NDRC’s Helen Fullen: ‘Women are underrepresented in entrepreneurship’

20 Jul 2018

Helen Fullen, pre-accelerator leader at NDRC, on stage at Inspirefest. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Peer support and learning from others is critical if we are to enable more women entrepreneurs to succeed.

The need for a national female entrepreneur peer support strategy and framework was made clear at Inspirefest 2018 by Helen Fullen, pre-accelerator leader at NDRC.

Fullen, who has around two decades’ worth of experience in global business in the US, Europe and Asia, told the Inspirefest audience: “It is a fact that women are underrepresented in entrepreneurship activities.

“Figures from the EU suggest women are half as likely as men to own new businesses.

“Here in the Republic of Ireland, Enterprise Ireland has put in place programmes and initiatives to support female entrepreneurs and, in recent years, the number of women starting businesses in Ireland has grown.”

‘We found that peer support had a pronounced personal impact, helping female entrepreneurs to build confidence, develop leadership skills, encourage risk-taking and problem solving, all of which are prerequisites for business development’

Fullen said that the number of women-founded high potential start-ups backed by Enterprise Ireland has grown from 7pc in 2012 to 28pc in 2017.

Established by the State in 2007 and based in the Digital Hub in Dublin but operating nationally, the NDRC where Fullen works has to date built and invested in 255 companies.

According to the NDRC’s recent annual report, 31pc of its start-ups have female founders on their team. These include Nuritas and Tandem HR Solutions, which raised more than €17m between them last year.

Fullen said that, in the summer of 2016, NDRC – in partnership with Bank of Ireland and Enterprise Ireland – embarked on a programme to support 10 women tech founders in terms of capital and expertise.

“Over the course of the programme, in addition to venture building, we talked about confidence, problem-solving, leadership, networking, risk and that all-important global ambition. And I observed first-hand the impact of values such as trust, empowerment and an incredible sense of tribe.

“These are values that have not only survived, but thrived since the conclusion of the programme.

“I wondered, could this be attributed to simply an incredible cohort of women? Was it down to NDRC’s expert facilitation? Or was peer support of central importance to women as they set out to build and scale their businesses?”

Studying the impact of peer-to-peer support

Keen to learn more, Fullen explained how along with Sarita Johnston, manager of Female Entrepreneurship at Enterprise Ireland, and Dr Kristel Miller from the University of Ulster, she embarked on a national online study. It was to be the first study of its kind in Ireland, aiming to better understand the value and impact of peer support.

“Peer support describes situations where people in similar positions share knowledge and expertise and provide emotional and practical support to each other.”

The online survey was circulated among all women who participated in Enterprise Ireland programmes since 2013. It found that 86pc of women entrepreneurs deemed peer support to be either “very” or “extremely important” to their venture.

“Not a single entrepreneur did not think it was valuable,” said Fullen.

“We found that mentors are pivotal and female entrepreneurship programmes, friends and family, and business networks provide a substantive peer support network.

“Learning from others is critical. Group discussions are the preferred ways of sharing followed by one-to-one informal conversations.

“86pc of respondents told us that sharing of knowledge, information, resources was the most valuable aspect of peer support, and that peers help reduce loneliness and offer motivation for higher aspiration.

“We found that peer support had a pronounced personal impact, helping female entrepreneurs to build confidence, develop leadership skills, encourage risk taking and problem solving, all of which are prerequisites for business development.”

But where does Fullen believe we need to go next to foster greater peer support among women entrepreneurs in Ireland?

“There were four key recommendations that came out of the research: the need to design a national female entrepreneurship peer support strategy and framework; the development of a national peer support community; an awareness campaign; a toolkit with step-by-step global best practices to access peer support; and more of the kinds of activities through which female entrepreneurs access that support.”

Other themes to emerge from the survey included the promotion of gender diversity, increased regional activity, the importance of role models, the need for centralised supports, more venture funding for women entrepreneurs, access to networks and networking, and more meaningful events.

“Inspirefest is such a wonderful response to these key themes so a big thank you to Ann O’Dea and her team for putting together such a wonderful programme.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years