Meet the women who really are running the country

They are the new breed of entrepreneurs breathing fresh life into rural Britain, boosting business and creating jobs.

By Matt Chorley
Sunday 13 March 2011 01:00

Forget the testosterone-fuelled gambling in the skyscrapers dominating Canary Wharf. Britain's economic recovery will come, in no small part, from a rural army of female entrepreneurs setting up their businesses in some of the most remote parts of the country.

Driven by energy, a desire for a better work-life balance, and a preference for views of rolling fields over the daily commute, increasing numbers of women are not afraid to launch companies in the face of the worst recession for decades.

One in 20 women in rural areas is now engaged in running a business; they are already just over half as likely (58 per cent) to be entrepreneurs as males, according to the Commission for Rural Communities. By comparison, in urban areas, women are only 44 per cent as likely as men to be engaged in creating new ventures.

The Duchess of Rutland, of Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire, will this week host an event in central London celebrating women in enterprise, with a particular emphasis on the role of women in business in strengthening the rural economy. "I feel the role of women in the rural communities is vital," she said, "especially in present economic difficulties. The kick-start that women can give to the countryside, to business and to the community is not to be underestimated. It will spearhead our country's recovery."

The countryside produces £250bn for the English economy alone. Stuart Burgess, the chairman of the commission , said: "Women play a fundamental part in the rural economy and many choose to work from home for lifestyle choices. The variety of businesses in rural areas run by women is staggering, and shows that women entrepreneurs can flourish, given the right infrastructure, including good quality broadband and mobile phone access."

But there are growing demands for more business support and advice for women, alongside broader concerns about the challenges of launching a firm in a rural area: these include poor web access and higher transport costs.

Government ministers are aware of the problems. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, around 40 per cent of women believe fear of failure would prevent them from starting a business.

David Cameron has emphasised the coalition will back small firms, and, in June, the Government launches a new mentoring network to give firms access to help from real business people. Mark Prisk, a business minister, said: "We must take every opportunity to encourage and assist women who are running a business in rural areas. They are role models, inspiring more women to consider starting their own company, and proving that gender or location should not be a barrier to success. I want to ensure all businesses have the support they need to start and grow."

Women in Rural Enterprise (WiRE) was set up 10 years ago to provide support and networking opportunities to business start-ups. Its 6,000 members have a turnover of almost £350m. Director Polly Gibb said: "We see a real diversity in the types of women setting up in business. Many are born and bred rural, many on farms and determined to stay put by diversifying as farm incomes decline. Some are straight out from university, needing to give themselves a job in their home village. But we also see many women who have moved out of towns, often having worked for big corporations, choosing to bring that experience and commercial sense to their own new venture."

In Scotland, Lantra, the sector skills council for land-based and environmental industries, receives government money to help rural business women. Jacqui Cullen, its project manager, said: "This is a great opportunity for women to step forward and build upon the skills they already have to run and develop rural businesses."

Women earn up to £270 a week less than men in rural areas. Around two-thirds receive income support. The TUC claims women suffer disproportionately under government cuts. Nationally, unemployment among men has fallen by 31,000 in the last 12 months, but among women rose by 71,000.

Brendan Barber, the TUC secretary general, said: "The progress women have made over the years is in grave danger as we battle with the Government's savage, unnecessary and ideological cuts. The consequences of this unprecedented assault will be devastating, and women will suffer more than anybody."

Amynta Ward-Aldam: Tulip and Nettle, Healey, Northumberland

Worked as a clothes designer in Europe and taught at St Martin's College, London, before moving to the North to set up a children's clothing company in 1998.

"It grew organically – no adverts or anything, just through word of mouth. Last year, we won the Best Rural Business at the North East Woman Entrepreneur Awards.

"There can be issues with things like transport when there is bad weather, or the post refusing to come and collect. We've had technological problems as well. Just before a huge, 10,000 catalogue mail-out, we lost all internet access. So you are a lot more vulnerable.

"But there are also advantages to being based rurally. There's a lot more space, there's an element of calm, plus we're near enough to Tyne and Wear, so we're not completely cut off.

"Since the recession, to succeed you have really got to be better than good. We've also embraced new technology, social media and so on, as a way of contacting our customers. You have to look after people in this climate."

Christine Hope, 32: Hopes of Longtown Village Shop, Herefordshire

Ten years ago, Christine returned from travelling around Australia and New Zealand, aged 23, with a degree in rural estate management and jobless. She persuaded the former village shopkeeper to rent out premises for two years. Turnover doubled and she moved into a purpose-built shop in 2004. Awards have followed, including the Business in The Community Rural Action Award, presented by Prince Charles and Sir Steve Redgrave.

