What it’s really like to woman running a fast-growth business


Chey Garland is a woman. But in a business context she’s not.

It’s a simple distinction. Garland doesn’t want to be saddled with her gender at every turn. There’s no denying what she is of course. And she’s perfectly comfortable with it. And why not. It’s part in her massive success in building Garlands Call Centres to one of the largest companies in her sector was notional at best and to her mind largely irrelevant.

A runner up in the Veuve Cliquot Business Woman of the Year Award and national winner of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in the business services category last year, Garland is unlikely to hit any gender blocks now, given her standing. The company has a staff of 1,800 and was recently named the 21st fastest growing company in the UK.

For Garland, her age early on was more likely to be on the agenda of clients, suppliers and banks. Now 46, she started up her first company at 23 and was aware that gaining credibility in debt collections, where she cut her teeth, would be tough. She even feels being a woman opened the odd door. “When I started I was a novelty and being young too probably worked for me,” she says.

Her experiences have been good. She dismisses, as one of those things, the time she went into a car showroom with a boyfriend at 29 to buy her first Mercedes and found the salesman addressing him. Not shy, she put the guy straight and said “I’ll be driving it and bloody paying for it”. It obviously left a mark, and she’s smart enough to know that society has been skewed towards men. But her attitude is that gender only becomes an issue if she makes it one. She reasons that her life as a female entrepreneur is far easier than on the greasy corporate pole which women still struggle to scale. “You’re in control of your own destiny as an entrepreneur,” she concludes.

HER BALLSY VIEW’S RARE, RIGHT?

Nope. Garland’s stance on gender is not unusual. Being an owner-manager in your own right, and discarding your gender, is something many women entrepreneurs are keen to do. “I don’t think of myself as female,” confirms Lynn Cosgrave, founder of DJ management outfit TrusttheDJ.

These women barter that a gender distinction for a male counterpart is unnecessary, nay redundant, so why do they need to think in those terms. Men are entrepreneurs, pure and simple. Thea Callan too backs this up and says gender hasn’t been an issue for her. She started nail beauty emporium chain Nails Inc. in 1999 and is outspoken about not letting her sex weaken her position. “If something gender specific broke you then you shouldn’t be running a business. You won’t last til the weekend,” she opines. Chantelle Ludski, responsible for organic café chain Fresh, chimes in that “at the risk of sounding self-righteous, we create our own barriers and limitations”. Strong stuff.

NO TIME FOR EXCUSES

For the majority, playing any kind of ‘gender card’ is no longer valid. Looking for it and raising it as an issue paints you as a victim and there’s been enough of that, agree Ludski and Dawn Dixon of commercial law firm Webster Dixon, among others. Dixon though does admit that part of it is about not letting the battles get to you. She puts the blinkers on and says “I’m only interested in winning the war”.

And Mandy Haberman, who made her name as the inventor of non-spill children’s beakers which now make a £10m turnover for her licensor a year, found it a slight irritation when she was asked to speak about the problems of being a female inventor. “This gender thing is a little bit of a red herring,” she begins. “The problems are the same for everybody.”

Another keen to state her view was Marcelle Speller, founder of seven-year-old Holidayrentals.com. She says focusing on barriers will only create difficulties for women who play up to it. “Playing that card gives a bad impression, makes discrimination more entrenched and is counter-productive.” So discrimination is still there in some form. But by acting as if it isn’t you can get where you want, as the system itself has created a more level playing field even if the players themselves require further refinement, right?

BUT INEQUALITY IS INGRAINED

Val Singh of the Cranfield School of Management, who compiles the female FTSE index and is more focused on corporate women says : “Only 3% of executive directors are women. It’s a shocking figure and has hardly changed, even if the glass ceiling’s moved higher up.”

Dixon too is happy to acknowledge that the legal profession is still a difficult environment for a woman looking to achieve. She is the first black chair of the Association of Women Solicitors and admits that the City continues to be made up of white, middle-class, males who went to Oxbridge “so inevitably they use themselves as a yardstick”.

And the facts speak for themselves. Only 12-14% of businesses in the UK are majority female owned and only 30% of women owner-managers raise funds through banks and other external sources compared to 70% of male owners.

