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International Women's Day: Inspiring female founders

12 March 2021

Lucy Ritchie, Partner and Wealth Manager

On 8th March 2021, International Women's Day, we were joined by a panel of successful female entrepreneurs to talk about the highs and lows of the past year, what it really means to start a business and the gender gap in start-up funding. Read on to find out what May Al-Karooni, founder of Globechain, Renée Elliott, founder of Planet Organic and Beluga Bean, and Yulia Rorstrom, founder of Duck & Dry, had to say.

The past twelve months

Being an entrepreneur at the best of times isn't easy, but add in a global pandemic and suddenly there's a lot more to handle. "It's always a challenge when you're doing new things and pushing innovation to get funding," said May. However, the outbreak of the pandemic meant that a seed funding round last March was cancelled at the last minute: "Everything went quiet." The uncertainty of it all was the hardest part, but May and the team had to think on their feet and, looking back, the resilience it taught them was invaluable.

At Duck & Dry, which has physical premises in London, the impact was immediate. "It was shocking how a perfectly viable and thriving business can be shut down overnight," said Yulia. Recognising quickly that the pandemic was not here today, gone tomorrow, Yulia went into "saviour mode", working out which contracts could be renegotiated, which suppliers could be spoken to, which landlords might be flexible. "Every day was like going to war, almost." 'Lockdown pivots' have been a feature of many businesses this past year and Duck & Dry was no different, turning to a product line to diversify its business model.

Pivoting was also true for Renée, whose latest venture Beluga Bean works with start-ups and entrepreneurs on business planning, purpose and resilience. She realised early on that wellbeing would have an enormous part to play in the foreseeable future and pivoted to online: "We had designed a year-long Wellbeing Workshop. More than just physical or mental wellbeing, it encompasses a whole range of spheres: physical, occupational, psychological, economic, social and spiritual. Because of COVID, we've been able to deliver these workshops online, which has opened up other markets and countries." With challenges, also come opportunities.

The price of pursuing a dream  

It is often said that with great sacrifice comes great reward. We know that setting up a business, especially if you want to build a scalable business, requires grit and determination, but in those early days it is difficult to predict what sacrifices will have to be made. May said, "There is naivety when you start a business," and it's not until you're in the thick of it that it really becomes clear. "There is no overnight success or at least there are very few. It takes years. No salary for the first few years, no weekends, late nights, not seeing friends. For women as well, we can be very hard on ourselves; we have more to prove. We're not on the same salaries and we don't get the same funding."

Yulia agreed, "If you knew the extent of the sacrifices at the start, you wouldn't do it." In a way, that sense of naivety is integral. "You need that drive in the beginning otherwise it's very difficult to take it off the ground. There has been a huge amount of sacrifices along the way but, in the last six years, I managed to get married and have two kids, I've redone the house at least three times, I've been on some great family holidays and had a decent night out. Those things are so important to maintain."

The gender funding gap

The 2019 Alison Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship showed that in venture finance it is much harder for women to obtain funding. May called it an "unconscious bias." She added, "The industry has created an ego around how people run businesses. There's a real disconnect when you talk to male counterpart entrepreneurs: they're doing more funding rounds and raising more money." She takes a logical approach to it, asking venture capital firms to explain if they don't like the business plan, or perhaps something else. "I also found on my first round that if I didn't go into the room smiling, I'd come away with more money; if I went in smiley and approachable, I didn't get any money."

With the funding gap, Renée sees it as partly a way to find the right partnership. "I have seen so many businesses end in disaster when they fall out or there are shareholder issues. That's a dance I did for years myself at Planet Organic. Finding resolution in those circumstances is critical to success." Renée argued, "Women need to learn to trust their gut. When you're in a situation with someone, possibly an investor, and your gut is saying no, I say run like hell." It's frequently a case of upbringing. "As a young girl, I was not taught to trust myself. I was taught to canvas all the experts around me, and see what they thought." Renée has realised, as she has gone through life, that she knows what's best for her and her family. "When I trust myself, do my own research and then make my decision, it's always the right thing."

It might be surprising that, in the beauty industry, Yulia has faced issues of gender too. "There are so many brands of celebrity hairstylists out there and the vast majority are male. So I have always approached this as a consumer." Because beauty is such a female-oriented industry, VCs and private equity tend to be more accepting in terms of funding. As a sole founder, with a lot resting on Yulia as an individual, finding the right partner is key. "It's so very important to find that person who shares your vision. I always look for someone who is excited by Duck & Dry as a brand and sees the potential I see."

With thanks to:

May Al-Karooni, Founder and CEO of Globechain

Renée Elliott, Founder of Planet Organic and Beluga Bean

Yulia Rorstrom, Founder and CEO of Duck & Dry

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