In 2016, there were 163 million women worldwide either starting or running new businesses. Since then, female entrepreneurialism has continued to follow an upward trend, with the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor reporting a 6% increase in the ratio of female to male entrepreneurs last year.
With more women venturing into the business space, we asked two successful female entrepreneurs to discuss their career stories, the challenges they’ve faced and their top tips to achieving entrepreneurial success.
1. Break the mould
Entering the world of business was not something sports physician and emergency medicine consultant, Dr Abosede "GB" Ajayi, had initially planned for her career: “I always knew that I wanted to be a doctor, but I didn’t necessarily want to follow the linear route that is typical of a medical career.”
In 2012, GB took the plunge, combining her medical expertise and deep love of sport to co-found A2Z Elite Health & Performance, a medical clinic which provides physiotherapy, massage, rehab and performance services to cross fit trainers, runners and athletes.
“The traditional view is that your career should follow just one path, but, if you’ve got the passion and the motivation, there’s no reason why you can’t pursue a variety of experiences,” says GB, who also runs Sports Medicine International, a successful sports trauma consultancy.
Debra Ward agrees that there are no limits to the directions in which you can take your career. Starting with a hot dog stand at the age of sixteen, Debra’s serial entrepreneurialism has seen her start, lead and sell several businesses across three continents.Now managing director at Camm & Hooper, which specialises in delivering exceptional events in iconic London venues, Debra also believes that you don’t have to set up a new business venture to harness your entrepreneurial spirit: “For me, being an entrepreneur is about having ownership and impact and you don’t have to create your own businesses to achieve that. Nonetheless, if you don’t have the power or influence to make change in your role, then it’s time for you to make your next career move.”
2. Fight your fears
Nonetheless, both entrepreneurs admitted that it takes bravery to break boundaries and encouraged budding entrepreneurs to push beyond their comfort zone. “The fear of failure can be crippling, but it’s not a good enough reason to hold back,” encourages GB. Debra agrees, adding, “It’s about taking a calculated risk.”
GB advises that prospective entrepreneurs place less pressure on themselves to reach their end goal: “Working with athletes, I’ve seen first-hand that, even when you put absolutely everything into preparing for a race, the results won’t always match your effort. That’s why it’s so important to find reward in the process, not just the result. If you take this approach, you’ll always have a sense of satisfaction.”
3. Have perseverance as well as passion
It’s a cliché that loving what you do is the key to success, and while both entrepreneurs support this view, GB believes entrepreneurs require passion and perseverance in equal measure. “When you love what you do, work rarely feels like an imposition,” says GB, adding, “However, it can be easy to become too focused on your challenges, especially when you’re first starting out. Therefore, it’s critical that you keep in mind what it is you set out to do and keep pushing towards that goal.”
4. Learn on the job
“Typically, I think women feel that they need to know absolutely everything before taking on a challenge, but sometimes you have to dream far bigger than what you can plan for and be prepared to upgrade your skills along the way,” says GB.
Debra supports this view and encourages women to look for opportunities to build their skills and knowledge. Reflecting on her own experience, she shares: “I realised in my twenties that no one is going to come and show me everything I need to know, and there was nothing stopping me from teaching myself and asking for opportunities to learn.”
5. Seek out support
However, both GB and Debra acknowledge that few entrepreneurs can make it entirely on their own, and both advocated building support networks. “I think it’s important to not be afraid to ask for help,” says GB, “For example, I’m not an I.T guru, but I know someone who is, so I ask them to help me. It’s important to find a balance between developing your skills and knowing when it’s best to delegate so you can focus on what you need to grow your business.”
Debra also highlights the importance of placing trust in your team: “Much earlier in my career I found it hard to relinquish control, but not letting go significantly limits your ability to innovate. As leaders, we choose who we work with and therefore, once you’ve established what the goals are, you have to step aside and trust your people with the jobs you’ve given them.”
“Entrepreneurs should always be outward-looking. Even if you’re naturally introverted, seeking outside perspectives and asking for other peoples’ ideas and input is critical to future-proofing your business.”
6. Help others up
Having been inspired and supported by their own role models and mentors, Debra and GB are strong advocates of sharing success and expertise to help the next generation of women to push forward in their careers. “When you’ve made it to the top, you’ve got a responsibility to turn around and help the next person up,” says Debra, who mentors four women each year.
GB agrees, “As leaders, I think it’s important that we provide opportunities to give people at the earlier stages of their career a taste of what leadership is like. It’s difficult to aspire to something if you’re not sure what it really involves.”
In addition to mentoring, both entrepreneurs felt it was important to build workplace cultures that encourage and empower people to lead. “You don’t need to have a certain job title to be a leader,” says Debra. While GB adds, “Good leadership is never about having one leader,” she continues, “it’s about building on the strengths of your colleagues, empowering them to take the lead and to encourage those around them to do the same.”
7. Believe in what you can do
For both entrepreneurs, having self-belief was both the most important step and biggest challenge to achieving success.
But, how do you sabotage self-doubt? For GB, it’s important not to use others as the only measures of skill and success: “We tend to attach grandiose attributes to the people around us, when we should be holding up mirrors to ourselves to get a true sense of what our skills and abilities are.”
She continues, “Everyone suffers from imposter syndrome at some point. You’re not always going to feel comfortable, but it’s important to remember that doesn’t mean you’re unprepared or under-equipped.”
For Debra, seeking out challenging situations has helped her to build confidence. She reveals, “If I feel like the smartest person in the room, I go and find a different room. There’s no limits to what you can do if you’re prepared to keep taking on challenges and learning new things.”
“Ultimately, it’s always the things that you don’t do that you regret the most, so it’s always best to just jump in.”
Read more from our #BalanceForBetter series:
Navigating parental leave - 5 ways to get it right
Six success strategies from inspiring women leaders
Eight ways we can #BalanceForBetter in the workplace
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