Amelia Earhart – a role model for C21st female entrepreneurs

The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life and the procedure, the process is its own reward.

The words of Amelia Earhart. Spoken like a true entrepreneur, this quote captures her drive and focus. Her flying achievements are extraordinary, and demonstrate her strength and spirit as a female pioneer. Yet despite Earhart’s achievements and those of other iconic female role models, female entrepreneurs with the ability, influence and passion to transform a generation are often ignored, with just one in five startups that receive investment being founded by a woman. Why?

One reason could be that female entrepreneurs seeking investment for their new idea are likely to be almost entirely male faces. Just 13% of senior investment teams are women, and almost half of investment teams have no women at all. This surely contributes to a stark gender imbalance in the businesses that investors fund.

The gender bias female entrepreneurs face undoubtedly deters many. Add to this the reality that women still take on a far larger share of family related responsibilities than men, and it is no surprise that so few female innovators take the plunge. While this is fundamentally unfair in a diverse, democratic and open-minded society, it is also economically short-sighted – research shows that the UK is losing out on £250bn of economic value each year because of the daunting barriers facing women entrepreneurs.

However, there are signs of some positive change, with the Government’s commissioning of Alison Rose (Deputy CEO NatWest) to lead an independent review of female entrepreneurship earlier this year. The review shed renewed light on the barriers faced by women starting and growing their own businesses, and identified ways of removing them.

In response, the Government has announced an ambition to increase the number of female entrepreneurs by 50% by 2030, equivalent to nearly 600,000 additional female entrepreneurs. The Rose report and Government response is hopefully the catalyst needed for society undergoing a shift in outlook. While the UK is in many ways the startup capital of Europe, it lags well behind the Netherlands, Spain, Australia, the US and Sweden in terms of the proportion of female founders.

For investors, putting money into female founded startups makes financial sense, as there is substantial evidence that gender diversity fosters creativity and results in better decision making by encouraging new perspectives which men frequently lack or disregard. Yet women-owned enterprises represent less than 25% of UK business.

Alison’s report thus identified three fundamental changes needed to overcome the barriers faced by women entrepreneurs:

Increase funding directed towards female entrepreneurs. Access to and awareness of funding was highlighted as the number one issue for female entrepreneurs across the entire entrepreneurial journey, from intention to scale-up. Female-led businesses receive 53% less funding on average than those headed by men at every stage of their journey.

To combat this the Alison recommended making more start-up funding available to women. The rewards for the wider economy and society could be huge, even if Britain does not achieve full gender parity in levels of entrepreneurship, but catches up with its best-performing peers.

Provide greater family care support for female entrepreneurs. Disproportionate primary/family care responsibilities affect female entrepreneurs throughout the entrepreneurial journey.

Making entrepreneurship more accessible for women Increasing support through accessible mentors and networks is key to boost female entrepreneurship. Alison found three reinforcing cultural barriers affect women at all stages of the entrepreneurial journey:

– Women typically have higher risk-awareness than men and are more cautious, limiting their willingness to risk their livelihood on an uncertain venture.

– Women are less likely to believe they possess entrepreneurial skills: only 39% of women are confident in their capabilities to start a business compared to 55% of men. This is a perceived gap in ability, rather than an actual gap in skill sets.

– Women are less likely than men to know other entrepreneurs or to have access to sponsors, mentors or support networks.

Alison’s report recommended eight initiatives.

Initiative 1: Promote greater transparency in funding allocation through a new ‘Investing in Female Entrepreneurs Code’, which commits all financial institutions to the principles of gender equality for investment.

Initiative 2: Launch new investment vehicles to increase funding going to female entrepreneurs, who can thus access new, potentially profitable market opportunities whilst helping women-led enterprises to grow.

Initiative 3: Encourage investors to support and invest with a specific focus on gender diversity by launching funding rounds for businesses in female-dominated sectors such as healthcare and services.

Initiative 4: Focus banking products aimed at entrepreneurs with family care responsibilities, to help parent entrepreneurs manage their businesses and the challenges of raising a family.

Initiative 5: Improve access to expertise by expanding and encourage private sector actors to offer their time to business hubs.

Initiative 6: Expand mentorship and networking opportunities, with public and private sector organisations coming together to share best practices and support a centralised networking platform to create greater connections.

Initiative 7: Accelerate development and roll-out of entrepreneurship-related courses to schools and colleges by commercial organisations to collaborate on education focused on entrepreneurship, financial literacy and self-belief.

Initiative 8: Create an entrepreneur digital first-stop shop, encouraging private sector actors in partnership with public bodies to collaborate to create a comprehensive nationwide digital first-stop information shop for female entrepreneurs.

