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Baroness Neville-Rolfe: Libraries can provide crucial support for women entrepreneurs

4 min read

Networks of support and access to information can help women overcome barriers thrive in starting up businesses, writes Baroness Neville-Rolfe

I have been looking at whether the British Library, which has been a champion of intellectual property rights and literary endeavour, can with its wider network help to promote female entrepreneurship.

For any woman with the first spark of an idea, the road to transforming that inspiration into a viable small business can be daunting. Protecting IP through a trademark or patent, researching the market, writing a business plan, working out finances and cash flow, developing a marketing strategy: these are crucial first steps, but are too often inaccessible for women. Not having the time, the confidence, or indeed simply not knowing where to start, is a common problem facing aspiring business owners who aren’t from a traditionally ‘entrepreneurial’ background – especially women, who are more likely than their male counterparts to be juggling work with childcare and family responsibilities.

Perhaps this offers some explanation for why, in 2020, the UK’s business landscape is still dominated by men, with only 20% of businesses nationwide owned by women, and fewer than 5% owned by women from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background.

The recent Alison Rose Review of female entrepreneurship estimated that if women started and scaled new businesses at the same rate as men, up to £250bn of new value could be added to the UK economy over 10 years. The report’s findings are a resounding wake-up call to an industry which is lagging behind on addressing gender inequality. Since it was published, major banks and venture capital firms have come together to signal their commitment to supporting the advancement of female entrepreneurship. But access to capital is not enough. Women entrepreneurs also need welcoming and accessible spaces offering jargon-free information, reliable market intelligence, regular workshops and trusted and impartial advice from those who have been there and faced the same challenges; somewhere they can meet like-minded entrepreneurs and build the strong foundations needed before they are ready to pitch for investment.

It may come as a surprise that public libraries are already leading the charge on this. The British Library’s national network of Business & IP Centres – set up in 14 major libraries across the UK to support all aspiring entrepreneurs and small business owners through access to information, training, mentoring, networks and expertise from local business partners – has a proven track record of supporting women. In three years, the network has created over 12,000 new businesses and almost 8,000 new jobs across a range of sectors including tech, food, communications and the creative industries. Of those new businesses 55% are owned by women, over a third of whom are from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background and 15% of whom have a disability. Nine in 10 businesses started with the libraries’ help between 2012 and 2018 were still trading in 2019. Compare those numbers to the national averages for survival rates and it is clear that libraries are quietly breaking down the barriers to business success for women from all walks of life, and generating long-term growth in local economies.

The British Library has a keen ambition to expand this network to 20 regional Centres by 2023, with an increased emphasis on expanding its business support offering beyond city centres and into towns and other locations across the UK.  For example, the Millennium Library in Norwich has widened its services to satellite hubs in Great Yarmouth, King’s Lynn and Thetford to reach rural and coastal communities across Norfolk. The BIPC at Manchester Central Library is providing services in partnership with the neighbouring authorities of Bolton, Oldham, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford and Wigan, as well as further afield in the Lancashire towns of Blackpool and Burnley and the city of Preston.

The Alison Rose Review sent a clear message to policymakers and the finance industry: that addressing gender inequality in business will empower women and turbocharge the UK economy. To set the wheels in motion, it is up to policymakers to ensure that libraries have a seat at the table.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe is a Conservative peer

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