We’re please to present this guest post – a cross posting from my Angel Academe blog – from our friend and Angel Academe member J. Penney Frohling. It’s the abstract of a longer article she is writing for Oxford University/SAID Business School and the follow on to a debate she participated in at the Oxford Union last May as part of Oxford’s Global Women and Entrepreneurship Forum. Penney is still interviewing women entrepreneurs as part of this research, so if you’d like to contribute to this important debate, please get in contact.

Objective: This article will present findings from primary research conducted among thirty professors of entrepreneurship, female entrepreneurs and female angel investors as preparation for a debate at the Oxford Union as part of the Powershift Forum. The article will explore the catalysts for why this research was conducted as well as the implications of its findings for stakeholders in the female entrepreneur debate in the UK—e.g. business, academics, NGO’s, and business. I will present a preliminary view on a segmentation model for women business owners that can be used to spark debate about the optimal deployment of funding, sponsored programmes, and policy on such issues as education, child care, and quotas.

Synopsis: On 21st May 2013, I led one of the teams in the debate at the Oxford Union on the topic, “Subsistence entrepreneurship is not real entrepreneurship.” Our argument was based on three fundamental theses:

1. Subsistence entrepreneurship, which constitutes the majority of new female-led start-ups in the UK, does not empower women to make sustainable, long-term contributions to the economy. Therefore, the government’s well-intended policy of encouraging female-led start-ups is unlikely to achieve the objective of expanding GDP growth. Funding efforts will produce little return on investment.

2. Despite reams of data on female entrepreneurs, there are significant gaps in this data, particularly around high-growth businesses and the characteristics of the women who found/co-found them. A “lowest common denominator” approach to parsing these reams of data has led to dangerous generalities being made about women entrepreneurs that are rapidly becoming hard-coded: “Women aren’t interested in creating high-growth businesses.” “Women don’t understand financing options.” “Women are risk averse.”

3. These generalities are incorrect. There are many highly ambitious women entrepreneurs who are busy founding businesses and shepherding their businesses through different phases of growth. They all share common characteristics, as demonstrated by primary research that we conducted. The insight generated by this research proves the significant variation in both types of start-ups and the women founding or co-founding them. It also indicates a need for a much more informed approach to women so that we can better align policy, research, and funding initiatives to these different types based on objectives, experience, and education levels.

Our team’s landslide loss in the debate—I believe by a margin of 5:1—provides an additional valuable data point to the article. We would posit that a significant percentage of this margin is attributable to the high degree of emotion that subsistence entrepreneurship tends to engender. This level of emotion can make it difficult to have a more rational, fact based discussion as there is a significant “willingness to listen” barrier to overcome. So, the topic of female entrepreneurship faces a challenging dichotomy: on the one hand, a high degree of emotion that can preclude informed debate; and on the other, reams of data that is challenging to translate to insight and action. This article is intended to take a step toward filling the large void between these two extremes and hopefully facilitate raising the debate to the next level.

Primary Research to Support Article: One:one ninety minute interviews conducted with thirty people who are professors or entrepreneurship, business founders and/or angel investors with high exposure to female-founded enterprises. Sample representative of different business sectors, age bands, experience levels, and business ages.

The following PDF contains Penney’s speaking notes from the Oxford Union debate. 

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