IT COULD BE DOWN TO EDUCATION?

Holidayrentals’ Speller is fairly unusual. She was among 35 women out of 270 on her MBA at INSEAD, one of the top five courses in Europe. She graduated in 1982, and claims the figures haven’t changed. In fact Cranfield’s Singh says the figure has stagnated at 20%, a slight improvement.

Speller imagines women just don’t aspire to going into business so don’t seek the grounding. For her, it was the best thing she ever did and a constant reference point. And that’s the experience of others too, including Ludski, who studied at the London Business School. One of the issues though is the money necessary to invest in business education. “Women are less willing to take the risk”, suggests Singh.

Glenda Stone of women’s network Aurora would nevertheless like more women to make the effort for the betterment of her members. “30% of women run small start-up businesses, yet the sectors they move into you can probably count on one hand and turnovers are a lot less. Financial and business education could be revved up to change this.”

Cosgrave of TrusttheDJ points out that her former business partner came out of Harvard, which certainly made a difference during the fundraising process. TrusttheDJ raised a total of £3.2m over two and a half years. However, Callan of Nails Inc. counters that while it might help you gain some credibility with the VCs it doesn’t matter in the real world of business, “as business doesn’t follow a text book”.

WOMEN DON’T GET FUNDED

Ok, at the level of bank loans, they do. Although that wasn’t always the case. There are plenty of horror stories if you go back a decade or so. “Women traditionally haven’t been as able to get funding, either for education or start-ups,” states Cranfield’s Val Singh. “But that’s not been the case so much recently and banks are more accepting.” Angela Mortimer was one who experienced banks before they sharpened up their act. Incredibly, but somewhat unsurprisingly, she was only able to get her hands on a loan in her husband’s name. Mortimer is the woman behind one of the UK’s most successful independent recruitment firms, which bears her name. Angela Mortimer Plc was set up in 1976 and numbers 150 consultants across four London bases, and offices in Birmingham, Manchester, Paris and Brussels.

And at the time of seeking a loan she was established in the world of work in her own right. The small recruitment outfit she’d been working for had been acquired by a bigger rival who she says laid down ‘stupid rules’ which alienatedher, the biggest fee earner, pushing her to set up alone. Yet without the signature of a man she’d have got nowhere fast.

Another with a worrying tale is Jacqueline De Baer. She left the sun-drenched beaches of the Balearic Islands, with her beach wear which caught the eye of Thomson Holidays. She moved into corporate wear and set up Jacqueline De Baer Ltd in 1984, which now rakes in £8m and supplies Stansted Express, Boots Opticians, Odeon, Saga and Telewest among many more. “I had the classic difficulties with banks. My mother had to guarantee a loan for me.” But surprisingly she didn’t detect sexism. “I just think many businesses are borne in a more haphazard way than banks would like.”

On a positive note Sarah Tremellen of bra company Bravissimo, found it “pretty easy” to get a loan. Dixon too says that a two and a half year trading record was enough to make getting her loan with business partner Michael Webster, smooth. And Speller of Holidayrentals.com believes that a banks reluctance to back ideas is widespread, irrespective of gender. One who still hears about discrimination is Stone of Aurora, who says: “A lot of women say they can’t get access to finance – banks won’t give them money and will ask about the husband’s income.”

But she claims it’s more likely a lot of women seek funding without the right proposition. “They don’t have good revenue models and haven’t done the sums.” She bases this on seeing piles of business plans.from the off however and sounded out potential investors, but didn’t manage to strike a deal and is only now expecting to secure £100,000 from a private investor having seen her business mature somewhat.

WOMEN CAN BE THEIR OWN WORST ENEMIES

For De Baer it did. She landed £600,000 from business angels, helped by her track record of 40% growth three years on the trot. “The world of business angels is probably easier than venture capital,” she concludes.

Funding in general is hard to get, says Nails Inc.’s Callan, and while she says she felt more aware of being female in front of VCs she doesn’t put a lack of success down to that. Cosgrave, however, contends that through the gruelling process you become aware that there is a stigma attached to being young as well as a woman. “It’s daunting going into a room full of suited older men. I do think people wonder if you’ll stick it out or have babies.”

