Global Entrepreneurship Week: Celebrating our Women Entrepreneurs

Incredible women entrepreneurs and leaders in New Zealand. Left to right: Frances Valintine, Rebecca Mills, Anna Guenther, and Maru Nihoniho.

Incredible women entrepreneurs and leaders in New Zealand. Left to right: Frances Valintine, Rebecca Mills, Anna Guenther, and Maru Nihoniho.

Recently I asked a successful female entrepreneur, what was the one thing that New Zealand could do to encourage more women into entrepreneurship?

Her response was startlingly simple:

Tell the stories of those who are already doing it

By making women visible and showcasing what is possible, can we encourage other would-be entrepreneurs to make the leap? Can we better harness the extensive talents of our female workforce, by holding up examples of those who are walking the talk? Whether in the latest high heels from her award-winning designer shoe label, or those more figuratively navigating fibre optic cables in the world of tech?

Initiatives like Pick N Mix are certainly helping by highlighting the career opportunities that exist for New Zealand women today. However, while women are by no means invisible in entrepreneurial circles, they are still the exception rather than the norm. The fact that we need to preface ‘entrepreneur’ with ‘woman’ when referring to a successful lady of business is telling. When was the last time you heard someone refer to a successful ‘male entrepreneur’?

This week is Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW), with over 150 countries participating with events that celebrate entrepreneurship in all its forms. To mark the occasion, we interviewed and captured the thoughts of four leading entrepreneurial leading ladies in New Zealand: Maru Nihoniho, founder of gaming company Metia Interactive; Frances Valintine, founder of The Mind Lab; Anna Guenther, founder of crowdfunding platform PledgeMe; and Rebecca Mills, leading sustainability strategist. 

The GEW organising team announced in August that this year they would be celebrating Women’s Entrepreneurship Day on Wednesday 19th November.

Kudos to GEW for including a Women’s Entrepreneurship Day in the schedule of global celebrations, as there needs to be a strong effort to get women into entrepreneurship. Yet, the gap is so wide. The potential for more women entrepreneurs to influence our economy and society through innovation is so largely untapped, that celebrating women for one day alone didn’t cut it for us. We decided to focus on women entrepreneurs for the whole week.

To celebrate female entrepreneurship in New Zealand this week, KiwiConnect has interviewed four leading Kiwi women entrepreneurs, asking them about their own personal journeys and how they think New Zealand is faring. These women are breaking the mould daily, taking on the world and are having a great time while they’re at it. For the rest of the week, we will be profiling these leading ladies on the KiwiConnect blog. You can also join the conversation on Twitter at #NZWomen.

Women on the Global Stage

The lack of female representation in entrepreneurship is a well-documented issue across the world. Despite research pointing to the fact that women entrepreneurs typically do well, many are simply not afforded the chance.

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), there are 812 million women in developing nations who have the ability to contribute more fully to their economies as workers and employers.

In many cases, there are cultural challenges to overcome, where the work of women is typically in the traditional roles of cooking, child-rearing and looking after the family. The recently released Gender GEDI (Global Entrepreneurship and Development Index) found that in nearly three quarters of the 30 countries surveyed, conditions for female entrepreneurship and business growth were unfavourable.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella made headlines last month on the gender pay gap, when he suggested that women need not ask for raise, that they should trust in the system to reward them appropriately. He apologised for his comments, but his views reflect the reality that many people still do not see a problem with the fact that in some nations, women are paid up to 37% less than men, sometimes for doing the same work.

Here in New Zealand, like many developed nations, it is acceptable and indeed often encouraged for women to break out of traditional gender roles, and to get into business. Yet despite the ‘freedom’ to choose a career path and make their own way in the world, like many developed nations, women do still face barriers and hurdles in entrepreneurial circles, which their male counterparts often do not experience.

Life in New Zealand, on the Edge of the Map

In 1893, Kate Sheppard lead a band of suffragettes to gather 32,000 signatures from New Zealand women, demanding that they be afforded the right to vote. The 270-metre long petition was the largest ever presented to the New Zealand Parliament, and on 19th September 1893, New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women the vote.

More than 120 years later, Kiwi women are still leading the way for many gender equality metrics. Last year an article released by The Economist opened with the statement, “If you are a working woman, you would do well to move to New Zealand.” The article placed NZ as number one on the “glass-ceiling index”, which measured where in the world women have the best chance of equal treatment at work.

Glass Ceiling Index indicating where women have the best chance of equal treatment at work. Source: The Economist

Glass Ceiling Index indicating where women have the best chance of equal treatment at work. Source: The Economist

This is not to say that all is rosy in New Zealand. The gender wage gap in 2014 is 9.9% and has been hovering around this level for five years now. A recent report by Harvard Business School found that the percentage of women directors on boards in New Zealand was just 7.5%  -  less than half the global average of 16%.

While some individual women are thriving, on a collective level, New Zealand women are missing out. Which in turn means New Zealand as a whole is missing out.

Women are good at business

There is much research which points to the fact that companies who have women in leadership positions do well.

On a global level, recent research from the Credit Suisse Institute indicates that companies with female board representation routinely outperform those with no women on the board.

A study of female tech entrepreneurs, co-authored by Lesa Mitchell, Vice President of the Kauffman Foundation, suggests similar results for companies that have women leaders. The study found that women-led private technology companies were more capital-efficient, achieved 35% higher return on investment, and, when venture-backed, brought in 12 percent higher revenue than male-owned tech companies.

