Embracing diversity: how companies are championing founders in 2023

Are you an underrepresented founder? This year may finally be your time to shine -- as business awards become more accessible than ever before.

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In the vibrant entrepreneurial landscape of the UK, underrepresented business founders often face significant financial hurdles that hinder their growth and limit their access to opportunities. 

The absence of sufficient funds can create immense pressure, preventing talented individuals from realising their full potential and impeding the inclusive growth of the UK’s business ecosystem. 

The Empower 100 aims to address these disparities by offering tailored support and eliminating financial barriers. It’s a subject close to our own hearts, as The Startups 100 will be also embracing inclusivity more than ever by actively seeking out a diverse range of entrepreneurs to apply for our 2024 index.

Introducing the Empower 100 by Virgin StartUp

Virgin StartUp, a non-profit incubator for UK business founders, has introduced the Empower 100 as a fully-funded accelerator program aimed at under-represented business owners located in Greater London.

Empower 100 is an exciting, fully-funded program designed to support under-represented business founders in London. This initiative will provide assistance to 100 founders between August 3, 2023 and December 2024.

Thanks to funding from the Greater London Authority through the UK’s Shared Prosperity Fund, Empower 100 will help 100 female, ethnic minority, and disabled founders from the capital city. The program, which spans two months, will run until the end of 2024 – maximising participants’ opportunities for business scaling and successful financing.

Applications for the first cohort are now open and will commence on Thursday, August 3, 2023. To be eligible, founders must:

  • Have an annual turnover of at least £50,000
  • Employ two or more individuals, and 
  • Have been operating for a minimum of 18 months.

Linda Grant, Chair at Virgin StartUp, emphasises the program’s purpose: to address systemic inequalities and biases that hinder under-represented founders of early-stage businesses. Empower 100 aims to foster a vibrant and diverse start-up community, providing all founders with the knowledge, connections, and confidence needed to achieve their full growth potential.

Grant adds, “We are proud to run Empower 100 in conjunction with Virgin StartUp’s existing 50/50 pledge to equally fund women and men business founders. Our long-term ambition is to expand Empower 100 to other regions across the UK.”

Virgin’s Business Support Partner role continues

Virgin StartUp has extended its role as a Business Support Partner for the British Business Bank’s Start Up Loan scheme. Over the next two years, they will distribute £36 million in funding to early-stage business founders.

Each of the 100 founders accepted into the Empower 100 program will receive up to 42 hours of expert support, delivered through group workshops and one-on-one sessions. These sessions will equip founders with key skills and advice in three core areas: 

Additionally, each founder will have a weekly meeting with a different expert to address specific problem areas in their business, such as sustainability, purpose, brand building, sales and marketing, leadership, finance, and investment.

Upon completion of the program, participants will become part of a facilitated peer-to-peer support group for six months. This platform will allow them to share insights and experiences on their fundraising and business growth journeys. 

During this period, all 100 founders will have free access to Virgin StartUp’s community support platform, providing additional resources, live webinars, and a business advice helpline.

Every six months, Virgin StartUp will select businesses from Empower 100 to participate in a pitch demo day. This unique opportunity allows founders to practise their pitches in front of investors, receive feedback, and observe other entrepreneurs. Such exposure is a rare and valuable experience for business founders.

Virgin StartUp has a track record of supporting business founders in scaling their ventures. 

Over the past decade, they have successfully implemented growth programs and investment readiness accelerators, including “StepUp” funded by the European Regional Development Fund – and Collective Impact, an accelerator for socially-driven impact businesses that has helped early-stage founders raise over £20 million in funds.

What’s in a (top 100) list? The Empower 100, Startups 100 and beyond

The financial strain experienced by underrepresented founders arises from various factors. 

Deep-rooted systemic inequalities, biases, and a lack of diverse networks have historically disadvantaged women, ethnic minorities, and disabled entrepreneurs. 

These individuals encounter difficulties in securing the necessary capital to scale their businesses, perpetuating a cycle of limited growth opportunities and reduced access to resources. 

