Choose to challenge: bringing women entrepreneurs to the table

Holly Branson
Holly Branson's writing
Published on 8 March 2021

As we celebrate International Women’s Day in the midst of a global pandemic, it’s important to remember the impact of COVID-19 is not gender neutral.

The pandemic has disproportionately impacted women in many different areas, and entrepreneurship is sadly no exception. Over the past year, Virgin StartUp witnessed this first-hand – noting a decrease in applications from women and heightened barriers to investment.

The founders of Liha Beauty sitting on the floor and smiling
Liha Beauty

As things currently stand, for every 10 new businesses founded by men, there are currently fewer than five started by women. As part of Virgin StartUp’s pledge to fund an equal number of men and women business founders, the team has challenged themselves across all of their operations, with a very proactive approach to overcome these enhanced gendered obstacles. It’s so inspiring to see the team choosing to challenge the issue in such a thoughtful, appropriate and detailed way. It goes to show that progress comes from every level, and even the smallest changes can leave a huge impact.

From creating new partnerships with women-driven communities, to ensuring diversity is reflected across all of its content and communications – here are five new ways Virgin StartUp is challenging the status quo of entrepreneurship.

Holly Branson with Womens Entrepreneurs panel
David Watts

Business Advisors: The team is actively recruiting more women as Business Advisors, and is encouraging more women applicants by removing masculine-coded words in job descriptions. This process forced Virgin StartUp to think about the use of subtle bias in language, and understand the adverse impact it can have.

Showcasing the diversity of the Virgin StartUp community: The team is committed to featuring women founders in at least 50% of their content and communications. Although only one in five founders in the UK are women, Virgin StartUp want to showcase what they are aspiring to, instead of reinforcing the imbalanced norms that exist today. According to Andy Fishburn, CEO of Virgin StartUp: “This is particularly true at the scale up stage, where only 3% of venture funding goes to all women founded teams. For our Collective Impact programme, we featured four companies – three of which were founded by women and one that was co-founded by a sister and brother team.”

Strategic Partnerships: While Virgin StartUp doesn’t select or fund founders based on gender, it is proactively reaching out to communities driven by women and for women. By partnering with networks such as Investing Women and AccelerateHER, the team noted a higher number of applications from women in their Collective Impact programme. Indeed, eight of the 15 companies shortlisted have women founders!

Mentor Recruitment: Realising that 70% of its mentor community were men, Virgin StartUp is actively reaching out to more women role models to join its community; and to share their knowledge and experience. Ideally this will inspire others to do the same. The team has recently added the incredible Susie Ma (founder of Tropic Skincare), Tessa Clarke (founder of Olio), and Suzanne Noble (founder of Frugl, Nestful and a soon-to-be author). The team aim to have a 50/50 split between women and men mentors by the end of the year!

Online Course: It’s important to remember that women are the primary caretakers of children and elderly people in every country of the world. This means that greater flexibility is needed to support their ambitions and well-being. To address this, Virgin StartUp is designing an online course called ‘How to Build and Fund a Business’, that will allow people to participate anywhere and anytime that suits them. If we want to create more opportunities for women, flexibility should always be front of mind.

Eccie and Gini Newton, founders of Karma Cans
Karma Kans

While there is a long way to go when it comes to gender equality in entrepreneurship, it’s brilliant to see Virgin StartUp take on the challenge with such care and innovation. No matter what industry you’re working in or what level you’re working at, hopefully the points above empower you to make a difference.