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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership

8 March 2022- International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women and progression of gender parity, while also recognising that there is still much more to be done. This year’s theme challenges us to #BreakTheBias and to imagine a world that is diverse, equitable and inclusive, free of stereotypes and discrimination. 

Women remain underrepresented in business and entrepreneurship - and especially so in technology and innovation. Female-owned companies account for just 32% of SMEs in the UK, while a mere 24% of the overall UK STEM workforce identifies as female.  

The CISL Accelerator exists to support and connect diverse groups of founders and entrepreneurs as they push boundaries in sustainability. We’d like to use this year’s IWD to spotlight some of the brilliant women that have joined us on our programmes - to hear more about their experiences in an unequal world, their advice for aspiring female innovators and how they are working to break the bias.  

 

Eileen Willett, Co-Founder of Cucumber Clothing 

What are some of the challenges you and Nancy have faced as female founders? 

“As a female-facing brand, one of our biggest challenges was communicating our USP and brand message during investment rounds. The VC and fundraising world remains male dominated, so having to explain the problem we were solving at a basic level added an enormous barrier to our pitch. Unsurprisingly the few times we pitched to women, there was no barrier and in fact, there was often an ‘aha’ moment when describing what we were solving. 

“This stopped us taking investment too early, and kept us in control of our business. Incomprehension and refusals made us want to succeed even more, and a combination of hard work and faith led us into opportunities we might not otherwise have discovered.” 

How can we encourage more women in sustainable innovation? 

“Creating a gender balance in the sustainable innovation space is a foundation block in encouraging more women into this area. Women need to know that their ideas, energy and talent will be understood and given space to breathe and grow without having to jump extra hurdles.” 

What’s your best advice for current or aspiring female innovators and business owners?

“Growing a viable business from an idea, however brilliant it may be, is a big undertaking. I would say the three key areas to concentrate are: have a crystal clear USP, understand how you are planning to finance, and research diligently to ensure you know your market and customer before you launch.”

 How are you breaking the bias?

“We ‘pay it forward’ every opportunity we get. From chatting with masters students about sustainability in fashion to mentoring other businesses, we want to make sure that each act of kindness creates a positive ripple effect which will help to ‘break the bias’.” 

 

Hermione Crease, Founder and Director at Purrmetrix 

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a female founder? 

“There’s always the sense that women have less room for error. If you’ve had a few rough meetings and failed to get your point across, that can knock your resilience and push you into keeping your head down. It can also be tricky to admit that you don’t know an answer to a question as you feel more vulnerable to judgement.” 

Have you been able to turn any of these into an opportunity? 

“I’ve learnt to be more curious and resilient about my own reactions, to reach out for support more and take more conscious risks. When I speak up these days, I speak up for my team, and for a course of action I believe in. I think that has made me a better communicator and leader.  

“I’m also looking for more female mentors and networks. I suspect these are common reactions to being a female founder, and I love hearing stories about how other women take these feelings and turn them to their advantage. Everyone who has gone through motherhood is also an expert at juggling a lot of conflicting demands and negotiating, which are very practical, portable skills to running a business.” 

How can we encourage more women in sustainable innovation? 

“Helping women understand that this is a terrific adventure and well worth the risk - lots of founders' stories focus on the financial rewards of starting a business, but not many describe the unique satisfaction of building and nurturing something new, from the ground up. On a practical point, reducing the cost of childcare in this country will help younger mothers take financial risks and not get stuck in an employee role if they want to try working for themselves.” 

What’s your best advice for current or aspiring female innovators and business owners? 

“Push yourself to learn fast and take 10% more risk than you might be comfortable with - then remember to give yourself a pat on the back. Being kind to yourself and taking time to understand your motivation will also help you approach others with a relaxed and open mind. Don’t believe anyone who tells you there is only one ‘right’ way to start and build a business. Finally, find a team (and network) that you can lean into - this is definitely a team sport.” 

