Businesswomen push forward despite hurdles

Women are increasingly starting their own businesses

Around 40 per cent of new companies in Switzerland are founded by women even though many face difficult conditions, a study has found.

This content was published on April 2, 2008 minutes

As participants at a recent entrepreneurship seminar in Zurich discovered, women are setting up a diverse range of firms. Obstacles to be overcome include work-life issues and encouraging investors.

According to research by St Gallen University, the rate of women starting a business in Switzerland is 4.9 per cent compared with 7.6 per cent for men.

The authors said the female percentage was above average compared with other countries, which was a "paradox" given the "very bad conditions" for women in the workplace.

However, they noted that there was now more encouragement and acceptance of budding female CEOs as well as more family-friendly policies, including crèche provision.

Brigitte Baumann, an entrepreneurship expert who organised the Zurich Women@Venture seminar earlier this week, said many women saw entrepreneurship, although hard work, as a more flexible option.

"A number of women do view it as being able to achieve in a way work-life balance," she told swissinfo.

Many are leaving the corporate world in their mid 40s to do something they really believe in, she added.

Baumann includes herself in that category. She heads her own firm, Go Beyond, which promotes angel investing - when an individual backs a company with his or her own cash for a limited period. She is particularly keen to promote women.

Work and family

Speaking at the seminar was Ashoob Cook, who set up a childcare, education and training company in Britain in 1990, which had spread to 18 sites when she sold it last year.

Cook, who now lives in Geneva and does consultancy, said she set up the business because she was looking for corporate childcare for her own young children.

"It was a rather new concept at that time and it also had slightly a stigma to it. But also it was hard to find funding because banks never regarded it as a business model," she explained.

Balancing family and work life is a challenge that many female entrepreneurs face, she said. But Cook, who now is looking to become an angel investor herself, felt that having a family-friendly business - her own children attended her nurseries – helped.

For Maya Reinshagen, whose Mayoris start-up produces a software that helps companies create customised multilingual email newsletters in all different email systems – clients include supermarket Coop and telecommunications company Sunrise - support of loved ones is key when starting a business.

"A young company is like a little baby which needs care and time and you cannot take five weeks of holidays a year or work 40 hours a week and think you will succeed with a start-up," she told swissinfo.

No differences?

Reinshagen was recently one of ten new firms - and the only woman – which made it to the final in Swiss television's Start-Up competition programme.

But she is not convinced that women face different challenges from men. "It doesn't matter if you are a man or a woman the mistakes you make and difficulties you face are the same," she said, adding it was important to be a leader and role model.

But she does think that some women may be averse to the risk aspect of entrepreneurship.

Cook financed her company through equity and Reinshagen started up on her own for five years and then used investors, but many women still face a lack of funding, the seminar heard.

Women often found lifestyle or service companies whereas investors tend to look for high-tech firms that grow quickly, said Baumann.

"Scalability" – potential for growth - is also important and more coaching is needed to help businesswoman make products out of their services.

"Maya [Reinshagen] is a perfect example where at first she offered primarily a service but little by little she was able to make a product out of it and that's how she grew much faster," Baumann said.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Zurich


The seminar was held on March 31 at the Chair of Entrepreneurship building of the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

It was aimed at bringing female entrepreneurs and investors together to exchange experiences and network.

Organiser Brigitte Baumann said the aims were to show the human side of entrepreneurship, offer high-flying role models and for women to realise they are not alone when setting up a business.

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St Gallen study

The research formed part of the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Swiss Executive Report 2007.

It found that around 300,000 Swiss were in the process of founding or had founded a company that was under three and a half years old.

This puts Switzerland in the middle of international rankings. The United States,
Israel, Iceland, and Canada were at the top.

According to government figures released in January, only half of Swiss start-up firms survive their first five years of business with many failures attributed to lack of market knowledge or unrealistic expectations.

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