Revealed: How women started their own businesses during the pandemic – and found happiness

·7-min read
Women Mean Business
Women Mean Business

For many entrepreneurs, doing business in the time of coronavirus has been undeniably tough. Unless your line of work happened to be selling face masks or inventing Zoom, the challenges have been significant.

Evidence suggests that for women, it’s been particularly gruelling.

By July 2020, the International Monetary Fund was warning that the crisis threatened to roll back gains in women’s economic opportunities despite 30 years of progress. Then, last October, a report by the Female Founders Forum revealed female-led equity-backed businesses in the UK had been disproportionately impacted throughout the pandemic.

There were various reasons: women often had to take on greater childcare responsibilities or other unpaid work burdens during lockdown; they were more likely to run businesses in worse affected sectors, such as hospitality and retail; and in the lead-up to the pandemic, an equity funding gap had persisted – with women-led start-ups being allocated around one per cent of all funding given annually to new businesses.

Now, new research by YouGov, commissioned by The Telegraph and NatWest, paints a far more positive picture: one of female entrepreneurial resilience and a wave of new innovation.

The survey of more than 100 women sole traders who started a business during the pandemic, tells a tale of those who have seized opportunities presented by the crisis and turned potential disaster into success.

At a time when the world of work has been turned on its head, and many have been reassessing their priorities, the poll found the vast majority (80 per cent) of women who started their own businesses during the pandemic felt happier than they were beforehand, with 77 per cent feeling confident about their chances of success in the coming year.

Almost 80 per cent said the move left them freer to make their own decisions and enjoy a more flexible work-life balance. And while almost a third of those surveyed set up their own business after losing their jobs, and 12 per cent after being put on furlough, almost half (44 per cent) said they had made an active decision to pursue a different path for their career.

More than half (57 per cent) felt that setting up their own business had enabled them to better make use of their skills and experience. The majority (54 per cent) also felt it had enabled them to challenge themselves, and saw this as an advantage.

The exclusive research is published ahead of The Telegraph’s annual Women Mean Business conference, taking place virtually this Wednesday and designed to help women supercharge their careers and get back on their feet after a year of lockdowns. The Telegraph launched the Women Mean Business campaign in March 2018, with an open letter from 200 female founders and leaders calling on the Government to act to close the funding gap that is a barrier to women from starting their own business.

It prompted the Government to commission an independent review into the challenges facing women starting and growing their own enterprises, led by Alison Rose, now chief executive of NatWest Group. Rose estimated in 2019 that up to £250 billion of new value could be added to the UK economy if women started and scaled businesses at the same rate as men.

Fast forward to October 2021, when the economy remains 0.8 per cent below its pre-pandemic size, and the contribution of Britain’s female entrepreneurs – and the removal of obstacles that stand in their way – feels as crucial as ever.

Jane Tarrant and Bryony Toogood are among those women who have launched their own business since the pandemic started. After meeting as magazine fashion editors in the 1990s, they had been friends ever since. But they became business partners in July 2020, when they launched the Teeny Tiny Emporium, selling vintage furniture through Instagram. Based near Richmond in south west London, they used their own money to buy stock. Now, they have buyers all over the country, have received overseas inquiries and fulfilled commissions for boutique hotels.

“It has completely exceeded our expectations,” says Tarrant, previously a freelance writer. “We were so taken aback by its success, we had never even discussed what would happen if things took off really quickly, as they did. But we have somehow managed to navigate our way through the pandemic amazingly well.

“With people at home, they have been spending more money on making their houses look nice and less money on clothes, and we’ve been among the beneficiaries.”

Vicky Silverthorn seized the opportunity provided by the pandemic to launch her own new business, using personal savings. While her existing job – running her own professional home organising business – was inevitably on hold during lockdown, she “kept reading that female entrepreneurs were going to come into their own.”

She says: “At first I thought, ‘Give us a break.’ Then I took up the challenge.” With her business partner Kay Ali, she launched an antibacterial agent called Labology 3 Super Antibacterial Sanitiser Spray, made from hypochlorous acid – a sanitising water spray gentle enough to use on children and sensitive skin.

“I put the word out about our new product among my existing contacts and asked: ‘If I send you this, will you share the love?’” says Silverthorn, who now juggles her new business with her day job and parenting her toddler. “They said yes. In the first three weeks sales hit the roof.”

But the exclusive research also shows that launching a new business still has its difficulties for women. More than half surveyed (51 per cent) said they found it difficult to obtain the finance they needed to get off the ground. This is reflected in the fact that the vast majority (72 per cent) used their own savings to start their business. Anxiety about finances was considered to be the main disadvantage of running your own business, cited by 61 per cent.

Almost a third (31 per cent) felt their experience as a woman starting a business during the pandemic was harder than that of a man doing the same. Half of these women cited their caring responsibilities, which they felt were more onerous than men’s. Some 41 per cent said they had less of a network to draw on than a man would.

But the same proportion of female entrepreneurs were happy they could choose the people they wanted to work with, and a third agreed that one advantage of running their own business was earning more money.

Commenting on the new findings, Rose says: “It’s hugely encouraging to see female entrepreneurs starting their own businesses even in challenging economic times, and feeling confident of success. But we know that launching a new enterprise during the pandemic had its challenges and that as we look ahead and rebuild from Covid, hurdles will remain.

“Evidence from the last 18 months makes clear that women have suffered a disproportionate economic hit, which is why after deploying our initial £1 billion of Female Entrepreneurship Funding four years ahead of schedule, it was a priority at NatWest to launch the second tranche of £1 billion to extend our support to female entrepreneurs and business owners.

“There is always more to do and we cannot allow barriers to be a setback for the talent and entrepreneurs that are contributing to the recovery and innovation of the UK and global economy.”

Women Mean Business Live is taking place on October 20 2021, as a virtual event. It will bring together business leaders and entrepreneurs for a day of action, debate and networking to overcome the barriers that all too often prevent female-led businesses and professionals within the workplace from reaching their full potential. Speakers will include NatWest CEO Alison Rose, Kate Bingham, Anya Hindmarch, Julia Gillard and Bianca Miller-Cole as well as the Telegraph’s Lisa Armstrong and Camilla Tominey.

For more details and to buy tickets click here

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