When it comes to female entrepreneurship, Europe still has a long way to go. The tech field plays a huge part in the gender imbalance in the continent, with Europe having the lowest male-to-female ratio of leaders across the globe in the industry. In 2020, the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Report estimated that only 5% of tech founders in Europe were female.
Here, we take a peek at the past, assess the present, and project the future landscape of businesses for women. This comprehensive view of female entrepreneurship will enable us to identify the challenges that need to be addressed and determine the appropriate solutions for supporting women in business.
History of women in business
Throughout history, women have found themselves sidelined when it comes to business and investments. Traditional gender roles limited a woman’s place to the home—to caring for the family and house while the man goes to work and earns a living.
In the 18th century, the French Revolution paved the way for early feminists to campaign for women’s rights. The French playwright Olympe de Gouges published the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen in 1791 to call for political equality for women, but it was refused.
Early feminist movements centered around women’s education and participation in public affairs. These ideals were carried mostly by individual men and women. It was only during the latter part of the 19th century when European women’s rights movements were formed. These movements eventually evolved to the promotion of women’s liberation.
Switzerland, particularly, has a long history in the fight for women’s rights. Other European countries granted women’s suffrage after World War II; sadly, Switzerland only assented in 1971 in the federal level.
But in the field of business, the first record of female entrepreneurship in the United States goes as far back as the 1700s. Eliza Lucas Pinckney grew and cultivated the North American indigo plant used to dye textile fabrics. She then exported them, mostly to Europe, building her own indigo exportation business. Meanwhile, in Europe, Coco Chanel was a female founder who became the face of French haute couture in the 1900s.
Over the past three centuries, women in business have made great strides, but equality has yet to be achieved. History has never been as kind to women as it has been to men. Times are changing as more women are standing up for equality, but successful male entrepreneurs are still a dime a dozen while women in business and female founders still have to work harder to gain recognition.
Though female-led enterprises are rising globally, the historical constraints that held back women are still ever-present. Women in business are still under pressure to raise children and manage the household, impacting their ability to expand their businesses. Men still make most rules and occupy the majority of decision-making roles.
A Persisting Problem
Closing this gender gap remains to be an unsolved problem in the region. Even as more and more women in business around the world smash glass ceilings and prove that gender should never be an obstacle in leading and innovating, the disparity is still insurmountably evident.
Opportunities that are readily available for male startup founders are harder to come by for their female founder counterparts. Access to venture capital is still heavily skewed toward male entrepreneurs. Socio-cultural norms give women—particularly mothers—a huge disadvantage because child-rearing and household duties, both of which are unpaid, are traditionally expected to be women’s work.
On top of that, the dearth of women leaders in Europe does little to bolster the next generation of young girls who aspire to be CEOs and entrepreneurs. Real women in business who can show these girls what it takes to be successful can help in understanding the risks and rewards of entrepreneurship as a woman’s career path. Unfortunately, as of 2020, the World Economic Forum reports that less than 5% of S&P Euro 350 companies are led by a female founder or CEO.
Female Entrepreneurship in Switzerland
The good news is that Switzerland has increasingly become more proactive in pushing for gender balance. Advance, a Swiss business association that specifically advocates for gender equality in the business sector, is composed of more than 120 Swiss-based companies. In 2020, 30 of the top CEOs and country managers in the country pledged to take concrete action to help women in business achieve the same levels of success as men.
This initiative comes not too early, as Statista’s 2021 Glass-Ceiling Index shows Switzerland lagging behind our European neighbors that are part of the OECD. While Scandinavian countries ranked at the top of the list, with first placer Sweden getting a score of 84 out of 100, Switzerland ranked 26th with a score of 45.3. For comparison, the OECD average was 59.6. The United States ranked 18th with a 58.2, and Great Britain just a little behind at 20th with 57.2.
The glass-ceiling index is a measure of the environment that working women experience in each country. It collects and analyzes data on ten separate indicators, such as higher education, salary, child-care costs, labor-force participation, and other indicators of success in the workplace, including senior leadership posts.
