Breaking Barriers - InBusiness Interview with Business Women Can Programme Director Fiona Kingston

The Ulster Bank's Businesswomen Can programme aims to help female entrepreneurs in Ireland overcome the barriers they may encounter in the business world.

We spoke with Fiona Kingston, programme Director, to discover more. Business Women Can was originally launched in October 2012 - Ulster Bank's parent company, Royal Bank of Scotland, had been running a similar programme for five or six years previous, having seen the merit in supporting women in business in the UK.

As a result, the organisation here in Ireland launched their own, similar, programme, with the primary objective of supporting female entrepreneurs across the island of Ireland. Business Woman Can encourages female entrepreneurs to profile themselves and to push their business, product or service through this forum.

Business Women Can Ambassadors

"It's a very good way of reaching a very wide audience, at no cost to themselves," explains Fiona Kingston, the programme's Director. "There are 40 internal Business Women Can ambassadors scattered across the island,” many of whom are partnered with external ambassadors from the SME market, professional services or not-for-profit organisations, for example. "It's very much about local connectivity, local females supporting local females. We believe that we've got a lot of shared experience to offer."

In the past, Business Women Can has run master classes in Queen's University, Belfast, given presentations across the country to organisations such as the North Cork Enterprise Boards, collaborated with DCU's Ryan Academy for their High Fliers Female Propeller programme, and partnered with groups such as Certified Public Accountants, with whom they worked on the summer sessions the organisation runs for their female members. Kingston recognises that while great strides have been made in recent years, barriers to women in business still remain.

"One is confidence," she explains. "It's unfortunate, but a fact of life that confidence certainly holds women back. As does the fear of failure - calculated risks need to be taken in business but if you're not prepared to take a calculated risk, it's very hard to move onwards. [In terms of] networking, women are certainly getting better at it, but up until recently, a lot of networking was done on the golf course or in the pub.

Work-life Balance

That probably isn't ideally suited to women. We just need to be a bit more targeted, I think. And then there's the age-old issue, the juggle of the work-life balance, which can be very difficult." Though things are certainly changing, with men becoming more supportive and taking an equal share of responsibilities at home, "nonetheless, it continues to be an issue for many women," says Kingston.

Kingston also mentions the importance of having suitable role models for female entrepreneurs, people to which they can both aspire and learn from.

"In terms of business in Ireland, we're not seeing enough women at senior executive levels in organisations. It depends on the research you read, but I've seen numbers ranging from 8 to 13 per cent in Ireland," she says. "That's a very small number and it means there aren't many role models for women to aspire to at that particular level."

In the entrepreneurial field, statistics suggest that between 15-18 per cent in this country are women. "While we're making improvements here, we've still got a long way to go," says Kingston.

Meanwhile, last year was the first year that Ulster Bank introduced a category in their Business Achiever Awards for women-led business. "It was an absolute resounding success," says Kingston. Clearly a signal to us in the bank that what we're doing in Business Women Can is resonating very tangibly with our public, with our female-led businesses."

Going forward, the organisation's aims remain the same. "We want to encourage more women to take the leap and establish business and we really want to get out into our local markets and support those who are there, and those who are coming forward. We do believe that more and more women will actually take the next step and start a business, which is exactly what this country needs," Kingston concludes.

Read more from the InBusiness magazine here.



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