Female Entrepreneurship In Ireland: An Interview With Olwen Dawe

By Beatrice Whelan, Social Media & Content Specialist at Sage

When Olwen Dawe became a Sage Business Expert one of the first things I wanted to talk to her about was her work as an advocate of female entrepreneurship. Olwen is currently Secretary and Vice President Designate of Network Ireland. She was an ambassador for female entrepreneurship on the Ulster Bank “Business Women Can” initiative in 2012. Olwen regularly speaks at and chairs events / seminars focused on enterprise development – such as the European Commission’s programme for female entrepreneurship. Here is my recent interview with Olwen about all things related to female entrepreneurs.

You are an advocate of female entrepreneurship and you’re involved in various programmes to promote female entrepreneurship can you talk about one which you think has been the most effective?

Every programme has its own merits based on their specific objectives… as the orchestrators, managers and advisors involved in them, we need to be conscious of varying needs and changing times.  Programmes often need to be less prescriptive and more lean, responsive – and this is really driven by the specific group you’re serving. 

I’ve worked on programmes for women-led start-ups, business expansion projects, migrant women and other demographic groups – with each project, we conducted a broad study including a TNA, looked at societal / perception issues and worked from there.  In my experience, follow-through and ongoing support ‘frameworks’ such as networks, mentoring or simply having the opportunity to meet regularly with an ‘accountability partner’ are key.  Why? Because it’s so important to keep the momentum going.  I’ve seen high-potential participants ‘drop off’ the radar without that support, which is a great shame and while unseen demands often crop up – having the right support when you need it is critical to building and sustaining a business.

Why do you think we need programmes that promote female entrepreneurship?

I’m often asked this question – and I fear there is a sense that somehow, they’re not needed.  The reality is – in Ireland less than 50% of start-ups, and only 15-18% of established businesses are female-led.  This is 2013! Leaving statistics aside, the real issues are stark and I encounter them every day.  Colleagues, clients and friends alike battle with the demands of juggling personal commitments [such as family] and business. 

This may seem like an ‘old chestnut’ but it’s not going away… in the last week alone, I’ve spoken to two businesswomen who said this “battle” could ultimately cause them to re-think their current business and seek a different career.  So what? Well, it wouldn’t be a problem if both didn’t absolutely love their business and weren’t successful entrepreneurs. 

I think female entrepreneurship and fostering a more conducive culture towards cultivating it – internationally – has to start with societal norms.  We can all do our ‘bit’ – men and women alike – to change these norms.

By talking about female entrepreneurship do you think we make a distinction between male and female entrepreneurship that really shouldn’t exist? Does this highlight the distinction more?

Again, this is a question I’ve been asked many times – the reality is – no, we shouldn’t have a distinction! However, having spoken about ‘norms’ – the norm simply isn’t that women are starting up as many businesses, or heading up departments, or becoming TDs,  as our male counterparts.  This requires action; hence quotas on boards and in politics, and programmes tailored towards developing entrepreneurship.  The distinction is there to create new norms, and strike the balance of equality.

Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook has some strong opinions on women in the workplace – what do you think of her views?

I have to admit, I haven’t yet read ‘Lean In’, but it’s on the list and will shortly make its way to my Kindle! I have, however, joined the group and am interested in the debate it’s generating.  The recent Irish Times review was mostly positive – however there were some reservations over how applicable elements of ‘Lean In’ truly are.  Ultimately, I welcome any strong moves by influential women to show others what they, themselves, are capable of.  Many reports highlight the importance of role models in promoting entrepreneurship and career development for women; I can certainly validate that sentiment both as someone who was encouraged to start up in business by other women, as well as being inspired and motivated on an ongoing basis by colleagues and friends. 

What’s your opinion on the mumpreneur and Digi women movements in Ireland at the moment?

I think anything that engages women in looking further than any perceived limitations, by recognising skills and ability – and connecting with one another – is vitally important.  I have heard some concerns over women not wishing to be ‘pigeon-holed’ as “Mum” entrepreneurs, which may create perception issues – but I guess that’s an individual question at the end of the day.  Ultimately, the key is in the visibility of real career options for women who wish to pursue them, and again, that’s something all of us – men and women – can actively do something about, by encouraging, educating and supporting.

What do you think of the recent debate about the second earner in the family leaving their job if they are paid less than the cost of childcare?

I’m definitely straying into political / economic territory here! Honestly? I think the notion of a measure such as this actually being implemented is despicable.  When the issue was debated in the Dáil, I understand An Taoiseach roundly refuted it [if I remember correctly, the issue was raised as women having to leave work through recent insolvency legislation].  We’re dangerously close to returning to an Ireland of the past where women had to leave the workforce when they married! Obviously arduous economic times such as these will impact on decisions individual couples make about the best way of managing their incomes, however an attempt to force anyone to leave work is regressive and societally, dangerous.

What other European countries facilitate female entrepreneurship better than Ireland, what can we learn from them?

I chaired a debate on female entrepreneurship last year, with colleagues from Sweden, Finland, the UK and the European Commission.  I’m afraid to say, ostensibly, we all share the same issues! With many %s hovering around the same numbers.  However, undoubtedly, we can learn from one another and we did share some great learnings, which could and should be applied by those in a position to take an active role in supporting female entrepreneurship.  The key is in recognising the real objectives of what needs to change, and finding ways to make it happen.  Many colleagues and clients alike ask me – “why do you worry about this sort of thing – you had no problems getting off the blocks, setting up?” –  my response is: that’s as may be, but I’m not in the majority.

About The Author

Olwen DaweOlwen Dawe is the owner of Irish Business Intelligence, she works with SMEs as a business partner, supporting their growth through practical consulting advice – specific focuses include messaging, strategy and business development. Olwen also works as a project manager and advisor for enterprise and development organisations, as well as mentoring start-ups and early-stage entrepreneurs. Olwen is a Sage Business Expert.

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