The initiative brings together partners from strong, moderate, and emerging innovator regions, to support women innovators and spread the entrepreneurial mindset. Women entrepreneurs in Widening countries give their views of what needs to change
Womenture, a new EU-funded initiative to support women entrepreneurs, has set about an ecosystem mapping exercise to identify best practice across Europe. It will then work to spread these ideas so that innovation agencies and accelerators generate new joint services and activities to boost female entrepreneurship.
This is a pan-European project, but three of the four partners are from Widening countries that have less efficient innovation ecosystems and where women have an even harder time breaking through as innovators and entrepreneurs than countries in northern and western Europe.
The partners acknowledge this difference in starting points. “Eastern and western Europe have completely different economic histories, therefore the development and the socio-cultural background of the entrepreneurial scene differs too," said Tímea Végh, director of Design Terminal in Budapest, which is coordinating the project. The other partners are Tehnopol science park in Estonia, DEX Innovation Centre, Czechia, and SpinLab accelerator, Germany.
Even with this underlying difference, Womenture intends to be agnostic on the role played by local ecosystems. "During our initial meetings we came to the conclusion that all countries face the same challenges regarding the under-representation of female entrepreneurs,” said Végh.
Ana Barjasic, chief executive of Connectology and chair of the European Innovation Council (EIC) board’s Widening countries working group, agrees that common problems exist across Europe. But she thinks their relative importance will depend on the stage of development in individual countries and regions.
“In the central and eastern European countries, maybe you need to start with cultural norms, because they have very few entrepreneurs, very few investors, and very few stakeholders who can support and educate any kind of entrepreneur, let alone women,” she said.
Countries with a more egalitarian culture and well-established support for entrepreneurs may still have tough tasks ahead. “In the most developed ecosystems, such as the Nordics, women still get very little funding, so you need to work at de-biasing these funding processes,” said Barjasic.
Individual experience bears out the importance of local conditions. Angela Ivanova is the co-founder and chief executive of Lam'on, a start-up based in Sofia that has developed a biodegradable and compostable laminating film for paper and cardboard, and a similar packaging foil for food and cosmetics.
Her challenge was not just being a woman entrepreneur, but starting up in the manufacturing sector. In Bulgaria this is rather conservative, both in terms of its attitude to women and, in 2017 at least, the kind of environmentally conscious product Lam’on wanted to produce. “It was very hard when we started, and even disrespectful sometimes,” Ivanova said.
In particular, it was difficult for Lam’on to test its technology. “We had to find a company that would open its doors so that we could make an industrial prototype and test something that hadn’t been tried before. And that was very hard,” she said.
Knock on wood
After knocking on a lot of doors, a willing company was found, but that was as far as the collaboration went. “They thought: why fix something that’s not broken?”
Ivanova was able to get through these trials thanks to the support of her co-founder, Gergana Stancheva, and international programmes offered by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT). As well as funding Lam’on in its early stages, the EIT provided mentors and coaches for the co-founders. “They pointed us in the right direction, and helped us communicate what we really wanted, while not being so emotional about the negative attitudes we experienced,” Ivanova said.
Bringing on board Philip Ublekov, an associate professor at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, as head of R&D also helped. “We realised the benefits of having a diverse team, and that’s what we are fighting for: not just women executives, but representation of all genders,” Ivanova said.
More recently Lam’on won a grant from the EIC Accelerator to set up its first factory. “We have been building the machine, and we are expanding our team. We hope to launch it next month and expand through Europe by the end of the year.”
Yet even working from this strong base, bias can still get in the way. “We’ve started hiring, and we’ve had two candidates drop out once they found out their bosses would be women,” Ivanova said. “So, we need to communicate with each other, and not be afraid of each other.”
Georgina Lupu Florian also reports experiencing the familiar biases seen by women in tech, from being the only woman in the room during business meetings to assumptions about her position. “Even if they recognise that you have an important role in the business, they sometimes assume that you cannot be an entrepreneur or the CEO,” she said.
She is both the founder and chief executive of Wolfpack Digital, established in Cluj, Romania in 2015. The company designs and codes web and mobile applications for clients around the world, in sectors from health and beauty tech, to fintech and mobility. It has almost 90 staff in-house, with around 45% women. “We are getting close to gender parity without having any specific affirmative action in place,” Lupu Florian said.
More broadly, Lupu Florian sees affirmative action and other initiatives to promote women entrepreneurs as having a positive effect across Europe. And while the challenges themselves might be different across its regions, the overall level of challenge is similar.
For example, Romania regularly ranks as one of the European countries with the highest percentage of women working in tech and engineering. “This gives us a lot of confidence,” she said. “Everyone is used to seeing women engineers, and there may be less bias towards women in tech in Romania than there may be in western European countries.”
Attitudes to failure
However, Lupu Florian feels that Romania and other central and eastern European countries may not be as advanced when it comes to attitudes towards entrepreneurship in general, ranging from the kind of people who start business, to attitudes to failure.
“We do have to deal with these biases, but I think these two effects – the perceptions of women in tech versus what it means to be an entrepreneur – balance each other, so overall I’m optimistic about where we are in central and eastern Europe and the direction we are going in,” said Lupu Florian said. The number of women entrepreneurs in tech has increased dramatically over the past few years, both in the Widening countries and Europe more broadly.