Without adequate funding, underrepresented founders struggle to develop robust growth strategies, enhance their leadership skills, and become investment-ready, further widening the financial gap.

Highlighting these indexes, awards and lists is one crucial step in emboldening historically under-appreciated business founders and giving them their time in the spotlight. 

Both the Empower 100 and our own Startups 100 present opportunities for underrepresented founders. For example, let’s take a look at how both awards have different eligibility requirements and how each might work to your advantage.


To apply for Empower 100, you must:

  • Be a founder from Greater London
  • Have an annual turnover of at least £50,000
  • Employ two or more individuals, and 
  • Have been operating for a minimum of 18 months.

To apply for the Startups 100, you must:

  • Be a founder from the UK
  • Have a business that was founded after January 2018
  • Be prepared to talk us through any of the following factors:
    • 💰 Finance (how much funding have you raised and through what method?)
    • 🏆 External validation (any significant achievements eg. notable partners or clients?)
    • 📏 Size of opportunity (what ambitions do you have in terms of scale-up?)
    • 💪 Strength of concept (is your idea unique?)
    • 💡 Innovation (how is your idea disrupting the market?)
  • We also have the following specialised award categories:
    • 🤗 Social Impact: for startups putting purpose ahead of profit
    • 🌿 Sustainability: for startups prioritising the environment in their mission
    • 👑 Exceptional founder: for the entrepreneur who has turned their own personal struggles or challenges into a force for good.

Read our expert guide for more helpful advice on 5 top tips to boost your Startups 100 entry

Applications for both the Empower 100 and Startups 100 are open now.

The impact

Lola Cawood was one business owner who was fortunate enough to have been eligible for both experiences. She completed the Empower 100 in 2022 as co-founder of Tiwani Heritage, then also became a Startups 100 alumni in 2023. She notes: 

“The program[s] enhanced my understanding of business and the funding process through interactions with experts and successful brands that have gone through similar journeys. I entered, unsure of what to expect but emerged feeling more confident, equipped, and ready to scale my business. The entire learning experience is priceless!”

Eleanor Howie, founder of Valiant Lingerie expresses her gratitude for the Empower 100 too, stating: 

“Collective Impact surpassed my expectations. Not only did I benefit from informative sessions with experts, but building relationships with other entrepreneurs has been a complete game-changer.”

Startups 100: Tiwani Heritage

Tiwani Heritage is revolutionising the world of synthetic hair extensions, by only stocking products which are made, packaged, shipped, and disposed of using eco-friendly methods. Shortlisted for the Kitchen Table Award by The Startups 100 index in 2023.

Find out more about how their sustainable hair extensions


What we’ve all recently learnt as a collective – from the issues with the gender funding gap not having improved in a decade, to the ‘ego gap’ that keeps women under their own psychological glass ceilings – is that investors and business awards should look to judge businesses on their merits alone. 

A founder’s ethnicity, gender or social status is irrelevant to how good a business has the potential to be. 

And so the most important thing that needs to be tackled, and where the gap truly needs to be closed – is in aiming to rid underrepresented founders of impostor syndrome and reminding them that they are deserving.

In this new era of recognition that values and includes everyone, the surge in diverse business awards and accessible top 100 lists is an encouraging sign. 

Not only does it foster a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem, but it also has the potential to significantly bolster our UK economy as a whole.

Written by:
Stephanie Lennox is the resident funding & finance expert at Startups: A successful startup founder in her own right, 2x bestselling author and business strategist, she covers everything from business grants and loans to venture capital and angel investing. With over 14 years of hands-on experience in the startup industry, Stephanie is passionate about how business owners can not only survive but thrive in the face of turbulent financial times and economic crises. With a background in media, publishing, finance and sales psychology, and an education at Oxford University, Stephanie has been featured on all things 'entrepreneur' in such prominent media outlets as The Bookseller, The Guardian, TimeOut, The Southbank Centre and ITV News, as well as several other national publications.

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