Women dodge glass ceiling by starting their own business

Creative, innovative, frustrated as employees, the new wave of female bosses spot a gap in the market, move in and never look back
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The Independent Online

Record numbers of women are setting up their own businesses, new government figures reveal. Inspired by role models such as the Body Shop founder Anita Roddick and internet entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox, and discovering that there is no glass ceiling for the self-employed, more and more women are going it alone.

Record numbers of women are setting up their own businesses, new government figures reveal. Inspired by role models such as the Body Shop founder Anita Roddick and internet entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox, and discovering that there is no glass ceiling for the self-employed, more and more women are going it alone.

Around 130,000 women decided to set up their own firm in 2003 - generating £130bn for the UK's economy - a rise of 10,000 year on year. Fourteen per cent of small firms are owned by women, a figure which the Government wants to increase to 20 per cent within two years.

Women will be even more encouraged by news last week of the sale of half of the Jimmy Choo shoe empire co-founded by Tamara Mellon, 35, a former It girl and Vogue magazine accessories editor. The £150,000 she invested in the company with a loan from her father in 1996 has turned into a £50m fortune.

Then there is the example of Michelle Mone, 32, who grew up in the east end of Glasgow and left school at 15. She invented the Ultimo gel-filled bra in 1995, as worn by Julia Roberts to boost her cleavage in Erin Brockovich, and her MJM company now turns over £10m a year.

Industry experts point to a number of reasons for the rise of the businesswoman. One significant factor is that as employees, women still encounter sexism. In a male-dominated world they are paid less than men and they have fewer places in the boardroom. Women find they are better able to balance their home and work life if they are their own boss.

Erika Watson, executive director of Prowess, a lobbying network that supports the growth of women's business ownership, said: "Women are getting to mid-range jobs in large corporations and, frustrated that they are not able to make it to the top, decide they are better off on their own."

Another reason, put forward by Dr Rebecca Harding, a senior fellow at the London Business School, is that women are not primarily concerned with making money. "Women are far more likely to be innovative than men - they are trying to fill a gap rather than just make money," said Dr Harding, the author of the Global Enterprise Monitor UK report.

"There has been an enormous effort put into female entrepreneurship by the public and private sectors and women are beginning to realise they can do it."

Experts also claim that one of the biggest advantages women gain from setting up their own firm is the independence it brings. More than half of those who start their own business do so on a part-time basis, enabling them to balance work and home life, including childcare, in a way that they can't in most other areas of work.

Chrissie Rucker, founder of the White Company, which has a £40m turnover, said: "The beauty with running your own business is you can make it flexible to fit around family life."

But despite the increasing power of women in the economy, they still face barriers. According to Prowess, women do not take advantage of bank loans and financial investment to the same extent as men, either because they do not think they will get funding or because they are more cautious about accepting what is offered.

Launching an initiative to boost further the number of women entrepreneurs, Jacqui Smith, the deputy minister for women, said: "There is vast wealth of untapped talent and economic growth among women in the UK. Every woman with the desire to start and grow a business needs our support. Women do face certain obstacles which men don't, but it's not straight-forward sexism. There are a whole range of reasons.

"There are cultural challenges; particular barriers for women to overcome like childcare. This isn't only about equality - it's about achieving our full economic potential."

The multi-tasker

Michelle Mone was a young mother living in Glasgow with no idea what to do with her life, having been made redundant. After going to a dinner dance wearing an uncomfortable bra, Ms Mone decided she would try to invent a bra that gave more cleavage while also being comfortable to wear.

"If I was a guy without family responsibility the company would be twice as big as it is today. My children come first - it's about getting the balance right. As a mother of the house I've also got to organise the house as well.

"Without a doubt sexism is still there. I'm sick of people not taking me seriously. Women still face problems when setting up their own businesses. Traditional bank managers still think women should be chained to the kitchen. The success of Ultimo shows that women can do it if they put their mind to it. I've got three kids and I didn't get a degree. If I can do it there's no reason why other women can't."

The specialist trader

Ruth Moore of Liberté Horsebox Hire has been obsessed with horses ever since she was a child. The 25-year-old couldn't last more than a couple of months in any job without getting bored, so decided to set up the country's first dedicated luxury horsebox business.

"I've worked in yards at equestrian competitions and shovelled pooh for years and got paid a pittance. Horses are what I love. It was the only thing I could ever think of doing as a business.

"All the people I went to university with were better educated than me. Most had gone to private school.

"Now I'm making £7,000 in a good week and I've got friends who are still looking for jobs a year after they left university.

"As a woman the biggest problem is how you finance your company. I didn't have the nerve to go to a bank. I felt if I sold my idea to a man I'd be laughed at. I still find it quite hard to sell my business to a man. Some men look at me and think, 'How does she handle the staff, how does she handle the whole business?' They can't understand that women can actually do this.

"In three or four years I want to have children and take a step back from the business. I still have to be there at the end of the phone though, however settled I get."

The young creative

Georgie Francis, 24, from Guildford, started making hand-made cards while trying to decide what she wanted to do about her career. Within four years her hobby has blossomed into a business turning over £500,000 and her cards are now sold in WH Smith, Selfridges and Harrods.

"I never expected to be doing this. The company has just got bigger and bigger and I've now got 35 employees who make the cards. I never approached a bank. I was waitressing at the time and thought they would never give a loan to a waitress. For the first two years I worked from 10 in the morning until three the next morning and lost my social life. You've got to put your whole life and soul into it."

The trendsetter

Chrissie Rucker started the White Company11 years ago.Now 36, she had found she could not buy for her boyfriend's new flat white china and linen that was high quality but inexpensive. Out of frustration the company, which turns over nearly £40m a year, was born.

"When I started the company I was young and naive and gung-ho about it. I didn't approach it in a way that a normal business person would. I started with just £20,000 - shares which my granny had left me and a grant from the council.

"Trying to raise a family as well is every working mum's eternal battle. Anyone who says it is easy is lying - at times it is very, very difficult. I work three or four days a week now but it's taken me 10 years to get there.

"It's accepted that a dad can go to work before the children get up and come home after they've gone to bed. For a mum it's not like that. A lot of mums will end up working part time or stopping for a bit. You've got to have the right support network or else it will fail."

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