Women entrepreneurs: Solving problems and supporting peers

30 Mar 2018

Helen Fullen, pre-accelerator leader, NDRC. Image: Shane O’Neill/SON Photographic

Helen Fullen of NDRC offers some solid advice for women entrepreneurs, and she has the data to back it up. She spoke with Dr Claire O’Connell.

What do women entrepreneurs need? A problem to solve and a solid network of supportive peers combine to make a good start, according to Helen Fullen, who has just completed a study of women entrepreneurs in Ireland.

Her research has found that women entrepreneurs in the early stages of a business venture benefit from having peer networks, and that such networks encourage the entrepreneurs to build confidence, take risks and solve problems.

Peering into success

Peer support, where people in similar positions share knowledge or experience and provide emotional, social or practical help to each other, emerged as an important factor for those surveyed.

Fullen saw the need for research into the area through her work with entrepreneurs. As pre-accelerator leader with NDRC, an early-stage investor in technology companies, she has plenty of experience working with people starting out on a business venture.

The idea of pre-acceleration is to empower people with valuable tools and educate them about what it takes to create a business, explained Fullen.

“One of the big things I have learned from working in this area is the importance of finding a real problem, one that people will pay to have fixed, which will in turn scale a business,” she said. “So many entrepreneurs come in with an idea, but it needs to be approached differently. You need to identify a problem and validate that.”

Women tend to be tremendous problem-solvers, according to Fullen, but the difficulty appears to be in encouraging more women entrepreneurs to come forward and access the resources that are available for early business ventures in Ireland.

“Women tend to be underrepresented in entrepreneurship in general, and Ireland is no exception there,” said Fullen. “Yet in Ireland, we have so many wonderful resources for building business skills and contacts.”

She recently led the NDRC Female Founders six-month accelerator programme in partnership with Enterprise Ireland. Working with the 10 women-led companies that took part, Fullen was struck with how the women identified what would help them – in particular, the need to make use of each other’s skills.

“We sat down and identified nearly 90 distinct skills within the group. By sharing that information, the women were able to help and support each other,” she recalled. “The group has continued to keep in contact with each other on WhatsApp since the programme ended.”

Delving into peer support

Fullen was undertaking a master’s degree at the University of Ulster Business School at the time and, for her research project, she decided to delve deeper into peer support for women entrepreneurs.

Her extensive survey of 109 women taking part in Enterprise Ireland business support programmes between 2013 and 2017, and in-depth interviews with eight ‘domain experts’, dug into the benefits of peer support.

“The vast majority – 86pc of the respondents – deemed peer support to be either very or extremely important to their venture,” said Fullen. “We could see from the surveys that peer support had a strong personal impact on the female entrepreneurs. It encourages confidence-building, risk-taking and problem-solving, which are all important for business impact.”

The study also found that the women tended to favour group discussions, that they valued male and female mentors, and that role models who are several years ahead on their entrepreneurial journey can be powerful.

“The feedback I have had, both in Ireland and internationally since the research was launched, is that people had been aware of the findings anecdotally, but up until now we simply didn’t have the data to back it up; the research hadn’t been done,” said Fullen.

Who can help?

In her research, she identified several approaches to boosting peer support. They include: developing strategies to connect existing supports, identifying role models and mentors, increasing awareness of the benefits of peer support, and organising on-the-ground activities such as workshops and events.

Fullen is now working with international organisations to share the data and encourage more connected approaches to providing women entrepreneurs with the practical tools to build their networks.

Meanwhile, her advice to women who have identified a problem they think can underpin a business is to get into action.

“If you have come across a problem and you think lots of other people have that problem and need it to be fixed, then investigate that,” she said.

“There are lots of people and programmes who can support you, such as NDRC, New Frontiers programmes, Enterprise Ireland and the Local Enterprise Office, so make some calls.”

Claire O’Connell previously worked with Helen Fullen to develop the short report from her research thesis.

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication