“If you want to encourage more women, you need more role models”

Networking – make it work to your advantage.

If you groan when you hear the phrase networking, you’re not alone. Many women can’t stand it and actively avoid going to industry events and conferences.

“That’s a big mistake” says Margaret E. Ward, founder of communication skills training company Broadly Speaking. “You might miss out on meeting some really interesting people who might become friends as well as business associates.

“Strangely enough, men rarely talk about networking. Instead they call it the Friday pint, the weekend GAA, the rugby match or the round of golf. They have a great time. It’s strange that women tend not to think of it in those terms. It’s really important for your career that you get out there and meet as many people as you can.”

Ward, a New Yorker, is well-versed in the importance of building a network. “I came to Ireland in 1995, knowing nobody, and I had to work hard to create a network, both professionally and personally,” she explains.

For her, networking is “just a chance to meet interesting people”.

Ward says conferences – attending them and appearing on stage as a panellist, speaker or MC – have really helped her grow her business in Ireland and internationally. “If people, don’t know who you are in Ireland, they’re generally not going to do business with you.”

“If you want to encourage more women, you need more role models,” says Paula Fitzsimons, who founded and developed the Going for Growth programme for female entrepreneurs.

The initiative, which started almost a decade ago and is backed by Enterprise Ireland and KPMG, has helped about 450 female entrepreneurs so far.

Peer support crucial

“In Ireland, as in virtually every country, a higher proportion of men than women say that they have the skills to establish and run a business” she says.

Peer support and leadership role models are crucial for boosting female entrepreneurship, according to Fitzsimons. “Going for Growth brings together a group of women and a successful entrepreneur,” she explains. “It’s not one-to-one, but I saw the power of that round-table setting very early on. Women realise that other people are facing the same issues.

“And the lead entrepreneur – they are not trainers – they have walked that path before. It’s about sharing experiences,” she says.

But there’s more to the Going for Growth model than simply a confidence boost. “We can also see quantitative outcomes in terms of sales, employment and exports,” Fitzsimons says. “We track growth.”

New contacts

According to Pauline Logan, network manager of the Dublin City Women in Business Network, which falls under the remit of the city’s local enterprise office (LEO), most people in business recognise the benefit of networking as a means of making new contacts that will help them to grow their businesses.

She believes female networks are especially important. “Even though women are setting up businesses, they still lag behind men in terms of the number of businesses started and the growth aspirations for their businesses,” Logan says.

“There is definitely a need for networks to encourage more females to become entrepreneurs, and to motivate and support them to grow their businesses to the maximum. A network that meets on a regular basis is an important means of increasing the visibility of role models.”

Many of the female entrepreneurs that Logan encounters have quit the corporate world to set up their own business and “really see the need to have a peer group with whom they can share experiences and bounce ideas”. It helps them to “stay motivated rather than isolated”, she explains.

In Ward’s view, there’s a need for female-only networks. However, she believes female entrepreneurs should also build broader networks too. “If you only interact with women, that’s foolish,” she says. “But I do think that female perspective is important, to talk to people who’ve been through it.”

While some women may view a female-only network negatively, perhaps feeling that it segregates women, those working closely with female entrepreneurs feel differently.

“Women-only networks shouldn’t be the only type of network women in business should join but for many women, for a period of time, they can be a very effective and motivating resource to help them to improve as business people, to be motivated by people that they can relate to and to build solid contacts,” Logan says.

According to Fitzsimons, the best clusters have “deep roots, but are outward looking”. She believes that woman can use female-only networks to “draw strength from each other to overcome barriers”.