Global Female Entrepreneurship Trends
The Global Entrepreneurship Mirror (GEM) reported an 11% rate of early-stage entrepreneurial activity among women around the world in 2021. Interestingly, GEM found that low-income countries had higher rates of female entrepreneurship, relative to high-income countries.
Europe, particularly, has dismal figures in this regard, reporting the lowest rate at 5.7%. Even for the other stages (intentions, nascent, and established), Europe is outnumbered by other regions in female entrepreneurship.
In terms of senior management and leadership, data from 2019-2020 reveals that only 29% of the people in these roles are women. Sadly, women in business are still retained in support functions such as administration, and are, in fact, overrepresented. Men dominated leadership roles in other departments, like operations and R&D, which are considered essential in climbing up the corporate ladder. In fact, the higher you go up the hierarchy, the fewer women you’ll find in leadership roles.
There is a spot of good news. As of 2021, there are 41 women-led Fortune 500 companies—the highest ever recorded. This sounds promising; however, it only accounts for approximately 8% of all Fortune 500 corporations. Women have cracked the glass ceiling, but the gender gap is still a chasm.
Female Founders and Closing the Gap in Business
Aside from championing equal opportunities for everyone regardless of gender, closing the gender gap in the business sector has several advantages.
A 2019 Forbes article cites a number of studies that showed women-led businesses actually performed better than those led by men. It’s an intriguing premise, and while not an absolute judgment of women’s leadership skills, it does open the discussion about the potential of women in leadership roles.
The same article contends that more and more American employees prefer to work for a company led by a woman. Along with a change in social norms came a change in what workers value most. No longer do people work merely for a paycheck; they look for a company that values things like collaboration and compassion for employees. This modern workplace is, millennials find, offered by more women leaders than male ones.
Perhaps it is the collective female experience of missing out on lucrative opportunities because of their gender that makes them more attuned to what is lacking in male-led companies—those that stick to traditional workplace norms. Women leaders tend to offer more of these—access to childcare, equal pay, and autonomy, among others.
In fact, female-led companies thrive over male-led companies in several key areas, according to Workday Peakon Employee Voice (formerly Peakon), a platform that collects employee feedback for actionable insight.
Surveying workers across the globe, Peakon discovered that employees in women-led companies are more positive when it comes to corporate strategy and mission. They are more engaged; they believe in their products or services more than employees in other companies. Finally, they have more job satisfaction, especially when it comes to autonomy, especially with remote work policies. This leads us to conclude that female founders do tend to demonstrate better leadership qualities in communication, strategy, and providing inspiration.
Pandemic Impact on Women in Business
During the COVID-19 pandemic, women suffered more setbacks in their careers than men. This gender-based adverse impact extended to women-led startups. In 2020, global venture funding to startups by female founders dropped by 27%, with these funds representing a mere 2.3% of total VC funding in 2020.
Why the huge disparity? It’s difficult to be sure, and it’s quite hard to pinpoint how COVID affected VC firms’ decisions. It is, however, worthy to note that an 88% majority of decision makers at these firms are male. When women make the decision, the Kauffman Fellows Research Center notes, they are more than twice as likely to invest in a startup with a female founder.
It is the same story within Europe. Startups of female founders perform better, but receive disproportionately less capital from VC firms than those with an all-male founding team.
A Showcase of Female Founders and Female-Led Companies
At Marmot, we are committed to uplifting female entrepreneurship and female investors. We believe in the huge potential and untapped strengths of women leaders and visionaries.
Women make extraordinary leaders. Today, we present stories of real women who have achieved so much despite the odds stacked against their gender.
Mimi Mollerus is the CEO of Swiss luxury fashion accessories brand Maison Mollerus and is one of the few female entrepreneurs in the luxury handbag industry still active today.
Mollerus’ father, Ernst, founded the company in 1984. His daughter Mimi took over the management of the company in 2011. Mollerus' ethos is based around the idea that loyal female customers are the key to successfully growing the company. We like that it makes good quality products for women and that customer loyalty is one of its goals.