"I just felt a shop was key: it's a real social hub, the services that underline everything that makes living in rural areas possible. Once you have lost the shop, it downgrades other activities as well.

"We were very risk averse. Looking back, I wish we had been bolder, but you can only say that with hindsight. Because I always wanted to set up a commercial business village shop rather than community owned, there was less support. The general belief was the idea was a non-starter.

"I didn't see, perhaps, some of the negative attitudes about being a young woman that I would now. At the time I had no concept of how difficult it was, because I was quite young. I just said, we are having a shop whether you like it or not. It's tough. If you've had a 60-hour week you have had a rest."

Lesley Long, 54: Women Go Wild Outdoors, Welshpool, Powys

After teaching management and personal development training, Lesley wanted to develop an outdoor pursuits business for women. She also runs a virtual organiser service – office admin, website management and finance support online.

"About 15 years ago, I looked around for an outdoor event or activity that was focused on women's needs. I felt there was an opening because women of a certain age – divorced, beating breast cancer, kids leaving home – were reaching parts of their lives with a bit of an identity crisis.

"I launched in 2008, as the recession was biting. I have always been a passionate believer in working from home, using technology. I am told I can organise anything, so launched Your Virtual Organiser in April 2010. The Welsh Assembly spent £2m to bring broadband to not-spots. Without that, I could not have done Your Virtual Organiser.

"It has been difficult. There might not be a safety net, but you sure as hell know you're alive. There's not a day that goes by when I don't sometimes think, 'Am I mad?' "

Kate Elliott: Active Marketing and Design, Blofield, Norfolk

Five years ago, Kate quit her job with a marketing agency, to set up on her own with graphic designer Claire McDermid. They now have 50 clients. "It was a chance conversation, making tea at work with Claire about being self-employed. It is easy to hand your notice in, although it's quite daunting. We walked away from our previous jobs with no clients or contacts – with a blank sheet of paper.

"In our first month, we turned over £80. We were quite scared; we only had savings to pay ourselves for three months. It was a little bit terrifying. People have preconceptions. We always felt, and still do, that the world is our oyster and there is nothing holding us back. But graphic design is very male dominated as an industry, and we came up against quite a lot of scepticism from potential clients, both because we were female and because I was only 25.

"We are working now with national clients. Some of our products are in big stores like B&Q, and we work with universities and prestigious organisations beyond our wildest dreams.

"There is a real lack of role models of females running successful businesses. Women face issues with confidence, and we need quite tailored bespoke business support.

"Being in a rural area makes it more expensive, because of things like transport. Broadband support in our area is pretty good, but that can be a massive challenge. It is quite easy to market an urban business, because you can count on passing trade, but if you are trying to market a farm shop in the back of beyond, you have to be more creative."

Rebecca Rayner, 40: Farmer from Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire

With a degree in food marketing, Rebecca has expanded into organic and gluten-free products on her parents' traditional, 500-acre arable farm, which she took over with her brother Philip.

"As women, we can juggle lots of balls in the air. I write lists at night before I go to bed. For the men on the farm, I know it's difficult a woman telling a bloke how to do something. I appreciated they know far more about fixing a tractor than me, and let them get on with it. We work great as a team.

"I am one of two or so women doing this in this area. The men are very curious. My photo is on the flourbags. I explain I am the farmer, and there's a face behind this bag rather than a multinational. I respond to emails straightaway. People are quite surprised when I come back and speak to them.

"Another thing to counteract the recession is beer. We are going into pubs on draught now, which is nice. We are selling the equivalent of 40 casks every two weeks. We malt the grain on the farm here, but we don't brew here. Maybe one day. I cannot think much further forward than that at the moment."

Claire Martinsen, 41: Breckland Orchard soft drinks, Watton, Norfolk

Two years ago, fearing she would miss watching her son, Wilf, and daughter, Alice, grow up, the marketing executive at multinational food giant Mars turned her back on brands such as Twix and Uncle Ben's in the hope of putting her granny's recipes for traditional lemonade into production.

"It was a moment of madness. When I had my second child, I had this flash forward to childcare and after school clubs, and thought I was never going to be there to pick them up.

"I didn't know what I was going to do. I had lots of recipes, but didn't know how to turn them into commercial quantities. I found somebody on Google who could help.

"I am ruthlessly efficient with my time. If you strip out all the board meetings and corporates and presentations, and just concentrate on productivity, it is much better.

"It is still quite unusual for a woman to make things. Women tend to go into service industries. I go to trade shows, and an ex-colleague who is older than me comes to help. If someone approaches the stand, they naturally assume he owns the business."

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