 

Molly Allington and Sian Fussel, Co-Founders of Albotherm 

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as female founders? 

Sian: “I feel that the biggest challenge faced is standing out; it is still a very male-dominated industry, so it is often the case that you will be the only female in a meeting. But I believe standing out can be used as an advantage. There is a lot of support and encouragement out there for female founders so I think this is a good time to be a female in science and business. We were fortunate that our investors saw having two female founders as a positive driver for the business.” 

Molly: “Being able to ‘sell the dream’ when pitching has always been a struggle for me. It’s one of the reasons most commonly cited as to why female founders struggle to raise investment. As someone who is more naturally reserved, I feel that some of my passion for the business gets lost in the nerves of presenting. This challenge is something that I have to work to get over every time I step into a meeting room.” 

Have you been able to turn any of these into an opportunity?

Sian: “I believe standing out can be used as an advantage. There is a lot of support and encouragement out there for female founders so I think this is a good time to be a female in science and business. We were fortunate that our investors saw having two female founders as a positive driver for the business.”

Molly: “Because of the challenges you face fundraising as a female entrepreneur, I find that I practise so much harder before going into a pitch which is always going to lead to a better result. It’s hard to say how much of an opportunity this is but we did succeed with raising our first investment round and were praised by a couple of investors for our competence and humility.”

How can we encourage more women in sustainable innovation? 

Molly: “People are what make up businesses so it’s essential to be a leader that people can admire. Studies have shown that female leaders are particularly empathetic by understanding people’s unique strengths and nurturing company culture. I would also encourage other leaders not to shy away from being empathetic at work in order to fit into a male-dominated field. Women have a unique opportunity to change the standard for what a leader can be.” 

What’s your best advice for current or aspiring female innovators and business owners? 

Sian: “You can’t do everything. Surrounding yourself with supportive and diverse colleagues and advisors is key to successful innovation. People have varied skill sets and discussing your ideas and questions with people will always bring clarity to your decision making.” 

Molly: “Being self aware as a business owner is very important. It helps you understand your own skills and weaknesses, then as you grow your business you can hire the right people to fill those gaps.” 

How can society ‘break the bias’? 

Molly: “Start education on gender equality as early as possible. The confidence gap starts very early, where women and girls self-report their talents to be lower than they are, particularly in maths and science. We can break the bias by showing young people there is more than one idea of what a scientist or an entrepreneur can look like.” 

 

Our new Accelerator programme Women in Sustainability Innovation is designed to equip female founders with the skills, confidence and networks to accelerate positive change. Join a supportive community of female pioneers, as you strengthen your entrepreneurial skills and grow your business. Applications close Wednesday 11 May. 

 

 

 

About the authors

 

Eileen Willett trained in fashion in Paris and San Francisco before settling in London working at Nicole Farhi where she helped grow their menswear brand. She launched Cucumber Clothing with her Co-Founder Nancy Zeffman in 2017. The sustainable fashion brand makes luxurious everyday clothing using ultra-soft technical fabrics. Eileen was shortlisted for the 2020 Asian Woman of Achievement Awards, and is a regular speaker on female entrepreneurship, slow fashion and diversity in business. 

 

 

Hermione Crease has spent more than 20 years in the tech sector working in marketing and product strategy roles focussing on energy efficiency and smart homes. At Purrmetrix she is helping landlords and facilities managers understand the performance of their buildings to create more comfortable, efficient and productive spaces. 

 

 

 

Albotherm is proud to be a tech company led by two female founders, Molly Allington (CEO) and Sian Fussel (CTO). The pair met when they were both researchers at the University of Bristol. United by a mission to use science as a force for good, Molly and Sian set up Albotherm, which offers passive cooling technology that can regulate temperatures without energy input. Their aim is to reduce the carbon emissions associated with some of the world’s biggest sector contributors. 

 

 

Disclaimer

Staff articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.