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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 November 2006, 23:50 GMT
Sisters doing it for themselves
By Toby Poston
Business reporter, BBC News

Sir Alan Sugar and his apprentice Michelle Dewberry
Ms Dewberry's entrepreneurial skills impressed Sir Alan Sugar

If UK women were as entrepreneurial as their US counterparts, the UK would have 750,000 more businesses.

Trade and Industry Secretary Alan Johnson produced this fact last year as part of the government's continuing attempts to encourage more women to start up their own business.

The government is to set out its plans to boost female entrepreneurship on Wednesday, which has been designated National Women's Enterprise Day.

But a number of women's business groups are calling for a radical rethink of government policy.

Long road

The government has been looking at ways of closing the gap between female entrepreneurial activity in the UK and the US for a number of years.

In 2003 it outlined these aspirations in its Strategic Framework for Women's Enterprise document, which was followed up in late 2005 by the announcement of Women's Enterprise Task Force.

Moving rather more slowly than start-ups it is designed to foster, the task force is not expected to report on the issue until next spring.

No delivery

But according to the latest comprehensive research, the government's strategy for female enterprise is not delivering.

A survey of 32,500 UK adults by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) found that 3.8% of the female population are "entrepreneurially active", with no forward progress made since 2004 .

The gap between levels of female and male entrepreneurship has closed, but only because the proportion of men starting up in business has fallen - they are still more than twice as likely to do so than women.

Business groups say the current government policy on encouraging enterprise is failing young women in particular.

The research found that those aged 18-24 were the least entrepreneurially active.

In a report based on the GEM research, women's enterprise group Prowess is calling for the government to prioritise its focus on this age group as well as encouraging more business related training at schools and universities.

It also wants the new task force to provide national policy for encouraging more female start ups.

Table showing the gap between male and female entrepreneurial activity

Shaa Wasmund, a serial entrepreneur who has worked with inventor and business tycoon James Dyson and is about to present a new Channel 4 business series, says the current government strategy is wrong.

"We need to completely and utterly rethink business support. It needs to be overhauled right the way up from the Learning and Skills Council up to the small business advisory services like Business Link.

"These services need to be real and relevant for women, not just run by civil servants."

Web-based businesses

More use of technology, particularly the internet, is the key to this, she says.

Internet-based businesses are perfect for women who need to juggle family commitments and need flexible working.

Another recent set of research, commissioned by insurance group AXA found that 34% of new and expectant women were planning to set up their own business from home.

The most popular ways of doing this were to use the web and email to carry on offering professional skills like accountancy on a consultancy basis, or to move into retail - buying or selling goods on email or launching a mail order service.

Woman working at home
Lots of women have dreams of setting up a home-based business

According to Ms Wasmund, the medium itself is a much better way of delivering training or advice to would-be business tycoons.

She is strategic advisor to the Bebo social networking website, and says this sort of model should be used to connect like-minded female entrepreneurs.

"They could use these sites to swap stories and learn from others, find suppliers or even download YouTube-style video clips that show them how to make a cold-call or reprimand a member of staff," she says.

Life skills

Women who have had business training at school or university are two-and-a-half times as likely to become entrepreneurs, and Ms Wasmund says it is vital that people that don't get this kick-start can find some motivation as well.

"The Apprentice was great," she says.

"It shows that people who left school at 16 can compete for a top job with graduates from the top universities or business schools.

"It shows that it is not just about education but also about interpersonal ability, dealing with challenges, and other life skills."

Michelle Dewberry, Sir Alan Sugar's chosen disciple from the last series of The Apprentice, is a classic example.

She left school in Hull at a young age with few qualifications, but rapidly ascended to a high-paid job as a telecoms consultant after stints as a check-out girl and telesales worker.

She has now left her highly paid job at Sir Alan's Amstrad to pursue her own business projects and is also helping Business Link promote its services in London.

"I never had a mentor and that was the driving force for me taking part in The Apprentice.

"I always wondered what more I might be able to achieve if I had had some mentoring."

As her appearances on The Apprentice demonstrate, Ms Dewberry has never been short of self-confidence, a key requisite for any entrepreneur.

Plasticine dreams

According to the Prowess report, lack of self-confidence and appropriate role models is a key barrier to the creation of more female start-ups.

The three Catlow sisters from Kirkby Stephen in rural Cumbria are a thriving example of how this barrier can be overcome.

Inspired by the Wallace and Gromit-based success of the Aardman Animations claymation studio, Bryony, Linnhe and Cadi Catlow set up their own firm, 3 Bear Animations in 1996.

A decade later they have won a Royal Television Society award, but more importantly have developed a business based on something they love doing.

"We personally never wanted to take over the animation world when we started 3 Bears...it's more about working on projects we're proud of and being successful in an artistic way rather than a money-minded way," says Bryony Catlow.

It is also about determination.

"You should have confidence in your ability, and try not to take the first 100 odd "No's" too personally," she added.

Plans to help women in workplace
11 Sep 06 |  UK Politics

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