June 5, 2014 5:08 pm

Blog: Women at back of grid in Monaco

A bird flies above Monaco harbour, Monte Carlo©Reuters

A picture can tell a thousand words. Earlier today I innocently tweeted a photo of the finalists in the EY World Entrepreneur of the Year contest from Monaco. The first response from followers, as well as the second and the third, was “Where are all the women?” Out of 51 finalists, only two are not male.

This turn of events – both the gender split and the reaction to it – is all too common at founder gatherings. There is little doubt that there is a gender imbalance when it comes to entrepreneurship. In the UK alone, official figures show that there would be 1m more businesses if as many women started companies as men.

That half the world’s population is under-represented in the wealth creation process is clearly far from ideal. The trouble comes when people try to find ways to make life more balanced.

Categorising people as female entrepreneurs may seem a good way to promote successful women, but it also feels a bit patronising. Many of the most successful female business founders – and there are many – avoid being included in female founder articles in the media for just this reason.

The demographics and the statistics may be as clear as a June day in Monaco. The world needs more female founders, but the conclusions and the subsequent solutions are not so clear-cut.

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Another way founders are categorised is by age. What is surprising here is how many people are prepared to be openly ageist in talking about entrepreneurship as a young person’s game.

The most obvious example of this is in tech start-ups, where it has become almost a cliché that the most successful founders are those who started their business by dropping out of college.

The youngest finalist in Monaco fits this stereotype. William Wolfram, the Finnish chairman and chief executive of ecommerce business DealDash, is only 21. He started the business, which now has more than 3m customers and $54.4m in annual sales, five years ago while still at school.

“They told me that a small upstart tech company from Finland run by a 16-year-old could never compete in the highly competitive US tech market,” he told the EY competition judges.

“They told me to wait, but I could not wait around for success, so I went ahead.”

When I interviewed him this morning, though, Mr Wolfram expanded on his views about age. He actually liked being the youngest candidate, because there were so many older founders whose experience he could learn from, he said.

Just for the record, the average age of the national winners competing in the EY global contest is 51.

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Where is the best place to launch a business? It is a question worth asking at an event such as the one EY is holding this week, which has brought together founders from as far afield as South Korea and Nigeria.

The popularity of entrepreneurship, both among economists and the public, has encouraged governments across the world to attempt to try, with a mixture of tax breaks, infrastructure spending and grant money, to ensure that the “next Silicon Valley” lies within their national borders.

Finding the next start-up hotspot has become a parlour game, popular at entrepreneurship conferences. What is striking, however, when you talk to founders is how random the process of choosing a location can be.

Yes, good-quality local talent, healthy attitudes to risk taking and reliable high-speed broadband connections are all factors that help entrepreneurship to flourish in particular cities and regions.

But for founders, what is often most important is their personal connection to a place, which is very difficult for governments to influence.

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