Supporting women in business


Women-run businesses account for a third of new start-ups and the number is rising. Many support programmes exist for the start-up phase, but a new year-long programme has just been launched by the Santander Breakthrough Programme to develop a network for female entrepreneurs. Delivered in partnership with the social enterprise Cause4, the programme of support, which also includes a strand for social enterprises, is aimed at businesses with a turnover of between £500,000 and £50 million per annum with demonstrable growth in turnover, profitability or job creation. It aims to help these businesses fulfil their growth potential to create jobs and stimulate supply-chain demand via a programme of both capital and development support. asked Rachel Nash, Head of Operations & Delivery at Santander Breakthrough about how it will work. Where did the idea originate for an initiative focused on female entrepreneurs? How important is having role models like Michelle Wright, CEO of Cause4, and Ana Botin, Executive Chairman of Santander Group [pictured],  in getting more support for women in business?

Rachel Nash: Our support for Women in Business first started with our maiden trade mission to the US in 2012 – taking in both New York and Boston – where a group of female entrepreneurs and leaders in their field visited this new market with a view to doing business in America. From then, we have recognised the need to offer specific support for women and, with our Executive Chairman (then our CEO in the UK) Ana Botín also keen to champion the Women in Business agenda, it’s been a natural progression.

WM: Why female entrepreneurs?

RN: The number of small and medium-sized companies in the UK run by women is increasing, as is the representation of women in the boardrooms of larger corporates. Yet there is still more that can be done in empowering and supporting women to achieve their goals. Women, in general, tend to be less forward about being forward, taking a much more subtle approach to their successes and aspirations.

If women set up businesses at the same rate as men, the UK would have an additional one million entrepreneurs, according to data from UK Trade & Investment.

WM: When did the initiative start and how many women entrepreneurs have been matched up with mentors?

RN: We have been supporting Women in Business for a number of years, mainly through annual trade missions, but we really wanted to work with Cause4. This pilot programme started at the beginning of this year and we have 20 mentees who have been matched up to the mentors.

WM: What are the backgrounds of the mentors and are they a mix of genders? How many mentors are there?

RN: There is a great mix of sectors and business sizes in both the mentees and mentors. We have 18 mentors, some have more than one mentee, and they are all businesswomen themselves with a great range of experience and knowledge.

WM: What specific challenges do female entrepreneurs face in upscaling their businesses and how can banks like Santander help with these?

RN: Female entrepreneurs face the same challenges and barriers to success as men in growing their businesses. If you can forgive the generalisation, we have noticed a different approach from women in terms of taking business risks and sourcing finance to scale. We see that many women identify and consider risks well.  So, by focussing the conversation on how these can be mitigated and identifying when a risk should really be considered an ‘investment’, we can help women break down some of their own fears around expansion and what they are putting on the line in order to grow their company.

WM: You mention that research shows women entrepreneurs work best in collaborative virtual groups. How will the mentoring work? Is it one to one or are their virtual groups etc?

RN: The mentor/mentee relationship is a personal one, built on foundations of openness and honesty. These need conditions of trust and security in order to flourish and so the sessions are one-to-one only. They get six lots of one hour sessions, either face to face or ‘virtually’, depending on personal choice and preference.

WM: Has there been too much focus on start-ups and not enough support for businesses that want to take the next steps?

RN: Women start up a lot of businesses in the UK – indeed, start-ups represent the largest ‘sub-group’ of female-owned businesses. Given this, it is right they get as much help and support as they can. We hope today’s start-ups become the companies of the future and so we want to find ways to help at all stages of development. Our Women in Business programme this year has supported women across the spectrum in a variety of different and appropriate ways.

WM: Once the year is up are there are plans to continue the programme?

RN: We have been supporting Women in Business in many guises since 2012 and Santander remains committed to supporting the wider programme for the foreseeable future. In its latest annual report (2014), Santander says gender equality is a focus area for the bank, and in addition to its Women in Business network it continued its partnership with Everywoman, giving staff access to tools and networks to help them develop their careers. In 2014 Santander UK was recognised as one of the Top 30 Employers for Working Families and one of The Times Top 50 Employers for Women. In 2014, Santander also introduced a policy to ensure there is a female candidate on all short lists for senior roles within the business.

*Picture credit: Ana Botín, Group Executive Chairman, Banco Santander, S.A. Author: World Travel & Tourism Council and Wikimedia Commons.

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