This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is Embrace Equity. Equity recognises that sometimes striving for equality falls short. After all, we’re not all starting from the same place; some groups need more tools than others to be brought up to speed. This is especially true within the tech sector. There is a blatant imbalance in this traditionally male-dominated space. With women accounting for just 4% of UK tech founders, it’s evident that as a community we must start to embrace equity with open arms. 

SETsquared Bristol decided to take action to turn the tide when it established its Enterprising Women programme. Now in its third cohort, Lauren Ellse, Business Pre-Incubation Manager at SETsqaured Bristol, explains the origins of the project: “Enterprising Women was established about four years ago when we realised that we didn’t have many women founders in our SETsquared incubator. These are high tech high growth companies, so it’s not nationally unique, but we wanted to make a huge change.”

And so Enterprising Women was born. A supportive, inclusive business support programme to help women take their idea or business to the next stage, Enterprising Women is fully funded by Natwest run by the SETsquared Bristol incubation team. The Programme provides expert business support, workshops, mentoring, coaching and access to a valuable network of advisers, investors and startups. Since 2020, Enterprising Women has supported 55 women who’ve raised £6.5 million in funding and created 150 jobs!

Having been such a clear success, we caught up with some of the second cohort to reflect on their experiences, and gather their insights on embracing equity.

" For me, it did two things. Firstly, it highlighted all the unknown unknowns that you don't know. Secondly, it was just joy "

Building spaces for women

Designed to be accessible for all women, Lauren explains that it’s a “High impact but low input programme.” She continues, “The idea is that with little time commitment, adjusting this around work or care responsibilities, you will get a lot out of it.”

Women who take part get a mentor, offering “business coaching to develop you as a founder and help you in that leadership role,” says Lauren. “You also get six half days of incredibly impactful startup workshops. Here you can engage with the rest of the peer network, whilst learning some really great skills to take that idea forward. Additionally, you’re then part of our alumni. Previous cohorts support each other to be part of that.”

Angela Loveridge is the founder of Better Together – Online Safety. Her platform delivers e-safety workshops that offer practical advice to parents and carers to protect children online. Derived from her own experiences as a mum of two, Angela established her business to solve the problems she was initially struggling to tackle. She tells us, “It’s a really great opportunity to be able to interact with so many inspiring women who are who are doing so many interesting things.”

“The actual support that the programme gives in terms of IP, teaching, funding landscapes, developing a product, and the entrepreneurs in residence here, have been really helpful”

Caroline Clark, the founder of Zebera, corroborates this reflection: “I had a lot of fun on the Enterprising Women programme. For me, it did two things. Firstly, it highlighted all the unknown unknowns that you don’t know. Secondly, it was just joy. Getting together with a load of women, hearing their inspiring stories and creating a network. That was the best bit.” Zebera is building an open innovation platform that enables young people to solve real-world problems, take products to market and learn to be innovative and bold.

Caz Icke also took part in the second cohort after founding her business, SoulSense. Caz created SoleSense to enable patients to do more independent rehabilitation. The product is developed with a focus on neurological conditions that affect balance and walking. On her experience at Enterprising Women, she tells us, “This programme was amazing, actually, because I hadn’t really been hooked into a programme like that before. Having that peer support has been really great. I’ve touched base with those women several times ever since and we always catch up when we see each other here at the Engine Shed.

“The actual support that the programme gives in terms of IP, teaching, funding landscapes, developing a product, and the entrepreneurs in residence here, have been really helpful.”

Creating programmes to embrace equity

Caroline explains that she believes in the importance of women only initiatives to help founders get their feet off the ground in a judgement free zone: “I do think that it’s important to have tech support initiatives only open to women.

“And probably I would have said differently to that in the early part of my career. I spent my early career as an engineer, surrounded by men the whole time and I didn’t even really notice, or I didn’t even think that there were any barriers as a result of that. But probably I was a bit naive, and maybe not so self aware.

“But now I definitely think there’s a need for women only programmes. Partly because people need to kind of get through that early part of their journey in a supportive environment, before you then go out into the sort of nasty patriarchal world that exists outside.” Caroline reflects that building up confidence in an insular setting like the Enterprising Women programme, engenders resilience later down the line.

Caz (pictured right) emphasises that the facts demonstrate the need for women only spaces, designed to support tech founders. “There’s no difference between female and male ability in this field,” she remarks, so why are women so underrepresented within it?

“I think it’s just that we’ve socialised away from doing those particular topics at school. And that’s created this disparity and an assumption that we either can’t or don’t want to do that. But we clearly are very good at it. And we bring lots and lots of things that perhaps our male counterparts don’t.”

“Sometimes it’s not so easy to even just juggle the many responsibilities that as women we have”

Angela echos these sentiments, highlighting that every high value tech venture should be supported, especially if it’s for the greater good. However, additional support can help counteract the daily barriers women face: “Sometimes it’s not so easy to even just juggle the many responsibilities that as women we have. Having additional support that is focused on women in tech is incredibly helpful.”

These barriers are evidently preventing talented women from building tech businesses. Lauren explains dedicated women only support is so important simply because these barriers are specific: “Because the problem is so grand in terms of the number of women led businesses in tech, we need the ability to actually share those unique perspectives, and have that peer network and peer support.”

Shona Wright

Shona covers all things editorial at TechSPARK. She publishes news articles, interviews and features about our fantastic tech and digital ecosystem, working with startups and scaleups to spread the word about the cool things they're up to. She also oversees TechSPARK's social media, sharing the latest updates on everything from investment news to green tech meetups and inspirational stories.