Women are still underrepresented in entrepreneurship, and new research shows that peer support is crucial to change this.
A new study examining the value of peer support for women in business carried out at Ulster University Business School is the largest of its kind on the island of Ireland.
The study was led by researcher Helen Fullen, who was inspired by her experience working with NDRC’s women founders.
A four-year undertaking
From 2013 to 2017, participants on women entrepreneurship programmes sponsored by Enterprise Ireland were asked about their opinions of existing peer support schemes. 109 qualified women entrepreneurs who took part in the programmes were surveyed during the four-year period.
The research found that the vast majority of participants on these programmes deemed peer support – where people in similar positions share knowledge or experience, and provide emotional, social or practical help to each other – to be either very or extremely important to their venture.
The study also interviewed domain experts who identified the need to promote awareness of the benefits and understanding of the value of a peer support network at key stages of venture development.
Fullen explained how her work with female founders at NDRC influenced the study: “I could see the central role that peer support played in their venture development, and I wanted to get a better understanding of the impact of peer support on a national scale.”
She added that women entrepreneurs “turn to trusted peer support to share, motivate and sustain each other through the ups and downs of venture building”.
Mentorship is vital for women in business
The vast majority of respondents (86pc) deemed peer support to be either very or extremely important to their venture, and 83pc said the sharing of knowledge, information and resources was the most valuable aspect of that support. Study participants also said peer support helped quell their feelings of loneliness and motivated them to strive for loftier targets.
Mentors are a key factor in the benefits of peer-to-peer support, with 81pc of respondents saying they were pivotal to the process. One respondent noted that different mentors can offer you multiple types of peer support, with many founders having numerous mentors at one time.
In terms of how best the respondents learned from mentors, there was a clear preference for group discussion, with 70pc saying it was their favourite learning format, followed by informal one-to-ones, workshops and networking events.
A need for gender diversity in peer support groups was also flagged, with respondents suggesting that more balanced groups offered better support.
Peer support also goes beyond just business advice, with 78pc of respondents saying peer support offered them meaningful and personal connections with others.
A crucial kick-start
Sarita Johnston of Enterprise Ireland said: “Enterprise Ireland supported 67 start-ups led by women in 2017 – this is four times the 2012 figure when just 17 female-led start-ups received support through our Competitive Start Fund and High-Potential Start-Up programmes. All start-ups face similar challenges, and funding is a crucial kick-start.
“However, we have found that dedicated female business development programmes which facilitate peer-to-peer learning are invaluable in navigating these early-stage challenges and driving ambition. Networks are incredibly important to women, and opportunities to engage at a peer-to-peer level contribute enormously to the success of our female entrepreneur programmes.”
The report recommends developing a strategy to connect Irish peer support groups together, develop a strong peer support community, create an awareness campaign around the value of such initiatives, and organise events and activities to tackle obstacles.