Working for women in business

Dinah Bennett has done more than many to support the creation and management of enterprises run by women
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The Independent Online

Bennett is director of Women Into The Network (WIN), an organisation based at Durham Business School which supports the creation and management of businesses by women. Her career began more than 20 years ago when she worked in the Sudan on a women's business development programme. Bennett says: "It struck me that although emergency aid was plentiful, even with 92 agencies involved problems persisted. I knew the only way people could help themselves was through income generation and this was my first involvement in helping people to create their own livelihood."

Bennett began at the business school in 1989 as a research associate, responsible for a programme that challenged the way marketing was taught to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). At the time it was assumed that a small business was merely a "little big business" and that traditional corporate marketing plans and techniques would be appropriate. Clearly, with this type of perspective, SMEs suffered because the adviser and business support they rely on had no understanding of their real needs.

Bennett's work led to further examination of the requirements of women's business, because if SMEs were not being catered for in the enterprise market, it was likely that female-run businesses were even less supported. Indeed, when Bennett was working with David Hall on the networking chapter in their book The Hallmarks for Successful Business (1992), it struck her how few women were featuring in research samples.

"Though we had identified 700 business networks in the North-east alone, women were unable to access them or didn't even know about them," says Bennett. "There were a lot of perceptual barriers for women to gain entry into these networks because of the traditional structures they were set in."

So in 1999 WIN was set up with the purpose of breaking down the barriers that exist for female entrepreneurs, and to help integrate them into networks.

Bennett's pivotal work includes an exploration of the nature of the relationships between women owner-managers in the North-east of England and their bankers. Valuable insight was gained into understanding some of the perceived barriers between the parties, with the purpose of helping them develop a more mutually beneficial working relationship, thereby enhancing the prosperity of the North-east region and beyond.

"One of the first things we needed to work on was segmenting the market," says Bennett. "Women's business needs can be extremely differentiated. As with SMEs compared to bigger companies, the idea that a 'one size fits all' approach can be applied to them is groundless. A focus on 'mainstreaming' in women's business support particularly worries me, as failure is more likely because needs are so diverse, and this approach cannot encompass such diversity. Any economy that has specifically targeted women's support alongside mainstream support does better."

Bennett's recent involvement with Accelerating Women's Enterprise (AWE) has brought together a number of leading agencies in women's enterprise development spanning Europe. They have developed a programme of interventions which test approaches to ensure that mainstream business support is developed to meet the needs of excluded groups of women.

Allan Gibb, Professor Emeritus University of Durham, who has spearheaded enterprise work internationally since the 1970s, and has worked with Bennett a great deal over the years, explains why he nominated her for the Queen's Award: "Dinah is a highly socially responsible entrepreneur with huge levels of commitment and empathy for supporting all types of people in business. She never pushes the cause at you, but is sympathetic to the circumstances that surround women in business."

Bennett's workload would sap the energy of most people; she also takes on national and international research and teaching projects on marketing, networking and relationship management issues. At present, she is working on a number of projects related to women's entrepreneurship and business development.

"We have developed an effective model in WIN which we are now tailoring to suit different contexts and economies around the world," Bennett says.

"It's wonderful to think that a North-east export initiative is helping countless women and those organisations that interact with them globally."

WIN's success is notable. It has been selected as the UK best practice initiative for promoting female entrepreneurship in a recent EU survey, and over 300 jobs have been created in the North-east of England as a result of it. However, Bennett longs for a future that doesn't require WIN. "Women have been on the policy agenda for only a short while and need to remain there, but I hope there will be a time when perceptual barriers don't exist, and women won't need organisations such as WIN," she explains.

And how does Bennett feel about receiving the Queen's Award? "I am so thrilled and most humbled. I have had the privilege of working with the most inspirational people and feel enormously grateful that I work in a field that I am so passionate about." And whether or not WIN will ever cease to be needed, there is no doubt Bennett's enthusiasm will continue in whatever work she does for small enterprise.

Find out more about WIN's work on www.networkingwomen.co.uk

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