Daniela Schweingruber is a mother of two and the female founder and managing director of sustainable and natural skincare brand nooiii. Its products are 100% biodegradable, made from natural and organic ingredients and are packaged using sustainable materials.
A former model, Schweingruber used a lot of commercial skincare products that had adverse effects on her skin. She then came up with the idea to create a skincare range made exclusively from natural ingredients and not tested on animals. She launched nooii in 2018, after doing her own research for four years.
Schweingruber believes that providing high-quality skincare products with “natural or organic ingredients inside” (what “nooii” stands for) for women and men alike must go hand-in-hand with being socially responsible. Sustainability remains at the forefront of nooii’s business values, and this provides us with a clear picture of the type of entrepreneur Schweingruber is.
Investing in eco-friendly companies means we also invest in our planet, keeping it clean and safe for the future.
Sali and Sara and Sali Nuru
Sisters Sara and Sali Nuru are the female founders of nuruCoffee, a fair trade Ethiopian coffee brand that supports fair prices, smaller cooperatives, and sustainability with aluminum-free packaging. With this business, the sisters not only help stimulate the coffee industry in Ethiopia but also uplift the lives of the most disadvantaged sector in the supply chain: women.
NuruWomen is the non-profit organization founded by Sara and Sali. It aims to educate and support women in Ethiopia through training courses and microcredit. The Nuru sisters believe that investing in women has long-term benefits for society, and they have since focused their company on ensuring that Ethiopian women are given access to microcredit to build up a self-determined existence. We believe the same and are encouraged when other companies build up women.
Siggi Spiegelburg is the woman behind Siggi Spiegelburg Couture, a fashion powerhouse and bespoke atelier for women to express their individuality and creativity. Spiegelburg was only 21 years old when she opened her first shop on Königsstrasse in Münster, where she sold knitted sweaters, jewelry, shoes, even personal items.
Fast-forward to today, Siggi now runs a team of 16 in Münster, focusing on bespoke creations that highlight the personality of their customers. Spiegelburg inspires young girls and women alike to pursue their dreams—to express themselves through fashion.
Empowering women through financial literacy and investments is what we do at Marmot, and we applaud companies who empower women as well, whether it’s through fashion, skincare, or microcredit.
Former model Sarina Arnold is the female founder of Jewels For You, a company that designs jewelry with the aim of making women feel more confident. A mother of two, Sarina also supports the Zuversicht für Kinder (Confidence for Children) Foundation through the company. She donates a portion of the proceeds from jewelry sales to the foundation, which helps children born with cleft lips and palates in Kyrgyzstan. She also serves as an ambassador, helping promote their advocacy in both Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan.
One of her children was born with a cleft lip and palate, so Sarina understands the struggles of parents who go through the same thing. Her experience fuels her passion in her work with Zuversicht für Kinder; she even travels frequently to Kyrgyzstan to carry out her duties as ambassador, visiting the children in the centers, encouraging the parents, and raising awareness in the public.
The fashion industry, as a whole, is not known for championing the environment or ethical standards. Fast fashion is the trend nowadays, with its promise of cheap clothes that only last for a short time. However, people like Darshana Salvisberg are challenging this trend, opting to produce sustainable, ethical, and fashionable clothes without dubious labor and sourcing practices.
Atelier Parsmei designs and produces high fashion clothes for women and children, all within a sustainable and ethical framework. Darshana founded the company in 2019, after spending years in the financial industry. Born in Mauritius, Darshana now spends a majority of her time between Zurich and Dubai. Atelier Parsmei was born from her philosophy of the mother-child bond.
Aside from ensuring that their products are made with minimum waste and maximum craftsmanship, Darshana also supports various organizations through its Fashion for Education initiative. The company backs the Room to Read Organization and donates books to the Kaveri Vanitha Sevashrama Orphanage.
It also stays true to its brand of women leadership. The company believes that women should have good working conditions so they can have a better future, as well as a place that welcomes them warmly to the workforce after motherhood.
