Let’s talk about the ‘e’ word

Claudia Cavalluzzo, executive director, Converge

WORDS are so important; they can motivate, they can inspire, they can explain. Yet words – and names in particular – can also be used to build barriers, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

That’s why it’s so important for us as a society to use this year’s International Women’s Day to spark an essential conversation about how we use the words and language that surround “entrepreneurs”. Because, at the moment, we’re not getting it right.

Last month’s report by Ana Stewart and Mark Logan, “Pathways: A new approach for women in entrepreneurship”, marked a watershed moment for Scotland’s company creation ecosystem. Stewart and Logan laid bare many of the challenges facing women who want to start their own businesses – from the very real pressures surrounding childcare and family expectations through to the imbalances in attracting investment – and their report is already sparking debate among organisations working in this field.

One of those barriers in particular resonated with me and my experience at Converge, an organisation which helps students, recent graduates, and staff at Scotland’s universities to launch their own businesses. The report identified five major reasons why women are underrepresented in entrepreneurialism, including that “Women frequently have a sense of ‘not belonging’ in entrepreneurship, which affects their confidence and self-belief”.

That conclusion is born out by the people who have taken part in Converge over the past 12 years. Many don’t think of themselves as “entrepreneurs” – and they don’t describe themselves as “entrepreneurs” either. When we asked them about the language they use, they told us that they often introduce themselves as “founder”, “innovator”, “inventor”, or “creative”.

That broad range of descriptions illustrates that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to names and labels. Yet this is about far more than mere semantics.

Our alumni also told us that the label “entrepreneur” has some negative connotations too. For many women, it’s a complete turn off.

One of the reasons that explains that negativity is that many of our students, graduates, and staff aren’t simply motivated by money – they’re more interested in purpose than profit. Starting a business is a means to an end, and not a goal in and of itself; instead, they’re interested in the impact that their company can have, both for people and for the planet.

That’s why we’ve decided to steer clear of the label “entrepreneur” for this year’s Converge initiative as the application deadline approaches on 29 March. Our four challenges – Converge, Create Change, Kickstarter, and Net Zero – want “founders”, “innovators”, or “creatives”, and not necessarily just “entrepreneurs”.

This year’s participants will follow in the footsteps of some very impressive alumni including Caroline Barelle of Elsamogen and Genevieve Patenaude of EarthBlox. Since 2011, we’ve trained more than 600 people who have gone on to create more than 330 companies, providing almost 1,000 high-value jobs, and attracting in excess of £280 million in follow-on funding. However, only around  a third  of current Alumni companies have been founded or co-founded by women, showing that we still have a long way to go to reach true equality. 

We want this year’s Converge to be even more inclusive and diverse. Last year, we had 37% female applicants, 39% female participants, and 46% female finalists and winners, demonstrating our selection process is unbiased and that we are on the right track.

The Stewart Report has provided the focus we need as a society to change the narrative about women and businesses in Scotland. Now, let’s use International Women’s Day to take the next steps in those conversations – whether you call yourself a “founder”, “innovator”, or “entrepreneur”.

This article first appeared in The Scotsman on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2023