Take a leaf out of Grandpa’s book, ladies, and start up that business

My grandfather’s main job was his New York paint shop, which was an amazing business opportunity of his time. He learned all his clients and the colours they ordered, providing them with great quality of service. He loved his work and the money it brought to the family, as he earned enough to help his three kids go to college and graduate without debts.

Such stories may be heard all around the world, including the UK. The tradition continues, as now we there are about 5.4 million small and medium-sized businesses around the country. They do anything you may think of, starting with painting fences and finishing with creating robots. All the companies go through business activities of about £1.8 trillion annually. They give great benefits to the country’s economy, but they can do even more. Right now there’s an entire segment of the population that is vastly underrepresented in the small business economy. Women are half of the UK population, but start just a fifth of its small businesses.

Women want to play a bigger part in Britain’s start-up scene. New research by the consultance firm Development Economics estimates that 2.7m women in the UK are thinking about starting a business. If a fifth of these women started one today, they could create 425,000 additional jobs by the end of 2020 and contribute £10.1bn to the UK economy. Small businesses are a vital part of Facebook’s community, so we asked polling organisation YouGov to find out what was holding them back.

Women could create 425,000 jobs by the end of 2020 and contribute £10.1bn to the UK economy

Top of the list was a lack of confidence: one in three women didn’t feel ready to start a business, and one in five didn’t feel they had the right skills to get going. Lack of support was another barrier: one in three women didn’t have access to finance or the advice they need to get a business off the ground, and half the women surveyed felt more digital skills would help them launch a business.

Sheryl Sandberg’s maternal grandparents Ben and Roz Einhorn in the 1950s

These women identified a range of barriers that we need to work together to overcome. There’s a lot more we can do to help entrepreneurs everywhere to take the first step, and technology can be part of the solution.

Technology makes it easier for people to start businesses — especially women, who still do the majority of childcare and housework, and can benefit from being able to work from home or sell globally without travel. Last year in London I met Kelly, a single mother from Middlesbrough who started selling dresses online from her home. She took pictures and video of new items and posted them to her Facebook page — building a brand with tens of thousands of followers, employing 10 people and expanding globally. After receiving a number of offers, she sold her business last week and started her next venture.

It’s also changing the way businesses reach customers. The internet made it possible for small businesses to speak to the whole world at once. Now the shift to mobile means they can reach the people they need to reach where they spend their time — on their phones.

My grandfather did his marketing face to face. But by the time the next generation of small businesses got going, the age of mass marketing and big budgets had begun. Advertising meant filming for television, which was a significant investment. Now entrepreneurs get the best of both worlds: even the smallest business can do personal marketing on a global scale.

Virginie Charlès-Dear, a Londoner, used technology to turn an idea she had on maternity leave into a thriving business. With a friend she created ToucanBox, which provides creative craft boxes for children by post. They’ve been able to reach customers who matter to them, such as parents and grandparents.

There are now more than 2m active small businesses’ pages on Facebook in the UK — that’s nearly half all UK businesses — and between 2014 and 2015 the number of female-owned SME pages on Facebook increased by 70%. Yet nearly three-quarters of the potential entrepreneurs surveyed couldn’t name a female role model running a business similar to the one they were planning.

The only way to change that is to help more women follow in Kelly and Virginie’s footsteps. So we’re partnering with the Federation of Small Businesses on a new campaign, #SheMeansBusiness. Over the next six months we’ll be working with women across the UK, providing training, support and practical advice on getting started.

When women start businesses, they create jobs, expand the economy and open new opportunities for their families — just as my grandfather did for our family. There’s no easy solution, but technology can be part of the answer: lowering the barriers to entry that keep women out of the entrepreneurial workforce, and laying the foundations for more jobs and stronger growth.

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