Claire Watt-Smith was just 25 when she started BoBelle, designing fashion accessories which were, unusually, made from eel-skin leather and produced in South Korea. She funded the business using her £6,000 student loan and built it into a boutique brand, sold in 90 stores and culminating in a capsule collection for Marks & Spencer’s Autograph label last year.
But now she’s taking a different tack. Over the past ten months, she’s been busy working on a new, luxury range, hand-made in the UK. “I’d always wanted to manufacture my products in the UK, to have that ‘Made in Britain’ stamp of quality, but I simply couldn’t afford it when I started out,” she says. “Now I have the profit margins and the experience to relaunch BoBelle and tap into the booming luxury market.”
Ms Watt-Smith believes that the ability to change direction is what gives her – and other female entrepreneurs – an edge. “As Darwin said: ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives or the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.’ And women are brilliant at reinventing themselves. We’re not afraid to try something new. Just look at Madonna or Victoria Beckham.”
I don’t think of myself as a ‘businesswoman’ - my gender shouldn’t make a difference
But female business-owners do face certain challenges, particularly when it comes to funding. According to a recent study by the David Eccles School of Business, investors are less likely to trust their money to an enterprise led by a female chief executive, regardless of experience, qualifications and a firm’s financial health.
“I’m sized up the minute I walk into a meeting with the bank,” says Ms Watt-Smith. “And I have yet to meet a female bank manager. The whole finance industry is very male-dominated.”
Indeed, despite government initiatives to boost boardroom diversity and a rise in the number of high-profile female entrepreneurs on television – Deborah Meaden on Dragons’ Den, Mary Portas’ Secret Shopper show, Karen Darby on The Apprentice – many women are still unwilling to start their own businesses.
According to the latest Ernst & Young diversity survey, just 16 per cent of the 1,000 working women questioned wanted to start their own company.
The idea of trying to run a business and juggling family life can be daunting. Tamara Heber-Percy, co-founder of £34-million boutique hotel-booking business Mr & Mrs Smith, says it can be “exhausting” and that she feels “constantly guilty” (a common trait among female entrepreneurs), but she sees the business imperative for more women at the top.
“You can’t carry on with a board that doesn’t represent your user-base,” she says. “At Mr & Mrs Smith, around 65 per cent of bookings are made by women and I can tap into the psyche of our buyers.”
Serial entrepreneur Polly Gowers says women are natural problem-solvers – one of the key skills any business-owner needs. “Our natural empathy means we’re always looking to provide workable solutions to everyday challenges,” says Ms Gowers, who started fundraising search engine Everyclick in 2005 from her garden shed and has grown it into a £2.8-million business with offices in the UK, China and India. “But I try not to think of myself as a ‘businesswoman’ – my gender shouldn’t make a difference. This is just what I do.”