Is Diversity the key to Innovation?

Last week was a week of exploring diversity. I attended the Women’s Business Forum in Harrogate as a guest of RBS. This was a conference exploring diversity in the corporate world and looking at some of the practical solutions to help more women get to the top and get on to boards. Later in the week, I met with the Chief Executive of Corporate Banking, Chris Sullivan and other senior members of RBS, as well as some inspiring Scottish female entrepreneurs to discuss female entrepreneurship in Scotland.

To my mind, the low numbers of females in the board-room and the low numbers of female entrepreneurs are linked. These are two sides of the same coin. Lack of confidence is a recurring theme for both females in business and females in the corporate world. I am a confident woman but I have had my confidence severely knocked both in the corporate world and as the CEO of my own business. That doesn’t mean to say there is something wrong with me or that I have to act like one of the boys to get on. No, I think it is linked to a much deeper issue. It is one of CULTURE.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not a bra-burning feminist. I am not bemoaning my lot. I am not using this as an excuse because I can’t be bothered working hard. Far from it. I need my bra, I have a brain and I work extremely hard. But I am also a mother. Yes, women have the babies. And a lot of women feel that they should put their family before their career and their business. That is exactly natural. But WHY should we have to choose? We have to choose because of CULTURE.

We have a culture in the Western world that does not accommodate diversity. Often it is dominated by white males. Whether that is in our board rooms or on the investment panels of the people I am hoping to impress for an investment. It is not a culture that supports the flexible working/creative working/confidence building building bricks that we need to have a truly diverse culture. We have a diverse society. Women and men, we are all from different backgrounds, straight or gay, white or black. The human race is diverse. It has to be. This is not about bashing white males, we need them! We just need everyone else too!We HAVE a diverse society already – we just need to support it in a DIVERSE CULTURE.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett( President of the Center for Talent Innovation in New York) talked a lot about the link between diversity and innovation last week. She also spoke about the problems caused by no diversity of thought – “group think”. She has participated in studies showing that a diverse board affects the bottom line as diversity of thought leads directly to innovation.

Looking at diversity of thought, I think we see a fantastic argument for chipping away at the lack of diversity so prevalent in our culture. Diversity contributes to ideas and there is a real connection between diversity and innovation. Creativity and innovation are key to growing our economy, creating entrepreneurship and growing sustainable profitable companies. If we can only start to see more diversity across the whole of our culture, then what will the future look like? Innovative, creative, expansive and exciting. This isn’t a “women’s” issue. It is an evolutionary issue.

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Is female entrepreneurship the key to economic recovery?

Are Women Entrepreneurs the key to Economic Recovery?

“We’re comin’ out of the kitchen’ Cause there’s somethin’ we forgot to say to you (we say) Sisters are doin’ it for themselves. Standin’ on their own two feet. And ringin’ on their own bells. Sisters are doin’ it for themselves………”

As Annie Lennox sang, sisters are coming out of the kitchen and we are indeed doing it for ourselves! More and more women are choosing to start up their own businesses, often from home using the internet and often with families. The flexibility of being your own boss whilst raising a young family is appealing especially in these times of recession. Also, it is a necessity for a lot of women, who need to make money and may be unemployed with or without children.

However, the numbers of female entrepreneurs are still comparatively low. Women are still lag behind on men in start-up activity and their companies tend not to grow as quickly as male companies.

Often, this problem is seen as a “women’s issue”. However, this is not the case. Raising the levels of female entrepreneurship, both start-ups and growth, is an economic issue. FEMALE ENTREPRENEURSHIP IS NOT AN EQUALITY ISSUE BUT AN ECONOMIC ISSUE. Why? Well, it is well established that start-ups, particularly those in high-growth areas, are essential for job creation and economic growth. Female entrepreneurs are our hidden and untapped resource for economic recovery. If we can get more females starting up high growth businesses, we could well all be on the road to economic recovery.

Female Entrepreneurship as a driver for Global Economic Recovery

A recent paper by the Kauffman Foundation “Overcoming the Gender Gap: Women Entrepreneurs as Economic Drivers,” has suggested that getting more females to start up high growth businesses could the the key to GLOBAL economic recovery. That is simply incredible.

