Women Social Entrepreneurs take the lead in peer-to-peer support


Picture Credit: Jodie Kingzett for Ogunte

Whether its women supporting teenage mums to become financially independent, women supporting female BME communities or women offering support to female entrepreneurs, over the last year, UnLtd’s Spark programme has seen a real movement emerging when it comes to female peer-to-peer learning.

Indeed, with the help of Santander, UnLtd has now handed 14 Spark Awards – small grants of £500 to help people start their own peer learning projects – to women-only groups – so what’s behind the trend?

A champion for women
A familiar face in social enterprise circles, Servane Mouazan is CEO of Ogunte, the UK’s most established organisation focused on helping women social entrepreneurs and their supporters make a positive impact on people and planet. Servane says:

“We know that on average, women have less disposable wealth, social and human capital than men. We have years of evidence and anecdotal feedback that confirms the need for a space where women have a say and exchange their ideas, fragilities and strengths without having to ‘compete’ with men, and also without having to talk necessarily about cupcakes, fashion, beauty or other glossy magazine topics, that often appear in mainstream women’s networks.”

Confidence building
Whilst cupcakes might not be on the agenda at one of the women-only peer-learning events Birmingham-based iSE hosts, home made cake is definitely there for the eating – just one of the ingredients needed for a successful event according to iSE business outreach coach Elizabeth Barker.

A social enterprise itself, iSE provides business support to people hoping to set up social ventures. Today, around 60 per cent of its clients are women and UnLtd’s Spark programme has just provided funding to extend its women-only networking events further. Elizabeth says:

“We find that women in particular tend to have a lack of confidence around starting up – they often doubt they have the right skills for the job and need a lot of support and encouragement. There’s often a real fear around accessing business support too as they think it’s not something for them. We try to make our events friendly, open and unintimidating – and cake – yes there’s always home made cake!”

Diverse talents
Each themed around a specific business topic, a real mix of women take part in iSE’s peer learning events – from established business leaders to those just starting out. Whilst experienced entrepreneurs often play a mentoring role, they also gain too as they grow their own networks and find potential partners.

The events also feature women from a diverse range of business sectors – indeed, the last workshop featured a social enterprise Asian fusion restaurant start-up, a therapeutic horticultural gardener and a psychologist. However, no matter who attends according to Elizabeth, one thing remains the same:

“Our evaluation reveals that women really value knowing they’re not alone and talking to other women. They often don’t relate to ‘being an entrepreneur’ – even though when you talk to them that’s exactly what they are”.

Think big
Whilst Servane from Ogunte welcomes more women-only networks with open arms – she’s also adamant that female-only groups should be ambitious and confident in their approach to support:

“The danger is that ambitions are kept too small. Our work is mainly based on structuring support in order to expand women’s comfort zones. We are here to break the self-perpetuating myth that women lack confidence when often their own personal stories show the contrary. Support groups really need to do their job in lobbying, helping women social entrepreneurs to think big, lead and access mainstream pipelines – and not be confined into unsustainable projects.”

Thinking big isn’t something that phases Paula Gamester long-time supporter of women in social enterprise and now, head of enterprise at Blackburne House Group in Liverpool.

Facing down barriers
A former mentor, business advisor and director of one of the North’s fastest growing social enterprises, Paula has an extensive network across Merseyside and beyond. Indeed, she was recently part of a team that organised a successful women’s event around Liverpool’s International Festival of Business which brought together 60 of the region’s top female social enterprise leaders to share their experiences and learn from each other. However, she still feels that women need extra support:

“Through my work, I’ve often found that women simply face more barriers to men in starting up their own business venture – whether they’re facing issues around self confidence, self belief or more structural factors, women need more support and they can achieve that through coming together and supporting each other.”

Natural support networks
Paula’s latest project Sewing Rooms – another project supported by UnLtd’s Spark programme – works with long term unemployed women teaching them sewing skills within a dedicated workshop. Sewing Rooms offers a supportive environment where women can share their skills and knowledge and improve their confidence – together. Something that comes naturally to many women, says Paula.

“Women naturally support each other because they typically have a good understanding of their community – this is one of the reasons we’re seeing such a high growth in female entrepreneurs” she said.

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