Women in business against the odds: An entrepreneurs competition had just 90 entries. Nigel Cope reports

WHEN A group of Britain's budding businesswomen got together at the London Business School recently, one thing became clear: the odds are still stacked against women wanting to run their own business.

The occasion was an entrepreneurs' competition run by Cosmopolitan magazine and sponsored by the Royal Mail and Grand Metropolitan. The 21 winners were a diverse group, ranging from a woman who bought a school and installed herself as headmistress to another who is making a name for herself in the male domain of trucks and cranes. But the competition only received 90 entries from the magazine's circulation of 470,000.

Discussing the problems they faced in building their businesses, the 21 winners focused on a range of issues including conditioning, prejudice and the need to educate their men. Joan Bland, who runs a chain of teddy-bear shops, seems to have made some steps in that direction. 'I had my breakfast made for me before I came here this morning. My bath was run and my husband took the children to school.,' she said to great applause. 'And I don't iron shirts.' Mandy Sykes, 33, who runs a media company in Harrogate selling advertising for magazines such as Hello] and Elle, felt that upbringing had been a problem. 'I went to a good school but we were never really conditioned to think about what sort of career we wanted, whereas the boys were,' she said. Ms Sykes' family ran a business but this was not considered an option. 'It was never mooted that me or my sister (now successful in the City) would go into it.'

For Angela McClean, who is married and has two children, the biggest problem still appears to be that of juggling responsibilities. 'Even if you have a business, women still have to think about their husband, the children, and when they are going to fit the shopping in. I filled in the competition form on a train back from London. If I hadn't had that opportunity, I would not have had time.'

But the awards did identify encouraging stories. Ms McClean set up her children's wear business on the kitchen table in her Newcastle home in 1988 with pounds 10 and a sewing machine. Now, her company - Baggers - which makes children's rainwear that folds up into small, drawstring bags, has a turnover of pounds 350,000 and sells through Woolworths and the Freemans catalogue. She is starting a swimwear range and has had interest shown by Disney World in the US.

Another thriving baby-business winner is Nippers, a chain of eight franchised outlets specialising in new, second-hand and end-of-line baby goods including prams, car seats and clothes. It also runs an on-site pram repair service and was founded two years ago by Julia Cassel in a barn on her farm in Hildenborough, Kent.

That one unit now yields sales of pounds 274,000 from just 14 hours a week trading. The other seven units are all run by farmers' wives in barns or farm outbuildings. Customers travel an average of 30 minutes to reach the shops. But keeping off the high street helps Ms Cassel keep prices lower. All her staff are mothers so they are able to give customers knowledgeable advice.

Ms Cassel, who is married with three children - aged 12, 10 and 8 - is delighted she can help other women work from home. 'I just want to set an example,' she said. 'Women don't tend to push themselves.'

The meek and mild should, perhaps, take a leaf out of Tracie Greenfield's book. An outgoing West Midlander, Ms Greenfield joined Viper, a company selling and servicing lorries and cranes as a temporary administrator in 1991. Now she is the managing director. Proudly displaying her brochure of plant and machinery, she admits that some clients are initially disbelieving that a woman can know anything about cranes 'People are not sure about me to start with, but when they realise I know what I'm talking about, they're all right,' she said.

Ms Greenfield and the other winners will take a week-long course at London Business School in September, where they will cover topics including assertiveness, financial awareness and how to handle people and time. Liz Mellon, an assistant professor who will co-ordinate the programme, says she also hopes the group will go on to inspire their children, male or female. 'Entrepreneurs breed entrepreneurs,' she said.

(Photograph omitted)

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