Sahar Hashemi: “People feel that women don’t make great entrepreneurs”

Sahar Hashemi chats to us about the £200bn problem of the gender entrepreneurial gap - and her new campaign which plans to put it straight.

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Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young
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How many female founders can you name? Two? Three?

Don’t feel ashamed if the number isn’t high. Historically, poor visibility has made it much harder for the general public to identify a successful businesswoman than a man. In fact, 80% of 11–18-year-olds are unable to name a single female entrepreneur.

One name you probably will know is Sahar Hashemi. In 1995, Hashemi co-founded Coffee Republic with her brother Bobby, bringing an espresso-powered coffee bar empire to the UK three years before Starbucks.

From this venture came a hugely successful business career which Hashemi has repeatedly used to help other startups to scale. Now, she’s switching her efforts to fight the gender entrepreneurial gap with the new consumer campaign, Buy Women Built.

Alongside co-founder Barny Macaulay, Hashemi aims to use the campaign to showcase the many incredible women-built brands in the UK, making it easier for consumers to direct their buying power towards female founders.

We speak to Hashemi about the motivation behind the campaign, the importance of visibility when it comes to scaling, and why the UK should feel optimistic about the future of women-built businesses.

Moving the dial

Women are under-represented in entrepreneurship. According to the Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship, published in 2019, only 5.6% of UK women run their own business. That’s compared to 11.2% of men.

The UK is particularly guilty. Earlier this year, Startups carried out research into just how poorly we perform as a country. We discovered that male-owned businesses in the UK get seven times more funding than those owned by women. Does this figure shock Hashemi?

“Absolutely,” she nods. “I can’t believe it in this day and age – it just shows you how much we need to change”.

Hashemi clarifies that the gap is not based on reality, but rather, “it’s about perception. People feel that women don’t make great entrepreneurs.”

There is a long list of factors that critics typically point to when explaining bias against women founders. Women tend to have more caregiver responsibilities and fewer savings. Some will be limited simply due to chauvinism.

Hashemi tells Startups she has never experienced these issues as a female founder. She submits another explanation for the divide: poor self-belief.

“Confidence is a huge issue”, she says. “If you feel the statistics are against you, no one will ever try.”

27 years ago, when Hashemi started Coffee Republic, she was aware that people would get to see a woman behind the international brand. It’s a perspective she hoped would dismantle the supposition that women are not suited for business.

“If you show how many people who’ve actually made it against the odds, who have gotten themselves on the shelves of a multiple supermarket, that’s how we encourage more [female entrepreneurs],” Hashemi contends. “When I buy a woman-built brand it makes me feel stronger.”

Buy Women Built

It was early on in her career, when Hashemi first met other successful female founders like Jo Malone at trade shows, that she began to see the importance of a business community for boosting women-built brands.

“Men have their golf clubs,” she remarks, “but no-one had created that kind of forum for women.”

Confidence is a huge issue. If you feel the statistics are against you, no one will ever try.

Then, during lockdown, Hashemi saw a tweet from Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, president of techUK. It read: Not all of us can invest in women. Not all of us can mentor women, but we could all buy from them.

For Hashemi, it was the spark that ignited a lightbulb moment. Off the back of the #MeToo movement, and the emerging Gen Z market (“they’re so passionate about girl power”) she realised today’s buyers wanted to support women-only businesses. They just lacked a way to find them.

Hashemi immediately contacted Macauley and asked if he would be interested in starting a new consumer movement to encourage shoppers to purchase women-built brands.

“I wanted to move the dial by showing how much is already being accomplished,” Hashemi recalls. “We’ve got so many [women-built businesses] yet they are hidden in the rubble.”

Buy Women Built preview

A preview of the Buy Women Built soon-to-be-launched website

Buy Women Built is the outcome of this early conversation. It works in a similar fashion to the Fairtrade logo. Retailers signed up to the campaign will receive a kitemark to put on their products, helping buyers to vote for women business owners with their wallets.

They’ll also be featured on a soon-to-be launched website, to raise awareness on why, where and how to buy products from women-owned brands.

When I buy a woman-built brand it makes me feel stronger.

“Once you’ve got a campaign that says, ‘well, look at all these brands that are women-built’, it removes some of the barriers for the founder,” Hashemi declares. “That’s why Barny and I are so excited by it.”

In Hashemi’s eyes, changing that narrative will help to pave the way for new business owners, encouraging more women to start a business and providing inspiration for those who are considering it.

“I think of a little nine-year-old girl who perhaps hasn’t got a family that motivates her or doesn’t have self-belief”, reveals Hashemi. “Maybe, in her head, she’ll think ‘if she did it, I can do it too’. It creates that change.”

The gender profit gap

To some, it might seem odd that a campaign to bolster women in business has been co-founded by a male.

More women than ever now sit on UK boards at FTSE 100 level, with nearly 40% of positions held by women in 2022, compared with 12.5% 10 years ago. So why did Hashemi go to Macaulay, a man, to get Buy Women Built off the ground?

“People are always surprised that Barny is involved,” Hashemi accepts. “But he says, ‘[supporting female founders] is actually for men as well.’ It’s a win-win for everybody.”

Like a true entrepreneur, to emphasise the benefits that gender equality can bring to both men and women, Hashemi gives Startups her business case:

If as many women started a business as men, she relates, it would contribute an additional £200bn to the economy. That’s enough to cover the government’s Energy Bill Relief Scheme four times over.

“Women are our untapped engine of recovery,” Hashemi stresses. “Only 1 in 3 UK entrepreneurs are female, equivalent to 1.1m missing businesses. That problem is costing us £200bn at a time where we need that money more than ever.”

Unfortunately, many investors are yet to get this memo. There’s an oft-touted statistic on the gender entrepreneur gap that tends to crop up in almost every article about the subject. In 2021, female founders secured only 2% of venture capital in the US – a drop of 0.3% compared to 2020.

Women are our untapped engine of recovery

Certainly, it’s a shocking number, and one which Hashemi acknowledges must be given a certain amount of attention. But as she sees it, the business world has gotten “fixated” on this figure – affecting already low confidence levels for women business owners.

“Focusing on [the 2% figure] doesn’t do anything to encourage entrepreneurship”, she says firmly. “If we just keep banging on about that number it’s not going to help aspiring entrepreneurs.

“That’s why I wrote my first book [called] Anyone Can Do It. I believe if you’ve got a business idea in your head, you’ve got to start it.”

Purchasing power

As an alternative to venture capital Hashemi offers up bootstrapping, or self-funding. Bootstrapped startups give entrepreneurs full ownership of their business because no percentage stake is handed over to investors. This forces business owners to create a model that really works. Or, as Hashemi puts it, “scarcity breeds clarity.”

“The fewer resources you have, the more resourceful you get,” she elaborates. “Lots of [startups] fail because they’ve raised too much funding and they lose touch with the real essence of their business.”

Of course, startups still need to scale. How can women-built brands grow without investor buy-in?

Hashemi’s answer is simple: find your customers. “Everyone’s obsessed with finance,” she says. “Customers are where sustainable growth really comes from.”

Of the 200 brands that will platform on the Buy Women Built website, Hashemi tells Startups that 98% started from a personal need. As she sees it, this means they are already naturally servicing a new consumer demand.

“There’s huge value in [pleasing the customer],” Hashemi explains. “The power of getting the consumer economy behind women-built businesses is absolutely enormous.

“That’s the small way we can all make a difference in our weekly shop. By thinking a tiny bit before we buy [about] who needs our help most at the moment.”

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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