Mentoring: How mentors can help female founders overcome barriers to success

Mentoring: How mentors can help female founders overcome barriers to success

Posted: Wed 4th Mar 2020

Mentors provide invaluable insight. Speaking to someone that's built a business provides context and helps improve your mindset, making you more likely to succeed.

Last year's Alison Rose Review examined the disparity between female and male founders, highlighting the need for relatable and accessible mentors to ensure more women succeed.

The review found women are less likely than men to know other entrepreneurs or to have access to sponsors, mentors or professional support networks. This lack of access to professional networks was found to be a particularly critical barrier for newer female business owners.

So, how can female founders find the right mentors and what benefits can they have?

The difference in perspectives

Cultural barriers affect how many women start and run their businesses. These barriers can prevent women from accessing relevant support or even starting up in the first place.

The Alison Rose Review highlighted a number of differences between the way men and women view running a business.

  • Women typically have higher risk-awareness than men and are more cautious about starting or scaling a business.

  • 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.

  • Many of the women interviewed often credited other people for their success and dismissed their own achievements.

Stephanie Wheen, CEO and founder of Gympanzees, believes mentors and peers can help female business owners develop the right attitude.

"A lot of business is about taking risks and being brave. The people who jump forward are the ones who put themselves out there, even if they're not comfortable. Women are less good at taking risks. Hopefully, that's changing we need to encourage each other as peers."

Sapphire Bates, founder and CEO of The Coven Girl Gang, agrees that confidence is key to success.

"It's all about knowing how you work. I think, personally, it can be very good to get into my business brain and not focus too emotionally on things. It's about learning confidence."

Finding a mentor

Sapphire said she looked for mentors because she launched her first business at a young age and knew she needed a lot of help.

"It's difficult when you own a business, it can feel like you haven't got anyone you can really openly discuss things with. Having a mentor helps me to push the business forward."

She used several routes to find mentors, taking both formal and informal approaches. She met her current mentor in a pub – he was working with The Prince's Trust and had been helping a friend. She ended up reaching out to him two or three years later.

"People who have done well in business want to be able to share what they've done. They're proud and want to help people. Just approaching them and asking to meet for a coffee works."

Sapphire adds that the mentor has helped her develop a positive mindset. He's encouraged her to look at the business from a different perspective and reinforced the achievements.


Help to Grow: Management – Support a small business to grow with mentoring


Creating a peer network to find business support

Formula Botanica founder Lorraine Dallmeier tried using paid mentoring services but wasn't able to find the kind of support she needed. In 2015, she formed a "masterminds" peer-to-peer networking group with 10 founders who were running online businesses.

"I found them through Facebook networking groups. I handpicked a couple and then they picked a couple."

The group has a Zoom video call every month. Each member takes a 30-minute turn in the hot seat, providing an update or sharing a challenge. Last year, the group hired an apartment for three days, spending two days picking apart each other's business as well as socialising.

The group has ended up being entirely made up of female founders. That didn't happen by design, but through circumstance as the only male member stopped working on his business.

Five years later, the five remaining members run businesses with seven-figure turnovers and Lorraine said it's had a massive role in her success.

"We sell online courses and they're available all the time. One of the women in the masterminds group came up with the idea of including term times, rather than letting people book whenever they wanted. That introduced scarcity and it doubled our turnover from one year to the next we became a seven-figure business."

Using mentors to address specific challenges

It's normal for small business owners to have more than one mentor. There may be different elements of your business you need specialist advice about. Working with founders who have been through the stage you're in provides useful context.

Stephanie Wheen's first mentor came through an accelerator programme. She's sought out people who could help her with specific elements of the business, from opening a shop to registering a charity.

She's outgrown most mentors, but stuck with one who's a successful entrepreneur in her industry.

"Because there's 11 of us now, it's a very different kind of business. He has experience in that. Working with people that have done it before means you don't have to make all the mistakes there are."

Get the most value from your mentoring relationship

Having some kind of structure to mentoring meetings helps keep you accountable.

Sapphire spends half a day with her mentor every month. They talk about what's happened, what went well and what went badly. Her mentor asks for a list of items to talk about at the start to make sure they cover everything.

If your mentor is providing feedback on every aspect of your business, you could cover key questions like the following:

  • Update on revenue: How is the business performing versus your targets?

  • Sales and marketing activity: Have you been able to complete the work you expected? What impact has it had?

  • Key challenges and achievements: What's gone well and what needs work?

  • Health and wellbeing: How are you feeling about the business?

The relationship has to be built on trust because you need to be comfortable talking about things that are going badly. Sapphire says:

"It can often take meeting lots of different mentors before you find the right one. A lot of the mentors have been useful in different ways."

Formula Botanica's Lorraine emphasises the value of having a mentor, even if you're convinced you can do it alone.

"Be open and don't be scared of asking for help."


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Relevant resources

Chris has over a decade of experience writing about small businesses and startups. He runs Inkwell, a content agency that helps companies that sell to small business owners grow their audiences through content marketing. You can find him on Twitter at @CPGoodfellow.

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