Could women-only business courses boost the number of successful female entrepreneurs?

Shima Barakat is one of a group of academics who thinks yes. “I’ve heard people rant about how we shouldn’t be talking about gender in entrepreneurship, that enterprise is egalitarian and gender-neutral. But it isn’t,” she says.

Slightly more than half the population in Europe is female, but European Commission data show that only about 30 per cent of start-up entrepreneurs are women.

Ms Barakat is the research and teaching fellow in enterprise and entrepreneurship at University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School. “It’s not about changing anything about the women, or addressing their deficiencies, but understanding their aspirations and needs,” she says of the EnterpriseWISE programme, which has been running at Judge for four years.

The course is for women who want to develop business and entrepreneurship skills. Also, the course is delivered by women. “We bring in a very wide range of female role models who do not reflect the super-charismatic masculine stereotypes,” explains Ms Barakat.

“You need a women-only forum because it allows them to speak about things they will never speak about in a mixed [setting]. In EnterpriseWISE someone will invariably ask: ‘How can I take a funder’s money when I’m not sure this thing is going to work?’ I never hear that in my mixed classes, but it’s what many of the women are thinking.”

Last year’s Global Startup Ecosystem Ranking report revealed the small proportion of businesses founded by women in Europe. In Berlin and London, it was just nine per cent and 18 per cent respectively. This gender inequality is apparent on both sides of the Atlantic, but compared with Chicago (30 per cent), Boston (29 per cent) and Silicon Valley (24 per cent), Europe has the bigger problem. However, the reason so few women start businesses is complicated.

At ESMT in Berlin, associate professor of strategy Stefan Wagner believes the issue is attitudes towards risk. “There is reliable research that points to females being more risk-averse than males, and since starting a business is a risky business, so women are less likely to choose this as a career path,” says Prof Wagner, who is also a member of the board of a business angel fund.

However, Susan Duffy, executive director of the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership at Babson College, disagrees: “Women are not more risk averse. They are risk-rational and take a longer-term view. If we ignore them and their ideas, we are letting way too many innovations get by us.” Nine out of 15 start-ups in the school’s summer venture accelerator last year were led by women.

A 2014 study from Harvard, MIT and Wharton found that men are 60 per cent more likely to succeed in pitching to investors than women. Earlier this year, Crunchbase, a site that tracks private equity investments, found that only seven per cent of investing partners at top venture capital firms are women.

Nelson Phillips, professor at Imperial College Business School, argues: “The willingness, ability and confidence to sell your concept, growth story and future of your company is at the core of entrepreneurship, but many women struggle to pitch as enthusiastically as men. Their ideas are just as good but they are, perhaps, more realistic about their plans and that can make funders less interested.”

At Iese Business School in Spain, Juan Roure, professor of entrepreneurship, thinks family pressures are a key issue for many women. “Many entrepreneurs launch their businesses when in their 30s, but for many women that’s a time when they have other priorities and want to start a family,” he says. “However, we are seeing more women engaging in entrepreneurial activity later in life.”

There are some signs of progress in the US where, for example, Harvard, Stanford and MIT top the list of schools for female founders.

Female Harvard graduates have founded companies such as Birchbox, the beauty products delivery service, and Rent the Runway, a fashion rental site. At MIT, Bill Aulet, managing director of the Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship, says 40 per cent of MBA students who choose entrepreneurship tracks or electives are women, and three of its five entrepreneurs-in-residence are women. At Stanford GSB, a two-week seminar called “Entrepreneurship from the Perspective of Women” has just been converted into a fully assessed and credit-carrying course.

On the other hand, being a woman in a man’s world has its advantages. Dominika Bienkowska is an MBA graduate from ESMT who recently won German government funding of €200,000 for her start-up, ÜberEnergy, which uses algorithms to predict and minimise the energy wasted in homes.

“Being a woman in the high-tech community puts me in the minority which has actually proved beneficial in certain situations,” she says. “It helps being noticed in a crowd of men [and gets you] a foot in the door.”

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