Ireland has grown over 500 hundred small companies run by women owners and managers through a simple but effective peer mentoring scheme. Female entrepreneurs participate in monthly roundtable sessions led by some of Ireland’s most successful businesswomen. Last years’ participants had remarkable combined sales growth of 28% in six months. The idea is to expand women’s aspirations for their businesses, generate solidarity, and provide results-driven support from peers with proven success.
Results & Impact
Over 500 female entrepreneurs have participated so far. Last year, the combined growth in sales of participants’ businesses was 28% ($8.9 million) over the six-month cycle. The number of exporters also increased by 43% and employment in participants’ businesses rose by 17%. According to one study, in 2014, more than twice as many men as women started a business in Ireland. Men also had significantly higher growth aspirations for their new businesses and were more confident that they had the skills necessary to succeed.
Going for Growth, Enterprise Ireland, KPMG
The program consists of monthly three-hour collaborative roundtables for up to eight participants. These play a role similar to boards in larger companies, as through them participants are held accountable to agreed growth goals. They are run by successful and experienced businesswomen who volunteer to take on a group. The program takes place over six-month cycles, each of which starts with a forum for all attendees across the country to begin learning and networking. Upon successful completion, participants can join an alumni network through which they receive ongoing support.
Women and girls, entrepreneurs
Cost & Value
The program costs about $2,900 per participant and is funded by a public-private partnership of Enterprise Ireland and KPMG.
Running since 2008
One risk is the need for confidentiality: participants share sensitive information about their businesses with up to eight other people. A challenge for scaling the program would be finding enough successful businesswomen able and willing to volunteer time to lead groups. The Irish program currently has 14 leaders, allowing for approximately 80 participants. Another hurdle the program has had to overcome is how to provide adequate ongoing help for participants so that support does not drop off entirely after the initial intensive six months.
A small pilot replication took place in Finland in 2014.
Over the last decade, Ireland has been focusing on fostering female entrepreneurship – with striking results. A simple yet highly effective peer mentoring scheme, Going for Growth, has helped participants grow their combined sales by 28% – $8.9 million – in just six months.
Each cycle starts with a national forum for all attendees across the country to begin to learn and network. But the real heart of the program is the roundtable sessions. These monthly, three-hour groupings of aspiring and successful businesswomen are focused on business growth strategies and are very practical and results-driven. The groups of up to eight are run by Lead Entrepreneurs, high-profile women with successful businesses.
In 2014, more than twice as many men as women started a business in Ireland. Men also had significantly higher growth aspirations for their new businesses and were more confident that they had the skills necessary to succeed. These are some of the inequalities the program is aiming to tackle by building confidence, reducing isolation, and spreading the expertise of women with real success.
“Those around the table learn from each other, as well as from the leader – this really reduces psychological isolation, as they realise they are not alone in facing these challenges,” said Paula Fitzsimons, Director of Going for Growth.
The eight-member groups act in a similar way to boards in larger companies. They scrutinise other participants’ KPIs and goals and hold them accountable to agreed targets.
“The women become accountable to each other at the roundtables, which leads to great peer pressure. If you are working for yourself or in a small organisation, the CEO may not have a board or anyone they have to answer to. At the roundtables, the women have to set down their goals and milestones and report them back to the group, and this process alone means they often meet them. I frequently hear from participants that they have achieved more in the last six months than in the previous eighteen,” said Fitzsimons.
As well as impressive sales growth figures, the number of exporters in last year’s group also increased by 43%, and the number of employees in participants’ businesses rose by 17%.
The roundtables are not theoretical or academic, but collaborations centred on real life experience. This does entail some confidentiality risks, as participants share sensitive information about their businesses with up to eight other people. Yet, Fitzsimons told us that there have been no problems with confidentiality so far, and attributes this to the strong collaborative spirit engendered by the program structure.
Women that have been trading for at least two years and are owner-managers and major shareholders of their businesses can apply to participate. But there are now also two roundtables reserved for the most ambitious entrepreneurs at an earlier stage.
The Lead Entrepreneurs come from a wide variety of sectors are all well-known within the Irish business community. They participate voluntarily, which allows the program to keep its costs to around $2,900 per participant. Today, there are 14 leaders, allowing for approximately 80 participants. But finding enough high-profile women willing to give up their time for free could pose challenges for scaling this up substantially or replicating it elsewhere. So far, a pilot program took place in Finland, but it was not taken any further.
Another challenge the program has had to tackle has been how to provide adequate ongoing help for participants so that support does not drop off entirely after the initial, intensive six months. Now, women who have completed a cycle successfully have the opportunity to join an alumni community for a small charge. They can attend further roundtables, topic-based workshops, networking events, and the annual national forum.
The scheme was first piloted in 2007/2008 and has since been growing year on year, with over 500 women entrepreneurs having participated so far. “For the last, ninth cycle we had over 800 applicants for 64 places,” said Fitzsimons.
Funding comes from a public-private partnership of Enterprise Ireland, the government organisation responsible for the development and growth of Irish enterprises in world markets, and KPMG, who have a focus on Gender Diversity within their Corporate Social Responsibility strategy. Enterprise Ireland partners with entrepreneurs, Irish businesses, and research and investment communities to develop Ireland’s international trade, innovation, leadership and competitiveness. In 2012, it developed a comprehensive Female Entrepreneurship Strategy which encourages women-led enterprises with growth potential and provides funding for several specific female-only initiatives.
(Picture credit: Pexels)