There is no silver bullet that will transform the landscape for female entrepreneurs overnight. Many barriers are cultural and societal, and will take many years to overcome. However, the eight initiatives provide a starting platform for the significant and sustained action required to release the unrealised potential of women as entrepreneurs.

In the modern world, female role models are plentiful, to transform a generation. For example: Sylvia Plath, Malala Yousifazi, Margaret Cavendish, Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Garret Anderson, and Anita Roddick to name a few – but Amelia Earhart – the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and back to her quote at the top of this blog – is the stand out to me for today’s female entrepreneurs.

It was when Amelia attended a stunt-flying exhibition that she became seriously interested in aviation. On December 28, 1920, pilot Frank Hawks gave her a ride that would forever change her life.  Earhart took her first flying lesson on January 3, 1921 and, in six months bought her first plane, a two-seater biplane painted bright yellow – The Canary – and set her first women’s record by rising to an altitude of 14,000 ft.

Then in April 1928, she took a phone call: How would you like to be the first woman to fly the Atlantic? After an interview in New York, she was asked to join the flight. She left Trepassey Harbour, Newfoundland, in a Fokker F7, Friendship, on June 17, 1928, and arrived at Burry Port, Wales 21 hours later.  On her return, she was greeted with a ticker-tape parade in New York and a White House reception with President Calvin Coolidge.

George Putnam entered her life, too. The two developed a friendship during preparation for the Atlantic crossing and were married February 7, 1931. Intent on retaining her independence, she referred to the marriage as a partnership with dual controls. Together, they worked on plans for Earhart to become the first woman and the second person to fly solo the Atlantic. On May 20, 1932, five years to the day after Lindbergh, she took off from Harbor Grace, Newfoundland, to Paris. Strong north winds, icy conditions, and mechanical problems plagued the flight and forced her to land in a pasture near Londonderry, Ireland.

President Herbert Hoover presented Earhart with a gold medal, Congress awarded her the Distinguished Flying Cross – the first ever given to a woman. Earhart felt the flight proved that men and women were equal in jobs requiring intelligence, coordination, speed, coolness, and willpower. In the years that followed, Earhart continued to reach new heights. On January 11, 1935, she became the first person to fly solo across the Pacific from Honolulu to California.

In 1937, approaching her 40th birthday, she was ready for her biggest challenge: to be the first woman to fly around the world. Despite a botched attempt in March that damaged her plane, a determined Earhart had the twin engine Lockheed Electra rebuilt. I have a feeling that there is just about one more good flight left in my system, and I hope this trip is it, she said.

On June 1, Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan departed from Miami and began the 29,000-mile journey. On June 29 they landed in Lae, New Guinea with just 7,000 miles remaining. Frequently, inaccurate maps had made navigation difficult, and their next hop to Howland Island was by far the most challenging.

Howland Island, in the Pacific, is a mile and a half long and half-mile wide. Every unessential item was removed from the plane to make room for extra fuel. The US Coastguard was stationed off Howland Island and two other US ships, burning every light on board, were positioned along the flight route as markers.

On July 2, 10am local time, the pair took off. Despite ideal weather reports they flew into overcast skies and intermittent rain showers. This made celestial navigation difficult. As dawn neared, Earhart called the US Coastguard reporting cloudy weather, cloudy. At 7.42am, the Coastguard picked up the message Fuel is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet. The ship replied, but the plane seemed not to hear.

At 8.45am, Earhart reported We are running north and south. Nothing further was heard from her. A rescue commenced and became the most extensive air and sea search in naval history. On July 19, after spending $4m and scouring 250,000 square miles of ocean, the search was called off.

In 1938, a lighthouse was constructed on Howland Island in her memory. On 5 January 1939, Amelia Earhart was declared legally dead. Neither the plane nor bodies were recovered.

There is no doubt that the world will always remember Amelia Earhart for her courage, vision, and groundbreaking achievements for women.  In a letter to her husband, written in case a flight proved to be her last, her brave spirit was clear:  Please know I am quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.

Amelia Earhart is a model of the modern independent woman, and an icon of the spirit of adventure, her myth made all the more alluring by her mysterious disappearance and failure at her final challenge. Like all entrepreneurs, her success was down to passion, sheer effort, thinking big and bold, and having a clear focus.

The unprecedented energy and attention around gender equality for entrepreneurship makes this a moment when extraordinary progress is possible. We short-change women if we set our sights too low. In the earliest days of American democracy, Abigail Adams (wife of John Adams, and mother of John Quincy Adams) urged the architects of the Constitution to ‘remember the ladies’. Now is the time.

So on the back of the eight initiatives of Alison Rose’s report, and the memory of Amelia Earhart, I believe our goal should be to expand women’s power and influence in entrepreneurship. I think of power and influence as the ability to make decisions, control resources, and shape perspectives. It is something women exercise in their homes, in their workplaces, and in their communities, and they can have the same impact on business.

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