In every project we’ve ever delivered, Outset has demonstrated its success in engaging, supporting and empowering female entrepreneurs. We have strong ties with our sister service, the award-winning national Enterprising Women community, which is dedicated to supporting female business owners at all different stages. In some of our Outset project areas we have established a more dedicated Enterprising Women presence to support local women completing the Outset programme. Enterprising Women also has local business clubs all over the country, and where possible we try to integrate these within our Outset project areas.
Many of the central tenets of the Outset approach align with widely-recognised best practice principles for engaging women.
Outreach is key
Women often have a more tentative approach to starting a business, and that means that it can take longer for them to recognise that their idea for developing independent income is actually a business, or even that they have the potential in the first place. For these women, many business support organisations are themselves ‘hard to reach’. We develop partnerships and other outreach activities in order to embed ourselves within the local community and ensure we can reach these individuals. Outreach means taking services out to places where people can easily access them. It requires tightly focused targeting of potential customers and demands a real understanding of their needs and wants. In the long run, outreach supports the creation of a broader entrepreneurial culture.
Almost half of the women who start a business choose to do so part-time. Like everyone else, women tend to start businesses in areas where they have some experience or particular interest and large numbers of new businesses started by women are in the service sector, food, caring and retail. Many traditional business advisers and bankers often have quite fixed perceptions of what a business should be. Narrow definitions of what constitutes a ‘proper’ business can leave women feeling they will not be taken seriously if they are ‘only a cake decorator’. Assumptions about the speed of start-up and growth, and the amount of finance needed ‘if you’re serious’ can also be off-putting. Conversely, women trying to work in sectors traditionally dominated by men can be held back by unhelpful stereotyping.
None of those pre-conceptions about women and the roles they should take are helpful or professional. Patronising attitudes about the types of businesses they choose to start can make women feel undermined. Confidence can be sapped at every stage of starting a business. Women are likely to face situations and attitudes which, on their own, seem subtle but which can amount to an avalanche of criticism.
Building women’s self-confidence is central to every element of the Outset programme. Confidence building, enabling women to recognise and value their existing skills and empowering them to make their own informed decisions are important foundations that cut across all projects. We also actively promote and enable the opportunity to network and develop support groups with other women in the same position.
Women are often defined by their cautious approach to business start-up, and compared with men they are more likely to let fear of failure stop them from starting a business. They are also less likely to know an entrepreneur and less likely to think they have the skills to start a business or see good business opportunities. We work with our clients to help them de-risk the early stages of business exploration and development, and encourage our clients to understand that it is also legitimate to try, fail, learn from your mistakes and start again. For socially excluded women in particular, a cautious approach to risk is entirely rational and should be respected. However, we also recognise and positively supports women to believe in their own future and potential.
Creating positive, accessible role models
We provides access to ‘achievable role models’ as we believe that too often the only images of women in business are ‘superwomen’ with high-flying careers and glamorous lifestyles that bear no relation to most women’s experiences. Real, inspiring stories can give women the confidence to say, ‘I can do that’. We bring successful businesswomen from our clients’ communities in to workshops and events to talk about their experiences, often it helps to know that there are ‘people like me’ running businesses in their community.
Our staff are also important role models. Currently the proportion of women Outset business advisers is more that 50% of total delivery staff, which is 30% higher than the current national figure of 20%. This acts as positive re-enforcement of women in business. It is important to note that women will not necessarily want to see a woman business adviser, what they want above all are empathetic and professional advisers (who can be male or female). For some cultural or religious groups however, the choice of a female adviser is very important and the positive role modelling which female business advisers present, is essential for Outset as a flagship organisation determined to meet the needs of our diverse client group.
One of the key benefits of our Outset Online e-learning programme is that it enables women with caring responsibilities and other family commitments to get the support they need, without having to attend workshops in person or interrupt existing commitments.
“Outset Online was the perfect support for starting my business, allowing me to work at my own pace and at times that suited me and my family.”
– Pip Hayler, Outset Cornwall client and Outset Online user