were shocked to learn of the patronising attitudes women were facing from business advisers. They also recognised that some of the conversations they were hearing from female entrepreneurs were happening within their own companies, particularly about confidence and flexible working. Flexible working was the top reason women were leaving their jobs to start a business.

Research showed that women entrepreneurs were badly served by business and the media. Women business leaders were rarely interviewed in the media, for instance. Most people when asked to name five female entrepreneurs could only come up with Anita Roddick from the Body Shop. Everywoman decided to launch its awards to showcase their stories.

Awards

That was 20 years ago and the awards have gone from strength to strength, with specialist spin-offs covering a variety of sectors, from technology to transport and logistics. The categories have changed over the years – initially they were based on the age of the women to reflect different life stages, such as having children. After a few years when they started getting hundreds of nominations they realised that it was impossible to compare a business started 10 years ago by a woman in her 40s with one started last year. So now the categories relate to the age of the business and the focus is more on scaling up.

Karen says she and Maxine have seen many changes for women entrepreneurs over the years. Firstly, technology has enabled so many more women to start up businesses. everywoman has collaborated with NatWest – which has sponsored its main awards since 2003 –  to understand women entrepreneurs’ motivations and found how much technology has revolutionised their lives by making it so much easier to do online courses and set up flexible digital businesses.

Karen and Maxine say the motivation for women setting up businesses has shifted – in the past women often felt forced to do so to get more flexibility. Many female-led businesses are doing well nowadays and are innovating in areas where women have spotted gaps in the market. Another thing that has altered is how banks and others view women entrepreneurs in recent years. There still needs to be more change, however, particularly when it comes to private equity investment, says Maxine, but its Customer Accelerator Programme, which is accredited by the Chartered Banker Institute, shows how important women are in business. It shows, for instance, that there are differences between the genders, from the neurological to the behavioural, which can support teams within banks and financial services to secure more female customers and ensure they come back time and time again; that women on average make 80% of all household purchasing decisions; that in the past 15 years female millionaires have grown by 29% as opposed to just 1% in male millionaires; and that globally women control over $3.18 trillion in worldwide spending. 

Telling women’s stories

Maxine says one of the main purposes of the awards has been to redefine the definition of success in business. Before there was a focus only on entrepreneurs who had made loads of money, but success is not only measured in money, but also wider impact and wellbeing. She says that, whereas before, articles about women in business were reserved for the broadsheet business pages, they now find their ways into the mainstream press where women are telling their stories – warts and all – to an engaged audience to encourage other women to consider taking the plunge. “The media landscape has changed,” says Karen.

The awards are very much about telling women entrepreneurs’ stories, including the challenges they have navigated. “They don’t have to be about being the biggest or the best to be interesting,” says Karen, adding that those stories have made women more confident to speak about their experiences. “They didn’t realise how inspiring they could be,” she states.

Asked if any winners have particularly stood out for them over the years, Karen mentions Emma Elston who founded UK Container Maintenance Ltd. She started the business at 22 using credit cards when she and her partner were on their knees financially and living in a caravan at the bottom of a field. They bought some industrial bins. Fast forward a few years and they had built a business with a million-pound turnover. When she won everywoman’s Demeter award in 2010 – for her inspirational work building and growing her business – she was, says Karen, “blown away to be recognised by anyone, let alone by all the very successful women in the room”. She was featured in the press and became the face of a Federation of Small Businesses campaign to promote women entrepreneurs. In addition, she has been involved in advising on a strategic framework for women’s enterprises, has spoken at several schools and was awarded an MBE.  Other winners and finalists end up supplying each other or receive angel investment or are acquired as a result of the awards, and many find new audiences.

Asked what impact Covid has had on women entrepreneurs, Maxine says the bounceback loan was “a lifesaver” for many. While both she and Karen agree that the pandemic was particularly tough for women, who took on the majority of homeschooling, they say one positive thing to come out has been greater awareness of mental health and increased efforts to reduce the stigma that can be attached to it. Indeed everywoman created a series of wellbeing webinars as a result of concerns about mental health.

This week Maxine and Karen get to meet those women who have been shortlisted for this year’s awards and will go through the difficult process of choosing winners alongside the other judges. Maxine says that meeting the women makes their business come alive. “You realise all the stuff they didn’t put in the nomination form and the story gets better,” she says.

*This year’s finalists will be announced on 17th October.



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