This view does not ring true with Ludski. “I think that’s crap,” she responds. To her mind, if you don’t get the money or you find it too tough then the business plan wasn’t written properly, you didn’t sell it, or you didn’t answer the questions properly. “It’s down to the person. If you look at the successful people in the UK, they stand up and make a noise.” Stone agrees that some women let themselves down with their approach to VCs. “Ask a man what his business does and he’ll tell you in two words. Women will talk for six minutes and you still won’t get the elevator pitch,” she summarises.

Chey Garland thinks failure to gain funding early on is down to ambition or simply a contentment with slow growth, saying that women are less cavalier. Stone agrees, believing that many women see their business as a nest, whereas men are generally more aggressive from day one, get cash and focus on sales. “The majority of women don’t seek investment. They will stay small in their second bedroom,” she thinks. Julia Gash, the woman behind contemporary sex shop company Gash has been reluctant to go into debt and doesn’t believe she is in the minority. “Women hold themselves back, and I have through not borrowing. I’ve gone for it in the past year, but was reluctant to go into debt before.”

Inventor Haberman took another route when she started up in the early 1980s. She spent about a year fundraising, writing to more than 100 corporations about her situation and idea, from which she raised £20,000. This effort enabled her to pay for putting together a marketable prototype. Her approach is simple. “You’ve got to know about your product and enlighten them. If you feel you’re going cap in hand then you get the macho response,” she says. Vicky Reeves, who recently won a woman of achievement award for entrepreneurialism represents well that group of women who grow their businesses out of profit. She set up her IT consultancy business Chameleon Net on a laptop five years ago in her bedroom with funding from family and friends. She had expansion plans

SELF-BELIEF BUT NO CONFIDENCE

The consensus of women Growing Business spoke to was that women are not instilled with a sense of self-belief when it comes to building companies, although for many it comes through growth. Holidayrentals’ Speller, for example, says she finds herself apologising more than she should, although points out that tactically it can also work to get people to be honest with her.

For Cosgrave it also works to her advantage. “We’re probably more ballsy because we have that fear of failure. There’s an element of bucking the system.” This attitude emerged elsewhere in terms of stubbornness, bloody mindedness and obstinacy – words that most of the women used to describe themselves or peers.

Stone questioned whether women lack self-belief at all though and said it’s more that women will try to do everything where men will hire a PA or delegate. Multi-tasking, keeping plates spinning and juggling a number of things at once were other phrases that cropped up. She did confess however, that she thinks women take rejection more personally, so as a result are risk averse and will over-prepare to avoid such a scenario. Mortimer says she has seen a sea change in the confidence of women entering the workplace. Chantelle Ludski fits into that category and classes herself as a bolshy South African able to shrug off the UK’s cultural shackles. Women either become timid and feel insignificant next to male peacocks or you get complete bitches, notes Dixon. Julia Gash though hates such stereotypes. “The stereotype either patronises us or makes me out as a ball breaking cow who demands sex over the desk, when actually you’re being assertive. One man was quite indignant that I wouldn’t go back with him.” For her sexual confidence is something to be proud of, although any flirting is light and innocent. “Women are scared to be seen to be using it as it’s seen as manipulative. It gets degraded as a skill. But men utilise it in a masculine way,” she says.

Equally, the view that a woman is a pushover grates with Ludski, who quickly dispels any notion that she is a soft touch. Haberman too says that being a small woman has its advantages as she holds an element of surprise. She took a corporation that had ripped off her invention to the high courts and won. “I’m a lot tougher than I thought I was,” she says. Gash too had to toughen up. “As a woman you’re taught to put other people’s needs before you, but this is changing as a generation thing.” She came back after her previous business, which was 93% export based, collapsed with the Asian economy. Now she’s branching out into politics and with the rapid growth of Gash, determined not to let fear of debts set in. “If you’re less ambitious, you settle for less,” she decides. “I’m aiming for the stars.”

So it appears that like Chey Garland at the top women aren’t making their gender an issue. They go about it in different ways to get the ends that they want. But among the successful female entrepreneurs there’s a refusal to let anything impede where they and their companies are going.

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