2018 so far has been a year of optimism and camaraderie. It is, after all, the year that marks the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act. Finally, we have a statue of Millicent Fawcett joining the 11 existing ones of great men in parliament square. I am feeling positive for progress, I hope you are too.

This was not always the case. Last October The Sussex Innovation Centre celebrated its 21st birthday. It also happened to be my first month on the team. As part of the celebrations the Centre and all the startups in the building hosted an open house evening. We showcased our businesses, and celebrated the work of the support staff and entrepreneurial individuals who make up the community. A short film was made telling the story of the Centre. I was moved by the passion and courage of all who spoke in the film about their start-up journey. However, with the final credits rolling, I was left with a jarring sense of unease. Where were the women?

As a team we decided immediately to shine a spotlight on female led startups and women in innovation. The statistics are not happy reading. Crunchbase’s longitudinal study counts 54,702 global companies with founders that had an initial funding between 2009 to 2017. Of these global companies, 8,821 (just 16%) have one female founder.

The next step for us was to hold a mirror up and to try and understand through insight what could be done to help more women entrepreneurs make their business ambitions a reality at SINC.

Myself and two other colleagues on the senior management team formed a task force and made it our mission to move beyond talking the talk, and instead walk the walk.

Our aim in 2018 is to get more female-led businesses through our doors and support the ones we already have to scale up. Not simply because they are female, but because they are genuine innovators, with the potential for thought leadership, market disruption and business leadership. 

For the first time we celebrated International Women’s Day in the building, led by our community manager Daisy Wood. She took the time to visit every business in the building and distribute handmade invitations to all the women. We celebrated the achievements of women who inspire us over food and drink. We also raised money and goods for two charities that support young women: The Girls Network and The Red Box Project. People of all genders helped to make it one of the best-attended community events at SINC this year.

As March was women’s history month Daisy and I continued to attend external events:  such as Women Who Innovate UK and Girls in Tech (which SINC partnered with). It gave me a chance to hear from female C-Suite and captains of industry about their routes into tech, their experience of leadership and the wider societal issues that contribute to a lack of diversity. Things like addressing unconscious bias in recruitment, the lack of women in venture capital, and the need to encourage girls from primary school age into STEM subjects. There was also a call to arms for enhanced paternity schemes, back to work maternity support and more flexible working.

We noticed that the StartUp Sussex competition had frequently seen many young women drop out at the pitch stage, with only 2 out of the previous 12 prize winners being female. Concerned, we decided to run an extra, women-only session during the workshop programme, and encouraged the competitors to attend a roundtable facilitated by myself. We asked them to speak freely about the things they felt held them back and hindered their progress through the competition. 

The turnout was good, and we received several unsolicited emails afterwards, thanking us for creating a safe space and taking the time to listen. The issue of a lack of confidence became the headline. With their permission, I could use our conversations as qualitative data and provide the team with rich insight. We understood that these young women experienced a lack of role models and champions for women in business. 

It’s hard to quantify the actual benefits to the young women in this year’s competition from that session, but what I can say is that more women pitched than ever before. Molly Masters, an English Literature undergraduate, won first prize, with Books That Matter. Portia Cronje and Beauty by Me received the third-place prize, and there are female co-founders in the teams that came first and third in the Social Impact Prize. I am happy to be able to mentor Molly for another year, with the help of funding from the University of Sussex and Santander Universities.

I have also been leading a research project for one of our member companies, Momentum4. We surveyed over one hundred women in management to understand what leadership training women experience, and explore the need for more business coaching. The study establishes a clear link between leadership and emotional intelligence, and we are excited to share the results in a white paper later this year.

Sussex Innovation’s desire to address diversity is authentic and I am grateful that I have been given the time and space to pursue this goal with my colleagues. I’m tremendously proud that we’ve welcomed new female-led businesses through our doors already this year, and look forward to seeing many more.

If you’d like to find out more about how we at Sussex Innovation help to build business confidence, get in touch – we’re always keen to help new founders and finding  mentors for The Girls Network.

Dr Chloë Peacock is an Insight and Market Research Advisor at Sussex Innovation Centre

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