In sharpening its priorities to help small and medium-sized businesses, the European Commission said it will create mentoring schemes for female entrepreneurs in at least 10 member countries to provide advice and support.
The idea has been floating around for more than a year and is expected to be modelled after the existing European Network of Female Entrepreneurship Ambassadors.
"A lot has been done by the Commission, but a lot still needs to be done if we want to get out of the crisis today," Antonio Tajani, EU commissioner for industry and entrepreneurship, said at a press conference on Wednesday (23 February).
Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are the economic engine of Europe. The Commission estimates that 99% of businesses in Europe have 250 or fewer employees.
Good data on women entrepreneurs are hard to find, but throughout Europe estimates peg the percentage of female business owners below 30%. In an effort to bring more women into the workforce, the Commission is looking at ways to tackle the financial and social challenges that hinder some women from running their own businesses.
Businesswomen hail programme's success…
The Commission's main initiative to support female start-ups is the European Network to Promote Women's Entrepreneurship, known as WES. The delegates in the network come from 31 countries – EU members, plus Croatia, Iceland, Norway and Turkey – and represent national governments and institutions responsible for promoting female entrepreneurship.
The project aims "to raise the visibility of existing women entrepreneurs and to create a climate that is favourable to increasing the number of women entrepreneurs". It was initiated by Sweden in 2000, but the last annual report about its activities on the Commission's website is from 2008 and only 15 countries contributed to it.
The Commission's second most prominent programme is the European Network of Female Entrepreneurship Ambassadors, which was started under the Swedish EU Presidency in late 2009. The original group of 10 countries selected a total of 150 female entrepreneurs to network across borders, share experiences and best practices and spread the word through lectures in their home countries.
All participants seem to agree that the programme has been a success in terms of putting the spotlight on women entrepreneurs and encouraging others to follow in their footsteps.
"It's quite an honour to be considered credible enough to address groups of women," said Liz Cassidy, founder of Irish Time Design and one of Ireland's EU ambassadors. "One of the highlights was a trip to Brussels to attend a conference geared toward women entrepreneurs, reconciling private and professional lives. It was great to meet other women and share experiences."
…and point to remaining weaknesses
But the programme has had its weaknesses too.
The member states had to match the Commission's funding, which was about €50,000 per country but varied depending on the scope of the project. That covered basic travel expenses for the Irish ambassadors, for example, who paid for their own meals and other expenses during the programme.
Limited financial incentives were one reason only 10 countries originally applied, said Petra Püchner, managing director of the Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum in Germany, which runs the country's ambassador programme.
"Of course we encourage the EU to continue with this programme. And of course we requested better financing for the project so that we can really do something," Püchner said. "We can always do more."
The EU scheme was extended to 12 other countries in December, but the Commission's claim that the network now includes 250 women ambassadors will be short lived because the first round of programmes is ending this year.
And there has been little EU coordination to unite the two groups, said Marian Mikheil, who runs Sweden's EU ambassador programme.
"Our main challenge in the project is that there's no platform online that's easy and accessible to help the EU ambassadors across borders to achieve the desired networking effect. That's raised a lot of complaints, especially from my ambassadors," Mikheil said.
"It has been unclear how female ambassadors from different countries could collaborate," she continued. "I understand that many countries have been busy creating their national networks, but for us in Sweden, where we already have a network in place, there were too few opportunities for our ambassadors to interact with others across Europe."
Asked about an online platform, Charlotte Arwidi, a spokeswoman for Commissioner Tajani, said "there are currently no plans regarding a platform, but we are open to ideas".
The Commission's website has not been updated since the end of the year to include details of the new countries starting ambassador programmes. On 17 February, Cory Cook, a London-based professional organiser, emailed a request for contact information for the UK coordinator via the Commission's contact link. She is still waiting for a reply.
Arwidi said "the names of the new ambassadors will be uploaded as soon as we get them". Some of the new countries are still in the selection process.
"In the coming months, all the new names should be on the web. Other parts will also be updated in the coming month," she said.
That hopefully will include the Commission's Women Entrepreneurship Portal, which lists networking events around Europe that took place between 2004 and 2007 and nothing since, Püchner revealed.
"There used to be more momentum in it compared to now," Püchner said.
Nevertheless, the Commission's new scheme for mentoring should be a hit with female business owners across Europe.
"We did survey of would-be entrepreneurs, what were the barriers to entry, and most prominently we found the lack of mentoring training. They had the ideas, but they didn't have wherewithal to move it to the next step," said Carol Brady, project manager for the Galway Chamber of Commerce, which runs Ireland's EU ambassador programme.