Supporting women entrepreneurs

Published by Dell Corporation, the Women Entrepreneurs Cities Index (WE Cities Index) is a well validated and comprehensive assessment of 25 global cities, based on 5 criteria: technology, culture, capital, market and talent.

To date, Sydney is the only participating Australian city and was ranked eighth in 2016. This favourable ranking was primarily based on a supportive culture founded on access to mentors and role models. An impressive achievement, particularly when we consider Sydney outranked the usual “heavy-hitters” – Paris, Seattle, Munich and Hong Kong. Yet other cities out-performed Sydney including: San Francisco (Bay Area), London, Stockholm, Singapore, Toronto, Washington D.C. and New York, which ranked number one.

In the last five years, women-owned businesses in New York have grown by 45 percent and now make up over 40 percent of private businesses. These programs have had a positive economic impact, by employing nearly 200,000 New Yorkers and contributing approximately US$50bn in annual sales.

At this point, Sydneysiders could bask in the glow of its well-deserved top-10 ranking. But how can Sydney – and other Australian cities – improve their ranking. An important distinction is that women entrepreneurs in New York are comparatively better supported on the key measures of capital, culture, market and talent.

This may be surprising since it appears to contradict the quintessentially male-centric, Wall Street culture. But New York has, over the years, adopted policies and initiatives supportive of women entrepreneurs. For example, in the last five years, women-owned businesses in New York have grown by 45 percent and now make up over 40 percent of private businesses. These programs have had a positive economic impact, by employing nearly 200,000 New Yorkers and contributing approximately US$50bn in annual sales.

Here are three ways that Sydney, and other Australian cities that might participate in the future, can implement New York-style initiatives to support home-grown women entrepreneurs.

1. Local Government Policies

A key piece of legislation that has helped drive the growth of New York’s women entrepreneurs is Article 15-A of the State Executive Law. Passed in 1988, Article 15-A established a Division of Minority and Women’s Business Development. The main purpose was to promote fair and equal participation in government contracts by women-owned business.

In 2015, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio took further steps to mandate all government agencies to adopt new measures to promote women businesses. The directive required the appointment of an officer within each agency to represent the interests of women with USD16 billion dollars funding over ten years.

Furthermore, in order to facilitate access to funds, NYC’s Small Business Services signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Empire State Development Corporation to help women business owners secure government projects. For example, construction businesses can now receive up to 30% of the contract value to secure a bond on city projects worth US$2 million. These initiatives have the empowering effect of removing one of the major barriers for women entrepreneurs – access to capital. In this regard, Sydney ranked poorly on the WE Cities Index.

2. Women in Key Leadership Positions

The recent growth in the number of women entrepreneurs in New York coincides with a period of increased participation by women in government. In New York, women hold more than half of the highest-ranked jobs in the city’s administration and have leadership positions in 70 percent of 27 government agencies sampled. This has helped create a cultural shift where a premium is placed on establishing environments that are conducive to female-owned enterprises.

Businesswomen in New York are great advocates of their own causes, perhaps because they are better able to understand the unique issues that constitute a barrier to women who strive for success in business.

There is an apparent shortcoming in Australia in the full engagement of women entrepreneurs to ensure rigorous feedback on policy development.

3. Public-Private Partnership Programs

New York has a wealth of expertise leveraging public-private partnerships to develop and promote public policy. One such initiative is the Women Entrepreneurs NYC (WE NYC) program, facilitated by the city’s Small Business Services in collaboration with Citigroup. The goal is to foster 5,000 new women entrepreneurs over three years.

The program offers a suite of resources needed to initiate and up-scale a business. This includes free master classes on basic business and entrepreneurial skills, mentoring, capital raising, negotiation workshops and intensive classes dedicated to specific industries.

In 2016, the City of Sydney unveiled the Tech Start-Up Action Plan, a comprehensive program for both male and female entrepreneurs. The primary focus for women is the partnership with Springboard Enterprises Australia, a global support network for female entrepreneurs with high-growth potential.

In addition, the City of Sydney held the inaugural Spark Festival comprising 60 events in collaboration with industry groups, several specifically for women. Finally, the New South Wales Government recently launched the Women’s Online Network, a resource specifically for women entrepreneurs. These initiatives represent definitive early steps towards establishing an enabling culture for local women entrepreneurs.

Getting to number one

A core responsibility of policymakers is to foster a positive environment for growth and this should start with better data collection to help assess outcomes of key programs. Moreover, there is an apparent shortcoming in Australia in the full engagement of women entrepreneurs to ensure rigorous feedback on policy development.

Masterclasses covering topics such as financial management, negotiation skills, marketing, business lifecycle, compliance and risk management are required. Australian cities must also develop goal-orientated programs to enable the flow of capital, accompanied by a targeted communication strategy. Finally, we need to recognise that developing a successful and sustainable environment for women entrepreneurs requires dedication and commitment of resources over time. Remember that New York commenced this journey of gender-focused business development nearly a decade ago.

New York and Sydney are the two cities that I have had the privilege of calling home. Both are leading business hubs because they recognise the positive economic impact of women entrepreneurs. The WE Cities Index highlights New York’s tremendous foresight and continued growth in this space. Now may be an opportune time for local policy-makers and business advocacy groups to fully harness the unfulfilled potential of local women entrepreneurs. The WE Cities Index is published in June of each year. I have high expectations that if the correct strategies are implemented, Australian cities may soon challenge New York’s top spot on this important global metric.

This is an edited extract from the AICD’s latest Gender Diversity Progress Report.