What makes this paper very interesting indeed is that it explores “the intersection of two issues that are thought of separately: the need for sustained economic growth {in the United States}, and the status of women’s entrepreneurship.” This intersection applies the world over.

The report’s author, Lesa Mitchell, reports:

“Women’s entrepreneurship is an economic issue, not a gender-equity issue,” Mitchell said. “As more women engage as entrepreneurs to build on their discoveries, new jobs and economic prosperity will follow.”

Sadly, this report, as well as many others, highlights that female entrepreneurship really is an untapped resource at present. We simply need to get MORE women starting up businesses and GROWING them; particularly in high-growth sectors.

The above paper explores the reasons behind lower business startup rates among women and suggests steps that would help to get more female entrepreneurs to realise their potential and in turn help to turn around the economy.

Kauffman Foundation  – Steps to boost female entrepreneurship

The report details the under noted steps that should be taken to address the low numbers of female entrepreneurs:

1. Role Models

We need as many successful female entrepreneurs and inventors as we can, to stand up and shout about their successes. In this world of  celebrity culture, let’s start to focus on the “celebrity female entrepreneur”! As a new entrepreneur, I would always look to other successful entrepreneurs and their stories to fire me up and keep me going. But more needs to be done. There is a CULTURAL DISCONNECT between the successful female entrepreneurs and their protégées. Not only do we need to see more positive female business role models in the press etc, I would propose that we need to give more support to the powerful SOCIAL NETWORKS that link the role models with their “students”. Social networks know no geographical boundaries and are extremely accessible. They are also extremely viral and allow for the rapid dissemination of information. There are a lot of networks out there that are pro female entrepreneurs and we need to support them and help them to grow.

2. Technology

The report states very clearly that one of the steps should be to invite more women to join the science advisory boards of high-tech companies. This step relates to Life Sciences/Tech faculties, where there is a huge disparity between the numbers of women producing research and those that end up commercialising that research and/or serving on the science advisory boards of high tech companies; thereby not exposing themselves to the same commercial/industry networks and contacts. This is a very specialist step and is a very important step.

I think that that we need to get more women involved in high- growth tech per se. Technology itself is liberating and maybe as a more generalist step, we need to encourage more women to get into gaming/tech/life sciences. Technology allowed me to start-up my business from my dining-room and does the same for women all over the world. Technology can and should be like bread-and-butter for female entrepreneurs!

Educating more women to use and advance technology is key. Again, we need to rethink the CULTURE surrounding technology and find ways to encourage women to get involved in starting-up technology businesses.

3. Not-for-profit initiatives to connect female start-up entrepreneurs with big companies

This step is the one that really excites me the most. The report has the under noted recommendation:

“Not-for-profit initiatives advancing opportunities for high-growth women entrepreneurs need greater funding and skin in the game from women executives, philanthropy leaders, and industry. Support of networking and collaborative events between startup founders and big companies are critical for all entrepreneurs, but even more critical for women and underserved minorities that do not have the same access to networks that can provide them their first customers. We need to expand programs like Astia, NewMe, Founder Fridays, Women 2.0, Kauffman FastTrac®, and myriad other not-for-profits focused on providing education and networks for high-growth women entrepreneurs”.

Again, this goes back to the idea of high growth SOCIAL NETWORKS that not only link female entrepreneur role models with start-ups but exposes those start-up entrepreneurs to much bigger companies. This recommendation also underlines the need for such social networks to include men as well as women, i.e. Astia above.  All of the above networks are amazing and a lot of them are focused on tech but they are not really within the reach of female entrepreneurs in the UK.

In the UK, we have the following networks to name a but a few and they are all amazing; powerful, inspiring and informative – The Next WomenWomen UnlimitedEvery WomanWomen’s Enterprise Scotland, Mumpreneur UK. However the question remains –  do we need a UK not-for-profit, social network that is focused on technology that links founders with the much larger companies? Again, addressing this involves a CULTURAL swing that embraces more female entrepreneurs in tech.

In any event, there is not a single solution to this issue. We also need to gather better data on the numbers of females starting up businesses, perhaps we even need to look at supplier diversity, as they do in the U.S.? There is one thing for sure though – there is a gender gap in entrepreneurship at the moment but that fact doesn’t make this a gender issue. As Mitchell has said,  female entrepreneurship is NOT a gender issue – it is purely economic.