The European Network of Female Entrepreneurship Ambassadors was launched in Stockholm yesterday (5 October), with the aim of “bridging the gender gap” and increasing the number of women starting businesses in Europe.
Launched by the European Commission, the EU network is based on similar groups in various countries including Sweden, where the government has already appointed 880 ambassadors to provide encouragement to others and relate their unique stories of building up their own companies.
At the launch event, two female entrepreneurs told their “success stories” and outlined why they believe starting up a business can be an empowering and rewarding career choice for women.
UK entrepreneur Nadine Hill, who runs The Dream PA company which provides 24-hour “virtual business receptionist services,” praised the ambassador initiative, arguing that it will help to “create a culture of enterprise” where young women understand that setting up your own business is a career choice where you can “really make things happen”.
Likewise, Kicki Theander, a Swedish woman who in 2007 set up Middagsfrid, a company that has enjoyed rapid success delivering the ingredients and recipes for healthy home-cooked meals, told the assembled ambassadors that “female entrepreneurship has made a big difference in Sweden,” and that women who set up their own businesses often achieve greater professional satisfaction as well as a better work-life balance.
Indeed, Sweden’s equality policies are among the EU’s most aggressively progressive. The Nordic country has set the ambitious target of 40% of all business start-ups in 2010 being set up by female entrepreneurs, according to Jöran Hägglund, state secretary at the Swedish Enterprise Ministry.
Transposing such ambitious targets to the European level may prove more difficult, however. European Commission SME official Francoise Le Bail explained that because of the huge differences between EU member states, achieving common standards and goals is very difficult.
She did note, nevertheless, that certain difficulties and recurring problems persist across borders. For example, Le Bail explained that women are far more likely to ask their friends or family for an initial business investment, and are far more reluctant to seek loans from banks. “We need to change this,” she said.
Swedish professor Carin Holmquist of the Stockholm School of Economics went a step further, arguing that promoting female entrepreneurship will only succeed as part of a broad, holistic approach towards gender equality. One Scandinavian study shows that women’s on-average lower pay in all sectors is the single biggest factor preventing more women from starting their own businesses.
As a result, said Holmquist, women cannot accumulate the capital required to start their own businesses as quickly as men. But the Swedish professor was also resoundingly hopeful about the prospects for bridging the “gender gap,” claiming that “if you consider the many hindrances facing women, it’s quite remarkable how many female entrepreneurs there actually are starting businesses”.
Swedish Vice-Premier and Enterprise Minister Maud Olofsson also adopted a positive attitude, challenging the EU to match the equality goals of the Swedish government. “We are confident that our ambitions will be mirrored in future SME-related policies at EU level,” she said.
European Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs Vladimír Špidla indicated that such ambitions were at the heart of EU equality policy, observing that currently, only 30% of EU entrepreneurs are women, a situation which “must change if we are to compete successfully on the global market”.
Specifically, he noted that that the current proposal for a directive on equality in self-employed activities was part of the EU’s desire to “make change happen”.
“Female entrepreneurship is important for the prosperity of our society,” he concluded.