In Barjasic’s view, addressing fundamental issues such as cultural norms and entrepreneurship education should be the first step for central and eastern European countries. For example, many western countries teach children about entrepreneurship from an early age, but this is not often the case in the east.
“That content needs to be there at an early age, and with an equal approach,” she said. “If it is always John doing something, and never Mary, then you already have problems of representation.”
Once there is a level playing field in education, the next stage is entrepreneurship readiness, through initiatives such as accelerators and incubators, which can train women to be business owners and to start to raise funding. But these initiatives need to be underpinned by broader measures if they are to be successful.
“If you have countries with maternity leave, but no paternity leave, then you are reducing this equality of chance for women to participate equally in the entrepreneurship scene,” Barjasic said.
The next layer is about achieving equal access to business activity. This can be backed by policies such as targets for women on company boards, for example, or initiatives that ensure more women-owned businesses win public contracts. “It’s a way of having more women being entrepreneurs in relevant way, especially in industries we want to promote in Europe, such as deep tech,” she said.
These issues may continue to be problematic in countries with more developed entrepreneurial ecosystems, along with issues such as bias in fundraising. Venture capital can be particularly problematic, since these firms are dominated by men and are most comfortable when funding male entrepreneurs.
All of these issues are likely to cross the path of Womenture as it carries out its ecosystem mapping exercise to identify best practice in supporting female entrepreneurs. It will then work to spread these ideas so that innovation agencies and accelerators generate new joint services and activities to boost female entrepreneurship.
"Capacity building is one of the main goals of the project,” said Végh. “We would like to strengthen the skills and increase the number of resources our consortium partners have, and this applies also to other potential partners outside of the project who we will be approaching during these two years.”
Planned networking events include a co-creation workshop in Leipzig in June, and a capacity building workshop in Prague in July. Then in the autumn of 2024 there will be a Joint Innovation Ecosystem Summit, held in Tallin. "By that time, we believe we will have a broad network of stakeholders who are willing to change the currently daunting situation of female entrepreneurs in Europe," Végh said.
Womenture will also make its own contribution with a mentoring programme aimed primarily at female seed and pre-seed entrepreneurs, and those who have entrepreneurial aspirations. Twenty places will be available. “In principle, we will focus on the regions of the four project partners, but of course we will also welcome applicants from other countries,” said Végh.
Lupu Florian is a strong advocate for this kind of support. She is a co-founder of Women in Tech Cluj, which has 2,000 members. Through regular meetings it raises awareness of role models and provides opportunities to learn from mentors and speakers. This ranges from soft skills to specific technical knowledge, for example to help women catch up after being on maternity leave.
“We can see that all these actions have a positive effect and empower women,” Lupu Florian said. Other actions and innovation programmes encouraging women, such as hackathons and accelerators are beneficial too. ”While what we are doing in our community is powerful, it is just local at this point. The EU’s support for women means a lot, as it contributes to a mindset change on a larger scale and at a faster pace.”
Ivanova continues to benefit from mentorship programmes, such as the EIC’s Women Leadership programme and the UBS Female Founder programme. The Swiss bank set up the programme in 2021 to try and level the playfield after publishing a report pointing to the vast funding discrepancy between men and women which means women entrepreneurs lack equal opportunities to innovate and build successful companies
“Programmes like these are very helpful, because they build a network of women who are helping each other,” Lupu Florian said. “We are learning how to talk with each other, and also with people outside of those programmes.”
But she also has a concern that so much support for women entrepreneurs may prompt a push-back if the goals are not well communicated. “A lot of women feel uncertain in their abilities, even if they clearly have them, because of the dismissive attitude to affirmative action,” she said.
This negative attitude has also been seen in funding, where affirmative action includes female business angel networks and female-led venture capital funds. According to a recent study from researchers at ESSEC Business School and INSEAD, female founders in the US were consistently less likely to close a second round if their first round only included women investors.
“That’s crazy,” Barjasic said. “We really need to work on de-biasing the investment and funding processes that we now have in the market, and that issue may be more pronounced in more developed European ecosystems, and the US.”
Lupu Florian also thinks affirmative action is important, but that it should be careful to respect the criteria of merit. “We need to make sure we are promoting women who excel at what they do, because this is the only way that we can counterbalance bias and change perceptions,” she said.
Elsewhere in the Ecosystem…
- Pledge Ventures, a venture capital fund designed to support companies whose founders commit to support charities, has closed its first round at $38 million. The fund was established in partnership with the London-based charity Founders Pledge, which gathers together company founders who commit to donate a percentage of their personal gains to good causes when they cash out. Pledge Ventures will invest in companies raising at least $20 million in series B or later rounds, but only if they are Founders Pledge members. It will also donate most of its carried interest and up half of its fees to Founders Pledge.
- Ark Kapital in Sweden has been awarded a portfolio guarantee by the European Investment Fund that will support its financing of high tech small and medium-sized enterprises in Sweden, Denmark and Germany. The agreement is expected to unlock €146 million in new financing for companies active in sustainability, innovation, and digitalisation.