An ideas-woman? Step forward...

Etta Cohen of Forward Ladies
Etta Cohen of Forward Ladies
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more women than ever before are thinking of going into business. But self-doubt stops many from even starting. An event being staged in Sheffield next week aims to take away the fear factor

As the recession bites, more women than ever before want to launch their own business.

But research shows only a painfully small number actually do it.

The rest end up frozen by fear and self-doubt, says Yorkshire’s leading support agency for female entrepreneurs, Forward Ladies.

“We work with thousands of women every year and time and again we find they are plagued by self-doubt and lack of confidence – in both their abilities and their business idea,” says Forward Ladies managing director Etta Cohen.

“We work to break down the barriers and get them to believe in themselves.”

The current boom in interest from potential female entrepreneurs is actually down to the recession.

“Hard economic times are fuelling more women to contemplate self-employment, says Etta.

“Redundancy, or trying to hold on to their jobs by working long hours while raising a family, is leading women to think they could be better off going it alone.”

The flexible hours, the ability to work from home and the prospect of being able to make more money is what attracts them. But then they focus on the big risks and challenges that self-employment undoubtedly means and they don’t do anything,” she explains.

“It IS scary. There isn’t a wage slip at the end of each month and if you’re a mother your children’s security is your top priority,” adds Etta, who brought up her children of two and six single-handedly after divorce. “But what really knocks these women is that little voice inside the head saying: ‘I’m only this’ or ‘I can only do that...’

“I think most men don’t have that. And even when they don’t feel confident, they are able to act as if they are.

“Men don’t run themselves down the way women do.”

But Forward Ladies urge women not to ape the behaviour of men to get ahead, but to recognise the specific feminine talents they bring to the table.

“There’s huge strength in our ability to listen, our ability to negotiate and bring people together,” says Etta.

“That’s very much what Forward Ladies is about.

“At our networking events and mentoring groups, women who have overcome obstacles on the road to success listen to others just beginning their journey, then advise and encourage.”

From good to great is the business aim

Forward Ladies is joining forces with Barclays to inspire enterprising women in South Yorkshire to take their businesses from good to great.

They are staging a free conference aimed at women who are considering setting up in business, those who are just starting out and women who already have an established business but would like to expand.

There will be an opportunity to meet like-minded women running creative and successful companies.

Speakers will be entrepreneur Deirdre Bounds, who set up a travel service for volunteers and eventually sold it to Tui Travel for millions, and Helen Colley, who started making puddings to help with the finances at her family farm and went on to supply supermarkets.

Sheffield MP Paul Blomfield, who sits on the Government’s Business, Skills and Innovation Select Committee, will be attending along with BBC television presenter and journalist Clare Frisby.

Etta Cohen, managing director of Forward Ladies said: “This conference will be a great way to engage with local women.”

The free conference will be held on Thursday, October 11, at Barclays in Pinstone Street, Sheffield S1 2HN from 9.15-2pm.

A buffet lunch is included and there will be a Q&A session, trade stands and charity raffle. To book a free place, call 08456 434940 or go to www.forwardladies.com

Forward advice

Stop using words that run yourself down

Worried your idea isn’t good enough? Get the views of people you trust

Work out the finances. Is it going to make enough money?

Research the field. Is anyone else doing the same thing? How successful are they?

Be resilient. If your idea doesn’t pan out, adapt it or think of another.

Success story - Gill Whittaker loves paperwork

GILL Whittaker knew she was a highly efficient number-cruncher, a perfectionist who insisted the accounts had to add up to the last penny.

But despite keeping all the companies she had ever worked for safely on track, she felt invisible.

“In a male-orientated workplace where everyone is tearing around charged up with testosterone, you’re just the girl who works in the office. That’s how you end up viewing yourself,” she says.

Sheffielder Gill never felt confident enough to do what friends in business were urging her to do – quit work to become a self-employeed book-keeper and help them sort out their finances.

“I wanted to do it, but I was so worried I might not get enough customers, that I wouldn’t have enough money to pay the mortgage and keep a car on the road.

“Plus I paled at the thought of getting up in front of a large group of people to say: ‘This is me, this is what I do; I’m fantastic, please give me your business.’

“So I thought about it for two years instead of doing it.”

But she took the plunge after a close friend ended up in a bad life situation. “I thought life is too short to be making money for other people and I realised I had to be brave and try.”

She left her salaried job and set up Loves Paperwork with just the one client, a self-employed friend whose finances were in such a tangle, it took her months to sort them out.

By the time that job had ended, others had come in by word of mouth.

“All that panic about not being able to pay the bills and having to promote myself, and it all just happened,” she grins. “It was much easier than I’d thought.”

Three years on, her business is thriving. And what helped was walking into a Forward Ladies conference in the early days of self-employment.

“It was very like the one happening in Sheffield next week; it was an open day with speakers and a lunch; though I was scared about the prospect of networking I went along, really enjoyed it, found conversations were starting up quite naturally and before I knew it I’d become a member,” says Gill, 45.

She went on to become a member of their Sheffield Female Emerging Entreprenuers Group – eight self-employed women who meet up every six weeks to support each other and exchange ideas.

“We don’t just talk about work issues, we also share problems in our private lives. Male business groups probably don’t do that, but we know the two are interlinked,” says Gill. “We help each other through whatever life throws at us.”

Success story - Claire Kemp loves cakes

AFTER studying for seven years to become an architect, could she really throw away her career and make a living from making cakes, something that was just a hobby?

Claire Kemp was full of self-doubt. But the recession was hitting the construction industry hard, she had just lost her post as a school design researcher at the University of Sheffield and finding a full-time job as an architect was going to be nigh on impossible. It would probably mean moving cities and there was her husband’s job as an urban designer to consider.

What she wanted to do was turn her cakes into a business. But was it a ridiculous idea? Would she be throwing away all those years of study for a piping dream?

“Friends and family loved my cakes, but would anyone else – and would they pay good money for them? I was so unsure,” says Claire, 30.

“I also had no idea how to run a business and I’d always worked as part of a team. If I went into business I wouldn’t just be making cakes, I’d be doing everything on my own – the accounts, the deliveries, the promotions... it was daunting.”

Claire went to a Forward Ladies event for advice, and found herself being mentored by more experienced businesswomen. “They made me realise I was really good at what I did and helped me to find my USP – my unique selling point. My cakes are very sculptural and architectural. That makes them very different from anything else on the market,” says Claire.

“I also realised that I wasn’t walking away from all my years of training; I was simply using my knowledge to create structures in a different form.”

She set up her business, Claire Kemp Cake Studio, from her home in Sheffield – and her first commission was a cake version of the city’s Arts Tower to celebrate its renovation last autumn.

She worked to a 1-100 scale and her edible white replica proved a major talking point. Since then she has received a flurry of orders and is making up to six cakes a month. She already has bookings for 2013 weddings.

Says Claire: “I agree that there is a reticence among women to go into business, especially those who have worked in a male-dominated industry, as I did. You worry whether you have the drive, or if what you do is good enough.

“I am so glad I was helped to find the confidence to set up a company doing something I really love, which I can fit around my life, particularly as I will be a mum for the first time at the end of December.”