I am Associate Dean for Research and Knowledge Exchange in the Business School at Oxford Brookes University – and professor of equality and diversity management; so, I am not an entrepreneur myself.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I have been leading a 2-year project funded by the EPSRC as part of their Inclusion Matters program. This project focuses on the underrepresentation of women scientists as founders of universities spin-out companies. I got the idea of focusing on spinouts a few years ago when I worked on a project looking at the exchange of women talent between corporate boards and Higher Education governing bodies. This project was funded by KPMG and sponsored by the 30% Club that leads an international campaign to increase gender diversity on FTSE company boards. I found that academic women who sat on company boards tended to be from STEM and some of them had founded spinout companies. So I became curious about exploring academic entrepreneurship from a gender perspective.
My colleagues and I gathered existing evidence and put a discussion paper together in 2018, when I also wrote an article for the Times Higher Education to start a debate on this subject. . We then applied for a project with colleagues at the University of Oxford, which has been focusing on understanding the causes of women underrepresentation as founders of spinout companies. We have found that, across the UK, only 13% of spin-out founders are women; and represent 18% of Oxford spin-outs,. We have also found that women founders have unequal access to funding and large grants.
But numbers could only tell us so much. We interviewed both men and women about their spin-outs, trying to understand the barriers that the women have faced in their journeys to the establishment of their companies. The interviews provided us with a good insight into the spin-out ecosystem and identified three main issues that need to be addressed . Firstly, visibility; giving greater visibility to successful women founders as role models is important to encourage other women to follow. Secondly, gender stereotypes, especially those focused on women in STEM; for instance, stereotyped views of what a woman in STEM “should look like”, which men have never experienced, and which can be damaging in terms of inspiring the next generation. Third having to balance family responsibilities with developing a business – which is a hard task. A lot of the men we interviewed said that they couldn’t have done it if their partners hadn’t been there to take care of their family, but all of the women with children we spoke to juggled work and family , sometimes without partners’ help. What was clear throughout, however, was a lack of institutional support for these women. They were very much expected to deal with setting up a spinout on top of their academic responsibilities. Not being given enough support from their institutions made their spinout journey more challenging. .
Moreover, for some women, setting up a company was never a path that they had thought of taking. For example, one woman we spoke to almost left her academic after her 3rd pregnancy, due to the rigidity in which an academic career is structured. One of her colleagues suggested that she looked into the opportunity of commercialising her research, and she is now the CEO of two companies. Moving into the entrepreneurial world can provide an alternative career path for women in STEM .
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
I cannot speak much from first-hand experience, although I did set up a research centre back in 2004. Whereas in my case there was no personal risk involved, I still had to find the funding for the projects, find the staff and plan for the future , so in many ways it was rather similar to setting up a company. I believe that being an entrepreneur means having a vision, making it happen and having the strength to keep it going when people around you may not believe in what you are doing.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Firstly, resilience and determination – a lot of the women we spoke to tended to say that. Secondly, inter-personal skills – a lot of them spoke about how, as an entrepreneur, you need to do quite a bit of convincing; however, that did beg the question of whether women need to do more convincing than men. For example during our interviews we found that several women talked about the patenting process as being challenging, and especially convincing their institutions to invest in their ideas. The men didn’t talk about it much, but the women always mentioned how challenging it was, suggesting that they may seen as less credible than their male colleagues. Thirdly, having a vision, and having creativity.
What is your favourite part of supporting entrepreneurs?
Using research to make changes. We recently ran an online event where we did some speed-mentoring with women who founded spin-out companies, and female researchers that were interested in starting their own. It was very successful, and the online aspect also helped from an accessibility point of view – we had a mentee who had a disability, for instance, and she mentioned that had it not been online, she wouldn’t have been able to attend.
Accessibility and inclusivity is in itself a major issue which we are trying to work on. Everyone in the entrepreneurial world knows that networking is vital. But it was highlighted by several women that the social norms around networking, such as most of it taking place in the evening, and over a glass of wine, could exclude women with childcare responsibilities, and women from other cultural backgrounds. Changing the norms surrounding networking could be very important.
What entrepreneurial individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
All of the women included in our project were undoubtedly role models, but I felt particularly inspired by Dr. Fanya Ismail, who won the 2019 Women in Innovation award by Innovate UK and is the founder and CEO of SGMA (Sol-Gel Materials and Applications). She came to the UK from Kurdistan, did a master and a PhD and was in the post-doctorate phase when she became pregnant with twins. She found that her academic job did not offer her the flexibility that she needed to combine work with her family responsibilities so she left and set up her own business, a legal consultancy. Five years on, however, she returned to the world of science and founded SGMA.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
When conducting our research into the world of spin-outs, we wanted to know about what both success and what failure looked like. When I asked Dr. Ismail about this, she said that there is no failure, and that one simply learns from their mistakes. I realised that we need to change the ways that we think about failure and how we conceptualise it.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment while supporting entrepreneurs?
Translating the research findings into practice to make positive changes.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned while supporting entrepreneurs?
I have made a lot of mistakes, will continue to do mistakes and learn from them. One important lesson especially from this research is the importance of having the right team – the people working with you need to share your vision.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?Talk to other women – and share your experiences with them.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman supporting entrepreneurs? If so, how have you overcome them?
We need to be mindful of how we address the underrepresentation of women, and we have to start by addressing the barriers within institutions, not by trying to fix the women, but fix the institutions.
What resources would you recommend for other women interested in doing this?
There are a lot of woman-specific resources, such as the University of Oxford’s RisingWISE scholarship, or the Oxford Brookes ‘Bloom’ program.
How do you think institutions such as the University of Oxford could better support women entrepreneurs?
There is a bit of a gap in the post-doctorate sector. A lot of the universities support for entrepreneurs tend to focus on graduates and students, but post-doc and research fellows fly under the radar – and they conduct important research, with a lot of spin-out potential. Otherwise, having a one stop shop would be a good idea, such as having a national repository where anyone can access resources at any time in their career.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Speak out about the issues you’re facing, and be confident about it. People sometimes don’t realise that they’ve said something problematic, so point it out in a professional and measured way. If you don’t want to challenge it openly, speak to someone who can help you. You have to build up resilience – I have built my own from the ground up since being in the academic world.
Any last words of advice?
Tackle sexism and gender bias– we can all be agents of change, so use your position to try and do something about it. It is not only about you, it is also about other women and paving the way for their future to success as female entrepreneurship.