Women in business: Q & A with Helen Walbey


Helen Walbey is Diversity Chair at the Federation of Small Businesses, managing director of Recycle Scooters in Aberdare in Wales and a part-time lecturer at the University of South Wales Business School.  Helen has run her own business since 2004, when she started trading bike parts online as a way to make ends meet after her husband had been seriously injured in an accident at work. Today her company trades parts internationally, and has a number of major contracts for motorcycle dismantling. Helen is also a judge on the Workingmums.co.uk’s Top Franchise Awards. The Awards ceremony will be held next month. In addition, she has recently been appointed to the UN High Level Panel for Women’s Economic Empowerment. Workingmums.co.uk asked her about her work on women in business.

Workingmums.co.uk: You’ve had a bit of a turbulent business life. How crucial do you think adaptability and resilience are for surviving as a business in the current economic climate? And how important have they been for you personally?

Helen Walbey: They have been vital on both fronts. I feel I am more able to adapt to change and actively seek out new opportunities and skills. I take knock backs much more realistically and virtually always have a “Plan B” ready to put into operation just in case. I review situations all the time and try to be as flexible as I can. I also make a lot of lists!

WMs: Have you noticed any major differences between businesses run by women and by men in your time at the FSB?

HW: I think all businesses face many of the same challenges and there is a huge difference within the male and female business populations themselves. However, women still do provide the majority of care even when working full time and they also undertake the majority of domestic work. This can impact on their ability to grow a business, especially if you have both children and elderly parents to look after. The sectors that are majority female-led also tend to be those with lower profit opportunities and more churn. This makes for crowded market places and more challenges. That said there are outliers in both male- and female-led businesses who buck trends, blaze trails and generally spend a lot of time breaking down stereotypes and proving everyone wrong.

WMs: What are the biggest challenges in general for women and for mums running businesses in particular?

HW: Time, work life balance, skills, confidence  and access to finance. From the work we undertook in our Women in Enterprise – The Untapped Potential report and our recent work in Wales these have been the most significant barriers/challenges identified by women entrepreneurs across their business life cycles. Different barriers have more or less impact at different times, but the majority of the women we spoke to identify these factors as issues in starting, running and growing their businesses.

WMs: Have you noted a change in attitude to women in business since you started working at the FSB?

HW: Women are now more visible, vocal and confident in asking for what they want and rejecting what they are not happy with. There is still a long way to go as the recent gender pay gap figures show, but we are moving in the right direction. We are also seeing more diversity in general in business. There is better representation of successful entrepreneurs who have a disability or are members of the LGBTQ+ community or from an ethnic minority background. Seeing those role models helps inspire other women and is really beneficial.

WMs: How do you manage to combine all the different roles you do? Do you feel they feed into each other in any way, for instance, has the fact that you have run successive businesses been important in your role as a lecturer?

HW: I make lists for everything and tick off each thing I have completed. I can then celebrate each little success. I have good support from my husband at home and I am not house proud. I outsource what I can afford and what is sensible and I always make sure I have time each day to meditate for 10 minutes, even  if that is in the bath or parked outside before I come home. All my roles are interlinked. I can bring my practical business experience into the theoretical world of university and students can then relate better to my lived experience and know I not only talk about it but I actually do it. I can use my business experience in my policy work and I love being a Welsh Government Role model, inspiring kids to follow their dreams and be whatever they want to be.

WMs: How did you get involved with the UN Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment?

HW: Through my work with the FSB I got involved with developing a new approach to women’s enterprise in Wales. Through that I met an amazing film director from Glasgow who introduced me to someone who has just finished their time on the UN High Level Panel for Women’s Economic Empowerment. I was invited to deliver a keynote address at a global event she was hosting in the UK and then after many discussions we started doing some project work together and I was able to demonstrate what I can do and then I was invited to join the T20 Gender Equity Taskforce for the duration of the Argentine Presidency in 2018. It just goes to show the power of networking, self belief and knowing your stuff.

WMs: How important do you think it is to take a global approach to the issue of the gender pay gap and how much can we learn from what other countries are doing?

HW: We do need to take a global approach and we have much to learn from others. Many people dislike quotas for various reasons, but there are many who advocate for them as a way to change cultures and mindsets. Public tenders in the USA have specific percentages that have to be allocated to small businesses and majority women-owned businesses, along with majority veteran-led businesses. If you collect the data, which we are poor at in the UK, then you can take action to close gaps and level playing fields. Better paternity leave for dads, as in many of the Scandinavian countries, will also help reduce that hit women take to their careers and earnings after they have had a second child. We need a mix of policy, culture change and societal and media push and I am sure we can get an equal playing field for everyone to start from.

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