Time to unleash potential of women entrepreneurs

Shortage of start-ups led by women is national problem affecting economic growth


Ireland is acknowledged as a world leader in attracting foreign direct investment. No country can match what we have achieved over many decades. Some 150,000 people are employed by multinationals and the sector rightly commands significant attention in political debate.

By contrast we give far less prominence to the role of our own entrepreneurs in the economy despite the enormous potential for risk-takers with new ideas to boost Ireland’s recovery.

In the United States those who establish their own business are praised by presidential candidates. In Ireland we need to capture a similar spirit of valuing business start-ups. Multinationals will undoubtedly continue to play a very significant role in our economic life but it is my belief that now is the time to unleash the potential of entrepreneurs and, in particular, women entrepreneurs if our country is to prosper again.

On Dragons’ Den we regularly see women with excellent new business ideas they want to develop. Yet men in Ireland outnumber women by more than two to one in starting businesses each year. Only 10 per cent of the high-potential start-ups backed by Enterprise Ireland are women-led enterprises. This low participation of women in entrepreneurial activity seems at odds with the high educational attainments of women in Ireland – more than half of women aged 25-34 years hold a third-level educational qualification. The question we must ask ourselves, therefore, is why do we not have more female-led enterprises and success stories in the world of business?

Certainly there is no shortage of women with good ideas for products and services that people will be willing to buy, but too often the obstacles in their way prove too great. Setting up your own business is a daunting undertaking which involves negotiating a minefield of regulatory and financial hurdles. I should know, I started my own business in 1986 at a time when the economic conditions were every bit as challenging as they are today.

Change of attitude
As a nation, we need to change our attitude towards women in business and take radical steps to encourage and support start-ups. We need to break down the barriers to success.

We could establish a separate national office for women in enterprise to be located within Enterprise Ireland with the objective of raising the start-up rate of women enterprises to at least the EU average.

Access to funds at all levels for women should be made more user-friendly by having special units or schemes to encourage women entrepreneurs – at city and county level, in the banks and the seed and venture capital funds.

A structured system of role models and mentors can provide inspiration and support to women in business. Enterprise Ireland, Bord Bia and county and city enterprise boards encourage women entrepreneurs to share ideas, support each other and take a team approach to the establishment of new enterprises rather than going solo.

This could be expanded to include a network of business angels looking to invest in the business ideas of other women.

Many women face considerable childcare costs and the need to balance the demands of business with the responsibilities of looking after a household. Figures from the Central Statistics Office highlight the fact that while women begin their working life with higher participation rates than men, this participation drops drastically when they have children. This is partly attributable to the fact that childcare costs in Ireland are among the highest in Europe.

We know there is no fairy wand to wave to deal with the childcare issue but in advance of a full rollout of a second year of free preschool provision we should look at targeting some additional resources to support people with caring responsibilities who are working to translate a new business idea into success.

I am greatly encouraged by the Government’s acceptance in principle earlier this month in the Seanad of my Bill to enable a mother and father to share the 26-week maternity leave period if they so wish. I was also heartened by the support the Bill received from all parties in the Seanad and I look forward to the proposal becoming law early next year.

Failed business
Our traditional culture and State ideology appears hostile to private enterprise in a way which adversely affects men and women entrepreneurs. One example is the treatment of the entrepreneur whose business has failed. Such persons are not entitled to any social welfare assistance despite paying PRSI over the year. While the employees are rightly entitled to social welfare support, the person who created the jobs is not.

I strongly support the proposition that if an entrepreneur has made sufficient PRSI contributions they should have an entitlement to jobseeker’s benefit should their business not succeed.

The shortage of female entrepreneurs in Ireland is not a “women’s” problem, to be solved for the benefit of women and to address issues of equality. It is a national problem that affects the economic growth and development of our country. Let’s do everything we can to celebrate the outstanding female entrepreneurs we already have and break down the barriers for those who want to emulate them.

I wholeheartedly support the sentiment expressed by Hillary Clinton when she told the Women in the World Summit in Washington DC last April that “no country can achieve its full potential when women are left out or left behind”.

Senator Mary White is the author of a Fianna Fáil policy paper entitled Promoting Women Entrepreneurs in Ireland published this week. Ms White is also co-founder of Lir Chocolates

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