At The Icehouse we are open and transparent enough to acknowledge the challenges faced in getting under-represented groups onto our flagship Owner Manager Programme (OMP). This is a two-pronged concern. Firstly, are we doing enough to promote our services in the right areas and to the right people? Secondly, and more importantly, what can we do to widen access to opportunities for all?
A huge area of concern for us is the number of women owners and managers participating on OMP. An estimated 33% of women in New Zealand are business owners (the fourth-highest percentage globally) and Aotearoa is first in the top 10 markets with the strongest supporting conditions and opportunities for women to thrive as entrepreneurs, according to the Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs.
It sounds good so far, but there is so much more to be done. Miranda Smith, Owner at Miranda Smith Homecare, and Owner Manager Programme alumni, described day one of her OMP experience as “… daunting. There were 23 men and 2 women [in the room]. I just did not feel like I was really meant to be there.
“I knew that my turnover was enough to be there, but I still thought it would be minimal compared to others. I was aware that I had not had any formal education or training past school. I was really scared that I was going to say something stupid. I do not know whether that is all women. We are not great at putting ourselves forward and going, look at my business, these skills, the vulnerability I have is what can make a great business. I just do not know that we have enough business stories with women that say, it is hard.”
It’s a conundrum Liz Wotherspoon, Chief Executive at The Icehouse, visits constantly. “The Owner Manager Programme has been running for 21 years. On many, many occasions over that time we have been challenged about the number of women we have on the programme. We have never made excuses for why we don’t see the number we would like. Whenever I’ve been asked how many women we have on our programmes, my answer is always ‘not enough’. We continue to put energy and focus on doing what we can do to change the situation and to working out whether there is something we should be doing that we’re not,” says Liz.
“Broadening diversity, not just gender diversity, is a very important priority for us. We have had some wonderful, dynamic, successful and humble women on OMP. Women juggling work, life, family and the commitment of time that OMP represents. We challenge ourselves regularly about why we don’t see more.”
Sarah Laurence’s (General Manager, DC Power and OMP alumni) early days as an entrepreneur will be familiar to many women owners – positive, but far from ideal. “It was very tough but convenient. I was lucky juggling motherhood and work because it was a family business. So the back office became a creche, and by the time I had my second child, my mum and I were tag-teaming the childcare.”
Does the double burden of career and domestic responsibility hinder female entrepreneurship training and development? Chris Woods has worked with The Icehouse since 2001. Chris is co-lead facilitator on OMP and one of our most experienced and high-profile facilitators.In 2021 she was appointed as the Inaugural Theresa Gattung Chair for Women in Entrepreneurship at the University of Auckland Business School and is also Director of the new Aotearoa Centre for Enterprising Women.
“If you look around the room and there aren't women there, it's just not representative of where business owners are. It's not that 50% of the businesses that we're targeting, are co-owned and led by women, but it's certainly more than the number that we have on the programme. It's a challenge, because women typically and disproportionately bear the brunt of the unpaid, caring work – be it household, family, and so on.
“Certainly, the residential aspect of OMP is an extra factor to consider for some women owners. But it also means that they then can come on the programme, and be there and be present, rather than juggling the 101 things that they have to,” says Chris.
Greater access to funding and scholarships, female-focused events, incentives and subsidies, women-only programmes, flexible programme participation. These are just some of the many discussions which take place at The Icehouse every day.
Of course, the debate raises more questions than answers, and while there’s no magic wand or easy solution as yet, The Icehouse is doing all it can to make a change.
“We need women on the programme, because women-led, women-owned businesses are representative of a part of our economy within the SME space, and I think we've struggled to get that representation,” says Chris.
“We ask the question of ourselves, our customers, our alumni and our prospective customers, do you think this is a marketing issue, a sales issue or a product issue? We will continue to explore this and we will continue to take onboard feedback and make changes to better position the Owner Manager Programme in the eyes of prospective women owner managers,” says Liz.
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