The UK is one of the best countries in the world to start a business, attracting more venture capital than any other European country and home to 1,100 new businesses born each day.

But a closer look reveals that only 1 in 3 entrepreneurs in the UK is female, and according to a  Review of Female Entrepreneurship by Alison Rose, Deputy CEO of NatWest Holdings and CEO of Commercial and Private Banking, women are half as likely as men to pursue entrepreneurship. Yet, as Microsoft’s Executive Vice President of Business Development, Peggy Johnson reveals, women-led companies deliver higher returns over time than those founded by men. 


Biggest barriers

As a small business owner myself prior to joining Microsoft, increasing female representation in entrepreneurship and technology has always been important to me. At Microsoft, I’m surrounded by high-performing women, many of them also founders themselves, who do all they can to empower their customers and team members to achieve more. 

Some of the biggest barriers to starting a business identified in the review is cultural – that women are less likely to believe they have entrepreneurial skills, are more risk-averse and fear ‘going it alone’.  

To help address these concerns, we interviewed female founders who graduated from last year’s Microsoft AI for Good cohort, a 4-month accelerator programme delivered by Microsoft for Startups in partnership with the Social Tech Trust. Together, they’re helping UK organisations with a social mission to advance their AI solutions that fall into the following pillars: AI for Earth, AI for Accessibility, AI for Cultural Heritage and AI for Humanitarian Action.

Amanda Pickford, founder and CEO of thermal imaging software start-up ThermaFY, graduated from last year’s AI for Good programme under the AI for Earth umbrella. Isabel Van de Keere, CEO of Immersive Rehabcreates interactive physiotherapy programmes in virtual reality for people with neurological upper limb mobility limitations and balance issues. Immersive Rehab was part of the AI for Good 2019 cohort under the AI for Accessibility pillar, joined also by Rene Perkins, the CEO and founder of CityMaas, a disability-friendly travel app that leverages crowdsourced data, AI and adaptive filtering technology to recommend the best routes for both able and disabled travellers. 

We asked them what they thought the top skills were that had helped them achieve success in starting their own business and getting their idea off the ground. 


1. Taking risks

ThermaFY CEO Amanda Pickford describes herself as an entrepreneurial pioneer, having left school at 15 and started her own business at 19. She identified an issue around the interpretation of the images and took advantage of an opportunity to develop software that could use machine learning and image analysis to produce visual reports, at first in the equine market. Amanda saw first-hand how risk-taking paid off, saying that:

One of the first things I did was working with a research company. I wanted to test our software and ensure it did what it said on the tin, so we did a research project with the Veterinary School at Edinburgh university. And they loved it!  

Shortly after, Amanda connected with Bosch, who ended up selling their software through their distribution networks. This was the moment that led to ThermaFY developing efficiency software to tackle heating inefficiencies for the housing industry.  

Since graduating from the AI for Good cohort, Amanda has seen a change in her business, both from a skills and business growth perspective: 

“We came [into the cohort] as app developers. Now we have a suite of tools, training modules, metric dashboards and so much more. Additionally, I couldn’t pitch for toffee, the tools and confidence that Microsoft and their team have given me has transformed the way I now pitch, this will have a major impact on me and the business as we go forward. 

Amanda, who was recognised as Innovator of the Year in this year’s Women in Enterprise Scotland Awards, has this advice for other female founders: 

“Go out and give it a go. Don’t be scared of failure. Go and try and tackle some of the big issues in society. Give it a shot… it’s good fun! 

CityMaas CEO, Rene Perkins, also believes women should be bold with their vision.  

“Be confident in your own vision and ability to deliver – this is very important to external stakeholders and investors, who tend to be male. Ultimately, though, female entrepreneur or not, we need to remember we are all individuals. Please let your individual self-shine through, don’t be afraid to be open and show your knowledge, skills, experience and most importantly the challenges youre facing. Only when you are fully aware of your current challenges at detailed level you are able to ask for specific help from like-minded individuals and organisations around you, as I experienced during the AI for Good programme.” 

Amali de AlwisUK Managing Director of Microsoft for Startups, echoes this sentiment: 

“Be ambitious and you have absolutely more knowledge that you think you have, so have a go and get started!” 


2. Communicating with empathy

Building rapport with employees, setting the company vision and delivering a business pitch are moments when communication skills need to be at their peak. Isabel Van de Keere, CEO of Immersive Rehab, explains why she thinks communication skills are of particular importance. Immersive Rehab, who recently took their virtual reality physiotherapy solution to trial stage in various hospitals and rehab clinics, was recognised by TIME Magazine as one of the 12 innovations that would change healthcare in 2020.

“Being able to articulate your company’s mission and why you founded it is key to engage customers, users, corporate and investment partners. Listening is equally important to get feedback from your different stakeholders. And lastly, enabling two-way communication with employees is something I strongly believe in,” says Isabel. 


3. Building resilience

Both Isabel and Rene ranked resilience as a key skill for female entrepreneurs. 

“Building a business is hard and can often feel like you’re on a rollercoaster with many highs and lows on the journey. There will be hopefully more highs than lows, but in order to get through all these stages of building a business, being resilient and having the perseverance to pursue your mission and vision for the business is key,” says Isabel. 

“Surround yourself with a great support network, both within the start-up world of founders and outside of the start-up bubble, as this will help to keep your resilience up and allow you to reflect on thingshelping you stay grounded in hectic times. And finally, try to sleep well, don’t forget to get some personal me-time every day and exercise to stay on top of things or spend time doing your ultimate de-stressing activity.” 

Although having subject matter expertise and the technical acumen to launch a business are important, developing crucial soft skills can help more women overcome the oft-experienced ‘imposter syndrome’.  Increasing female representation in the start-up scene makes room for people with different experiences to create technology to help solve challenges for all of society and meet the needs of our increasingly diverse world. 

At Microsoft, our mission is to empower every person and organisation on the planet to achieve more. That’s why we’ve launched the Female Founders Competition through Microsoft’s venture fund M12 in partnership with Malinda Gates’ Pivotal Ventures and Mayfield Fund, and closer to home for the second year running, the  AI for Good accelerator programme.

Applications are now open until 22 November 2019, so if you’re an entrepreneur with a social mission thinking of using AI to advance your tech solution to make the world a better place, apply now!

Find out more

Watch the session with Dr Isabel Van de Keere, CEO of Immersive Rehab, on how virtual reality can be used to transform the patient experience for rehabilitation. 

Listen to the Women in AI panel from Future Decoded discuss ethics and AI for Good. 

About the authorAlissa Warne headshot

Alissa joined Microsoft UK two months ago, having completed her MBA at Madrid’s IE Business School, and is part of the Microsoft MBA Aspire programme. As paid media lead, she ensures that locally relevant stories and key insights are being delivered to the right digital audiences at the right time. Passionate about tech for good and tech as an enabler to achieve more, Alissa also works on the digital marketing strategy for Microsoft’s UK AI output, covering everything from the AI for Good accelerator programme to AI research.