An astrophysicist by training, Dr Ghina Halabi often shoots down tall tales about outer space. Now Programme Director of EnterpriseWOMEN at Cambridge Judge Business School’s Entrepreneurship Centre, she identifies five myths of female entrepreneurship.
As the first woman to earn a PhD in astrophysics at a university in Lebanon, Dr Ghina M. Halabi knows a bit about new horizons. Ghina is now Programme Director of EnterpriseWOMEN at the Entrepreneurship Centre of Cambridge Judge Business School, a tailored programme for early-stage women entrepreneurs who have successfully built small businesses but haven’t had the opportunity or the tools to effectively scale up. The next EnterpriseWOMEN event, on Transformative Leadership, will be held on 21 November at Cambridge Judge.
Much of Ghina’s astrophysics research focuses on how stars live and die, and all the exciting adventures they experience in between. This work entails debunking plenty of myths: her favourites include “Blackholes are a rarity in the Universe”, “Stars are quiet, soundless balls of fire”, and “Telescope images of celestial objects resemble their photographs if we were close enough to see them”.
There has also been plenty of mythmaking surrounding entrepreneurship. Although there are some high-profile UK women entrepreneurs – such as Lastminute.com co-founder Martha Lane Fox and Karren Brady of television’s “Apprentice” fame – the overall record is far bleaker. An independent review by prominent banker Alison Rose for the UK Treasury, published in March 2019, shed “renewed light on the barriers faced by women starting and growing businesses”. In response, the government announced ambitions to increase the number of female entrepreneurs by half by 2030, equivalent to nearly 600,000 additional female entrepreneurs.
So we asked Ghina to identify five myths in the world of women’s entrepreneurship:
- Women lack confidence
Women are often perceived as “not confident enough”, but our research shows that this perception instead often stems from a tendency to make conservative estimates and cautious, uninflated promises. In fact, recent research by Boston Consulting Group and US-based accelerator MassChallenge found that businesses founded by women generated 10 per cent higher cumulative revenues over a five-year period, making these firms a better bet.
- Business run by women have lower resilience to economic downturns
In some European countries such as France, Poland and Spain, women-led businesses showed higher resilience to changes in economic conditions. But this can be partially explained by the fact that they tend to focus on sectors that are less susceptible to economic downturns such as health, education and personal services.
- Investors are interested in the bottom line, so they ask similar questions to men and women entrepreneurs
Women entrepreneurs in fact perceive bias in the questions asked by investors: whereas men are often asked growth and technical questions, women are instead asked questions on risk mitigation. Women are also often asked to prove themselves, especially if they are of a young age, leaving them feeling patronised.
- There’s only one type of leadership, and its decibel level is high
There is no cookie-cutter leadership type, and a leader isn’t necessarily the one who is the loudest or most assertive. We need to foster leadership traits that focus on authenticity and empathy and collaboration. This would encourage women to lead with personality rather than with a social perception of how a leader should be.
- The UK is becoming a level playing field for businesses founded by women
Although the UK is the start-up capital of Europe, only one in three UK entrepreneurs are women, while female entrepreneurs are less likely to scale up to turnover of £1 million or more. And for every £1 of UK venture capital investment, all-female founder teams get less than a penny. This is not merely a case of social injustice: the Alison Rose Review found that this gender gap is equivalent to 1.1 million missing businesses in the UK.