Why UK women are choosing startups over the corporate world

Women entrepreneurs are choosing to start their own businesses instead of taking the traditional corporate route. We find out why

A movement is taking place across the UK in which women are flocking to the tech startup scene, instead of choosing to join the corporate world.

With more female business owners saying they have started to notice a rise in the amount of women opting to start their own tech firms, Computer Weekly decided to look into the reasons behind this new movement.

Zoe Cunningham, managing director of Softwire Technology, said: “I was recently on an all-female panel at the Cybher conference for female bloggers. I was the only woman on the panel who was in a corporate role. All of the other women had founded their own business, often after finding that they couldn't progress further in their jobs in larger organisations.

“Although it's amazing that the startup world offers such great opportunities to women, I find it a bit sad that they weren't able to contribute to their full potential within a traditional environment.”

Zoe Cunningham explained that in her personal networks, there are lots of women starting their own businesses. 

“One of my friends left a high-flying finance job after she was pulled into an office and criticised for what she was wearing on a dress-down Friday," she said. "This had never happened to any of the men. She is now working on her own business and running a chapter of a female networking group.

One of my friends left a high-flying finance job after she was pulled into an office and criticised for what she was wearing on a dress-down Friday

Zoe Cunningham

It may be that despite this phenomenon taking senior women from the corporate world, it will eventually help to redress the balance as successful startups grow to become corporates with women at the helm.”

Inspiring role models

Cunningham, who was recently added to Computer Weekly’s ‘Rising Star’ list of Most Influential Women in UK IT, said she was lucky enough to see the founder of my-wardrobe.com speak at the Management Today 35 Women Under 35 awards recently: “She was proud to be able to say "I appointed myself CEO" and explained that she never would have attained that role via the corporate route.”

Vicky Brock, CEO of startup Clear Returns agreed: “We've been able to attract some great female talent into Clear Returns, because the startup culture is definitely a very appealing alternative to the rigid corporate IT world. 

“It is about the big vision, the flexibility and the scale of the trust and challenges we offer - 'make it so' is one of my favourite phrases. 

"I tell potential recruits that, 'Yes you could go and be a tiny cog in a huge machine, be safe and never be sure what, if anything, you achieved - or you could take a risk, work here and directly change the world, ideally by the middle of next week'. A startup isn't for everyone but those who are attracted are typically fantastically enterprising and very keen to prove themselves.”

Brock said several of the women in her team have ambitions of starting their own business one day and she believes in helping them: “In startups generally, there is now a 50/50 gender split. However, that falls significantly when you look at the high-growth startups getting venture capital (VC) investment - the category tech startups often fall into. 

“In that category, there is a growing female presence, but nothing like 50/50 yet - I think maybe less than 10% (except for fashion tech, which I believe is a lot higher). That's why it was important for me to target accessing the high-growth tech networks from the outset - to learn the ropes via IBM SmartCamp and Tech Tour - to make sure that we were spending our energy on a startup trajectory that would lead to high growth.”

There are some great female-led companies coming through IBM SmartCamp - Poikos for example, said Brock. “In my own geography, the fantastic Edinburgh-based mobile tech company for retailers NN4M has been a massive inspiration for me and that is female-led.”

Joanna Shields has been at the helm of reshaping the UK's tech startup scene since taking the role of CEO at Tech City nine months ago and was voted the winner of Computer Weekly’s Most Influential Woman in UK IT 2013 award.

In a recent interview with Computer Weekly, Shields had similar views: “I have the privilege of working in Tech City, the East London cluster which is really becoming the hotbed of ideas and creativity and there are so many women-led businesses and I find that really encouraging.

“I feel that if we can change this early stage and create an environment where people feel comfortable starting their own companies or entering the tech careers, then this problem won’t exist in five to 10 years from now,” Shields said.

Motivation to join the startup scene

“Tech is not an option for businesses of the future and smart women know this," said Cunningham, giving reasons why women appear to be more attracted to the startup scene than the traditional corporate world. 

“As someone who has started businesses outside of my day job as a corporate managing director, I know that one of the major drivers in starting a business is freedom and control. If you think differently from your peers and managers, it can be tiring to be constantly fighting your corner. When you're your own boss, no-one tells you what to do.”

According to Brock, the best female-led tech startups come from a problem experienced by the female founder that has not been sufficiently solved by the market yet. 

“Personally, I think it’s nothing to do with a reaction to men," she said. "Rather women are simply starting to have the confidence to respond to problems or opportunities in their own lives by seeing that there may be a tech solution - and that there may be a profitable business in that solution.”

She said her startup Clear Returns came from her permanently returning things: “I've seen innovative battery engineering solutions that come from the female founder's desire to charge her phone via her handbag. 

I've seen innovative battery engineering solutions that come from the female founder's desire to charge her phone via her handbag

Vicky Brock, Clear Returns

“Plus, I do see a younger generation of women for whom starting a business soon after leaving education is a perfectly viable option - it is not viewed as a high-risk alternative to a sensible career; nor, as was the case for me, is it something simply so alien and unattainable that it didn't even cross my mind as an option until many years later.”

She believes women are naturally drawn to areas of technology that interest them and areas in which they can connect to. 

“Most people are drawn to working with people who help them feel they belong to a common purpose. If there are no points of reference, you don't have friends or family in the field or routes in to stimulate a personal connection, then the industry will appear hard to crack," she said.  

“I do think it is about creating access, creating connections and creating routes in - from intern level to board level frankly.”

Brock feels a dominance of one gender is not a barrier in itself, but that it is human nature to feel that way. 

“Especially if you don't have the confidence or necessary vocabulary/nuances/cultural references to feel you connect or belong," she said.  

“I may have been over-dosing on Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In, but I do think those of us women in tech owe it to the next generations of both genders to welcome them into the workplace and let them find a little spark of interest that they can be inspired by and relate to.” 

Not the only fan of the Facebook COO's Sandberg's book, Cunningham said: “In my career I have never personally come across any discrimination and the IT industry is really great for women to work in. However, where sexism does exist and is being reported, it can lead to women reacting against this and holding back from pushing themselves or believing that they can make it.

“Sheryl Sandberg's book is absolutely brilliant on this subject. When you are the person in charge, for example in a startup, it is clearer that there is no-one there to create barriers for you.”

Similar story in the US

Women-led privately-owned technology firms in the US are more capital-efficient, achieve 35% higher return on investment and attain 12% higher revenue then male-owned technology companies – when venture-backed – according to a recent survey.

The Women in Technology: Evolving, ready to save the world report suggests that female entrepreneurs are starting to catch up with their male counterparts in some areas.

Led by Vivek Wadhwa, who holds titles at Stanford and Duke Universities, and Lesa Mitchell, a vice-president at the Kauffman Foundation, the survey pulled together online responses from 500 women in the tech sector.

According to the figures, the average age of women entrepreneurs founding technology companies has dropped from 41 to 32 since a smaller study which was conducted in 2009.

Brock added: “I went over to Women 2.0 tech Tour in New York in November and just recently to the We Own It Summit - US women are a great example for people like me to be inspired by. But it is not just about women founding startups, it’s about them founding startups with global visibility and ambitions to really scale - that challenge is still up for grabs.

“Frankly, talent is so precious and fundamental to a tech firm’s success, it's more than altruistic to try and encourage it. It is an imperative of business survival. And hopefully female business leaders will focus on encouraging the women, in the way men have naturally focused on attracting their own peers and networks.”

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