Closer to home, there is evidence that companies that are founded by women tend to last longer. In a 2011 study of Small and Medium Enterprises (SME’s) in New Zealand, The Ministry of Economic Development found that in most age groups, businesses owned by self-employed women lasted longer than those owned by self-employed men. This is particularly the case for young women under 30.

Percentage of 2009 Businesses Owned by Self-Employed People that Survived in 2010 by Gender and Owner Age. Source: Ministry of Economic Development(pg. 49)

Percentage of 2009 Businesses Owned by Self-Employed People that Survived in 2010 by Gender and Owner Age. Source: Ministry of Economic Development(pg. 49)

So if the research is pointing to the fact that including women in leadership is good for business, what is keeping us from leading the charge?

“It’s the way it’s always been…”

The answers are largely embedded in our culture and history.

Kiwi NBR Rich-lister Diane Foreman blames the lack of female representation on boards, on the dominance of an “old boy’s network” that locks women out. Those women who are appointed to boards tend to come from the same small pool, rather than companies looking further afield to invite new women around the table.

Kiwi tech entrepreneur Rebekah Campbell has described challenges in the difference between the way that men and women value quantitative and qualitative data in business. While she embraces a customer-focused intuitive approach in her company Posse, her male software engineers want hard numbers. Rebekah calls for a combination of both measures to develop powerful ventures.

Frances Valintine, founder of technology and digital capability education centre The Mind Lab, suggests that gendering of tech skills starts at an early age, with parents visiting the Lab suggesting that electronics and robotics are for their sons, while animation and design are for their daughters (read our interview with Frances Valintine here).

We can take comfort in the fact that the landscape is slowly changing. Along with the success of Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneurial Winning Women programme this year, and education institutions like The Mind Lab empowering girls from a young age, many companies are changing the way they do business in a way that better fits many women.

The Rise of Female-centric Traits in Business

Over recent decades, we have started seeing changes in the leadership style exhibited by successful entrepreneurs. Success in business is no longer a case of solely top-down approaches to management, whipping your workers into shape, and ruling with an iron fist to scare your team into staying late at the office.

Similarly, keeping your ideas and IP under lock and key to ensure the competition don’t get their hands on them, is no longer the presumed norm. Many businesses are turning to open source models and collaborative development.

Even businesses who have traditionally competed with each other, can sometimes be found sitting down for coffee and sharing ideas. Many tech companies are basing themselves in co-working spaces or neighbourhood hubs, effectively building communities where people who are working on similar problems can bump into each other and talk.

These new approaches towards business foster social traits that have been traditionally thought of as female characteristics. We are experiencing what Arianna Huffington recently labeled “The third women’s revolution”.

We are seeing female values – though of course men and women have them – like community, teamwork, and collaboration being at a premium.
— Arianna Huffington

Women in Technology

In New Zealand, we are seeing promising trends for women who are working within the tech sector. While New Zealand is not immune to the lower ratio of women in IT roles and women studying STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), the gender pay gap is much closer in this area. Research from Absolut IT shows that men working in the NZ IT industry are paid just 1.9% more than women, compared to the average gender wage gap of 9.9%.

As women are beginning to see opportunities in the tech sector beyond endless lines of code, more are actively pursuing careers in this space. This year’s Women in Innovation Summit, run by the National Advisory Council for the Employment of Women, was a fantastic initiative to weave together the many conversations happening around this space, and their Summary Report and Recommendations paint a solid roadmap for the future. On a local level, Meet-Up groups such as Wellington’s Female Founder’s Exchange and the NZTech Women’s Exec Lunches introduced by former CEO Candace Kinser, are regularly bringing women entrepreneurs together to meet and learn from each other.

Women in the Technology Sector in New Zealand. Source: National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women 

Women in the Technology Sector in New Zealand. Source: National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women 

Further afield and on a much larger scale, we see positive steps from tech giants. Google has highlighted the significance of the issue and thrown it’s weight behind a campaign to help more women thrive in technology careers, by committing $50 million towards their Made In Code programme.

In an interesting twist, invoking no small degree of irony, even American toy manufacturers Mattel have been getting on board with Entrepreneur Barbie!

So What can We do to Help?

It is clear that while women entrepreneurs in New Zealand have it better than many places in the world, there is still work to be done before women have an equal footing to men in entrepreneurial circles. In fact, New Zealand has potential to be a leader, and become the destination for women entrepreneurs looking to start their ventures.

Here is a list of five things you and your businesses can do to support more female entrepreneurship:

1. Invite women to join your board. Not just those women who are already on boards, but those who have shown promise, and would bring a unique entrepreneurial skill set to the table.
2. Invite women to speak at your conferences, summits and events. In the chance that you are faced with reluctance, do not be surprised since they might not get asked to speak that often. Support and coach them to prepare for large keynote addresses, you audience will appreciate the chance to hear an untapped voice who can add a lot of value to the conversation.
3. Mentor young women and encourage them to get involved in business. We can start by encouraging young girls to learn entrepreneurial skills, and letting them pursue subject at school that are traditionally ‘boy’s classes’ if they show an interest.
4. Make successful female entrepreneurs visible — shout their stories from the rooftops when they succeed, and share their stories with others when they fail so that they can learn from mistakes.
5. Recognise the inequalities between men and women in entrepreneurship, and work to change this in whatever ways you can.

This week, let’s celebrate and enjoy Women Entrepreneurs Day!

And then let’s work towards a world in which such a day is no longer necessary.

Join us in a conversation on women entrepreneurs this week on FacebookTwitter (#NZWomen), and LinkedIn.

Note: This post originally appeared on Medium.

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Exploring, Dreaming and Discovering at TEDxChristchurch

Exploring, Dreaming and Discovering at TEDxChristchurch