Maison Vever is a French family-owned jewelry company founded in 1821. For five generations, they were renowned for the beauty of their jewels, having won the “Grand Prix” in the 1889, 1897, and 1900 World’s Fairs. In 2020, seventh generation Vevers Camille and Damien decided to focus on reviving the company that had remained inactive since 1982.
Aware of the problematic issues around the diamond industry, Camille and her younger brother Damien decided not just to restore Maison Vever’s former glory, but add social value to it. Using thematic images around flora and fauna, the new signature collection would be produced more ethically. No blood diamonds, no smuggling, no corruption, no child labor issues.
The modern Vever jewelry pieces use recycled gold and lab-grown diamonds. They are ensconced in boxes with satin cushions made from upcycled materials.
Today, Vever’s approach to its business is thus: “a new, sustainable luxury, ethical and responsible jewelry.” Because of this, it is distinguished in France as an entreprise à mission, the only French jeweler to have this distinction. Companies that are certified as an entreprise à mission have both social and environmental purposes, aside from creating economic value.
Another fierce female founder on our list is Jennifer Baum-Minkus, founder of German company gitti Conscious Beauty. Before starting this vegan beauty brand, Jennifer was part of Coca-Cola’s “Women in Leadership”, leading its programs.
For gitti Conscious Beauty, Jennifer was determined to show that beauty comes in all forms, and that diversity is more than just differences in how we look. Her products aim to bring out the beauty—both external appearance and personality—in all people.
As a sustainable beauty company, gitti uses innovative ingredients in recyclable and sustainable packaging. Its aim is to bring alternative beauty products to the market, and advocate for beauty that is socially conscious and better for the planet. Jennifer wants everyone to rethink beauty, rid ourselves of superficial standards and make the mindful choice to switch to sustainable brands.
Why We Should Continue Investing in Women
All this should prompt us to evaluate the future of female entrepreneurship. At the begining, we discussed the advantages and benefits that women-led businesses have. Women in business have experienced more discrimination and lack of access to valuable opportunities and benefits provided to men, so they tend to be more aware of what employees need.
We also showed that companies with more women in decision-making roles yielded better returns than enterprises with an all-male boardroom. Not only are these women leaders giving shareholders what they want, but female investors also outperform men.
However, despite studies that showed evidence of women’s investing prowess over men, public perception remains biased for male investors. People still believe that men are better at handling money matters than women.
The reality is more nuanced that research could show us, but it does paint a picture of how women generally perform on the stock market. But because of this widely held belief that women are inferior when it comes to trading stocks, there are few incentives for women to enter into
Repairing the Ladder for the Future
The conversations surrounding female entrepreneurship and women leadership need to happen more often. For each day that we ignore the contributions women have made and are continuing to make on Europe’s economy, we lose valuable talent and skill.
One factor common among the numerous studies on women in leadership is that women have a much more difficult time climbing up the corporate ladder. Even if the leadership skills of women have had concrete, positive effects on companies, top leadership positions remain beyond women’s grasp.
As Advance General Manager Alkistis Petropaki describes it, it’s as if the ladder for women is broken. It is time to repair this ladder for all women and young girls who have the capacity to do well in the world but are not given ample opportunities by our society.
We at Marmot are committed to bringing this conversation a step higher and focusing on investing in female talent, for today and for future generations.
The Future is Female: Why We Support Women-Led Companies
Our examples show that women can and do create sustainable, life-changing value for more people. As attitudes about businesses are evolving, some practices are becoming questionable. Women-led companies tend to be more receptive to these changing attitudes, and their value propositions are a reflection of their response.
This is the wisdom of investing in female entrepreneurship. The products are thoughtful, tell a story, and consider the entire supply chain and beyond. This is what makes women wonderful CEOs and leaders of businesses. The fact that they are able to hurdle such difficult obstacles such as bootstrapping their own companies because of a lack of access to venture funding is proof that even in adversity, women in business thrive.
We shouldn’t need to have women in VC firms just to be able to invest in other women. Marmot invests in the best investment talents; as the data we outlined above shows, the future is female.
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