Missing in Action 2: Women Digital Entrepreneurs on the Move

It’s been nearly a year since we hosted the first Missing in Action: Women and Digital Enterprise in the UK conference at Nottingham University.

In some ways, much of the context, both micro and macro, has changed: I am now a lecturer in entrepreneurship at Loughborough University London, and settling into life as a new academic and early career researcher; the UK is reeling post-Brexit and people everywhere are wondering what the world is going to look like once the dust settles.

There is also the new Higher Education Bill, slowly making its way through parliament, despite protest by students, scholars and the Universities and College Union, who are opposed to the imminent marketisation of the higher education sector it appears to signify.

However, some things have stayed the same. Despite the recent acknowledgement of the immense contributions of the UK creative industries to the wider economy, and the vital role played by women in the creative industries and digital economy, there is still a lack of attention to the entrepreneurship being enacted by women in the online environment.

When I opened Tech City UK’s 2015 report on the UK digital economy, I held my breath in anticipation of seeing, for the first time, hard statistics on the various digital entrepreneurial activities in which women are engaged.

I was expecting to see estimates of how many women (UK-wide) are engaged in digital enterprise, what their demographic backgrounds were, what kind of businesses they had, and which sectors they were working in. I was sorely disappointed.

Instead of this crucial information, which I believe would highlight the many ‘invisible’ and home-based businesses in which entrepreneurial women tend to predominate, and therefore help to measure the real reach of the creative and digital economy, the report covered the same ground: high-tech companies and clusters that have dominated the conversation on digital enterprise since the founding days of Silicon Valley. The update of the report from this year continues the trend.

I shouldn’t have been so surprised. The contributions of women in tech have always been downplayed, denigrated, and sometimes outright ignored. Why should it be any different in discussions of digital enterprise?

We cannot afford to ignore women’s digital activities any longer. Although we are under-represented as founders of high-tech businesses, women digital entrepreneurs are a formidable force. They are shaping culture (both online and offline), and changing industries forever: health and wellness, beauty and fashion, parenting initiatives – even non-stereotypically feminine sectors such as gaming – are all undergoing the radical innovation introduced by women digital pioneers.

And women will continue to do so, whether or not the worlds of tech, academia and government acknowledge their vibrant and exciting contributions. That said, it is in all of our best interests – researchers, business and government alike – to wake up and support the self-starting communities of women who are getting the internet to work for them, and creating the online culture of the 21st century.

Yet we caution against the expectation that women digital entrepreneurs will do everything independently, and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. My PhD research offered evidence that even more than technical barriers to success, many women struggle to gain access to socially-distributed resources, such as finance, time and advantageous social networks, issues which are compounded by intersectional issues such as class and race.

Moreover, last year’s Missing in Action event showed us that women faced considerable personal challenges to business ownership in general, such as problematic emotional relationships to money (Do I deserve to be paid for my time? How much is my work worth?), lack of knowledge around business finance and the Imposter Syndrome.

The latter of these two issues is something that we at Digital Women UK (DWUK) can help with. We are organising a follow-up Missing in Action event on Saturday 26 November 2016, from 10.30am to 3.30pm, at Loughborough University London, in the wake of DWUK’s third birthday. The interactive event will include tailored, hands-on workshops on these topics, led by experienced practitioners, with dedicated networking time and more, at minimal cost to participants.

While the world at large continues to effectively deny the existence of the veritable army of women digital entrepreneurs, refuses to acknowledge their activities and their contributions, and turns a deaf ear to their concerns, we are listening.

We have made it part of our core mission to pay attention to the trends they are setting, promote the importance of their work and support them on the road to personal and collective success.




When it comes to ‘entrepreneurship education’, do we understand what we are encouraging?

business-plan-300x232There seems to be a strange disconnect between the contemporary trend towards encouraging entrepreneurial education in schools and the response of Tommie Rose’s schools towards his entrepreneurial behaviour.

A few months ago, many news outlets featured the story, wherein Tommie Rose, a 15-year-old boy from a council estate in Ordsall, started selling snacks and sweets at his school, and was able to earn £14,000 in three years. Yet this is not the sole reason for all the media attention. It is the fact that his school, Buile Hill High, and the one he attended prior, the Oasis Academy, both in Salford, have looked so negatively upon his entrepreneurial activity that the latter suspended him for ten days while the former is now threatening him with suspension. Another compelling angle to the story is that Rose explains he is saving the money for a university education – he has his sights set on a prestigious business degree from either Oxford or Cambridge, which his parents explain they would struggle to afford. This further serves to underscore the outpouring of positive sentiment in support of the young entrepreneur.

In June 2014, an Enterprise For All report by the Prime Minister’s adviser on competitiveness advised sweeping changes in primary and secondary schools in order to educate students about business and profit-making. Since then, at least five hundred primary schools across the UK have seen 20,000 children running their own businesses. Whilst it is not known whether either of the schools Rose attended have participated in entrepreneurial education, his actions are undoubtedly a product of the culture of entrepreneurialism that now pervades our society and is encouraged by popular media. In particular, Rose says he was inspired by entre-tainment – popular shows like Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice – that gave him the idea that he, too, could find a gap in the market and provide something that customers wanted. And in an interesting twist of fate, now that Rose’s plight has gone public, the Dragons have taken to social media to show him their support.

Buile Hill High’s official response was to decry the ‘black market’ that they perceived Rose to have set up. But entrepreneurship has long been known to blur the boundary between legal and illegal – one has to think only of the Del Boy character from Only Fools and Horses. And although the notion of the entrepreneur has arguably been shined up in recent years to include characters like Steve Jobs, we should recall that one of Jobs’ earliest enterprises was selling hardware that enabled customers to get phone service illegally.

Clearly, not all budding entrepreneurs will engage in illicit activity – but we should remember that opportunities for profit often occur in places that fly under the radar of regulation. If we are asking children to be entrepreneurial, this includes schools and playgrounds. But when students respond in the way that both their schools and the wider society are asking of them, punishing them for their actions is not at all in keeping with the culture of entrepreneurialism we are ostensibly promoting.

It looks like we may soon need to decide: if it comes down to either the entrepreneurial spirit or the spirit of traditional education, which do we value more, and which do we preserve? Meanwhile, Tommie Rose looks set to gain considerably more profit as a result of the social capital he has gained from the news coverage: he was last seen selling an autographed Lucozade bottle on eBay for which the high bid was over £1M pounds. The question, it seems, thus begs repeating: do we truly understand the consequences of what we are encouraging?