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Sahar Hashemi OBE is a former lawyer who founded Coffee Republic, the UK’s first US-style coffee chain, and built it into one of the most recognisable high street brands. She went on to launch Skinny Candy, a brand of sugar-free sweets, and has written two best-selling books on entrepreneurship.

Trowers & Hamlins Corporate Partner Alison Chivers interviewed Sahar, currently co-chair of the government’s Scale Up Taskforce, to discuss her latest venture to showcase the successes of female entrepreneurs, plus what she has learned about encouraging an innovation culture.

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to Thinking Business, Sahar. Can you start by telling us about Buy Women Built and why you are so passionate about it?

Yes, of course. I have always been an enthusiastic supporter of female entrepreneurship. I believe that entrepreneurship suits women because it plays to a lot of the strengths that women naturally exhibit, like resourcefulness, problem-solving and networking. If the consumer economy had a sex it would be female and 97% of the founders that Buy Women Built works with started their businesses because they were solving their own problem and wanted to become their own customer.

There is an astonishing statistic that when pollsters spoke to schoolchildren, 81% of 11 to 18-year-olds were unable to name a single female entrepreneur. Instead, the great British founders that spring to mind are people like Richard Branson, James Dyson and Peter Jones. Buy Women Built aims to change that, showcasing amazing brands built by women not only to raise the profile of great female founders but also to harness the power of consumer spending to create a stronger, fairer society.

According to the Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship, only 5.6% of UK women run their own businesses, compared to 11.2% of men. What is special about how women start businesses, and what do female entrepreneurs need?

I do a lot of work around creativity and innovation, where everyone is looking for that holy grail of innovation and trying to encourage their teams to be more creative. The definition of innovation is really problem-solving and giving customers something that they don’t even know they want.

What is extraordinary about female entrepreneurship is women start their businesses not because of a dream of building market share or a desire to get rich, but because they are solving a problem. Women tend to have a deep-rooted understanding of the customer psyche and so women-built businesses start from a customer point of view.

The problem that so many companies face as they grow and mature is that they start losing that close connection to customers, and yet that is where the revenues come from. Women-built businesses seem to have this amazing way of always maintaining that connection as their north star, but they have been hiding their light.

What the next generation of female entrepreneurs really need is role models, because I genuinely believe that if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. I’m in the female start-up community and when I started Buy Women Built I only knew 35 female founders – we now have 1,800 in our network.

I really think that if we shine the spotlight on how many fabulous female entrepreneurs we have already, then others will start to scale their businesses and that will encourage more women into the pipeline.

Plus networking and collaborating is so important to female entrepreneurs, so Buy Women Built is a networking group where people can share their experiences, talk about what they have done and interact with others that have overcome similar challenges to the ones that they are facing.

You’ve written two books: Anyone Can Do It, about building Coffee Republic from your kitchen table, and Start Up Forever, which looks at what big companies can do to maintain a start-up culture. What can established businesses learn from entrepreneurs?

In an environment where change is happening so fast, every business is thinking hard about how they can keep up and stay agile. The question is how can you build a culture in your company where everyone is working at the top of their game and is really responsive. It really comes down to having an entrepreneurial mindset.

The best founders are resourceful, they listen to their customers and they get out there and get things done without over-thinking. They find solutions, and if something doesn’t work out, they try something else. That is what all of us have to do more of, and that means becoming much more customer-centric and making sure we don’t stifle creativity as businesses grow.

In Start Up Forever, I talk about how you can encourage entrepreneurial behaviour in large organisations with 10 shifts in everyday approaches. These are simple, day-to-day changes that really encourage an entrepreneurial mindset:

  1. Don’t depersonalise customers – become them instead
  2. Don’t sit at your desk – get out
  3. Don’t be too busy – attack bureaucracy
  4. Don’t let your knowledge and expertise blind you – let go of what you know
  5. Don’t suffocate curiosity – be a big kid
  6. Don’t buy into the fairytale romance of the Big Idea – act on the small everyday ideas
  7. Don’t let perfectionism slow you down – force the discipline of bootstrapping
  8. Don’t be scared of failure – encourage it
  9. Don’t think of a No as a stop sign – think of it as a badge of honour
  10. Don’t put a work face on – be 100% yourself

The challenge we have seen a lot of businesses face over the last few years is a fear setting in, perhaps in the face of external pressure, which leads to paralysis. For fear of risk, they stop doing anything. Actually now it is more important than ever to take risks and embrace innovation, right?

Absolutely. And you don’t have to risk the whole house, just encourage your people to start trying out new things and perhaps take little risks. The real shift is to focus on growth and speaking to customers. Instead, people go down the track of prioritising busyness and bureaucracy when they should be making sure they are consistently agile.

One thing I would say is that customer empathy has to be evident in your advisory team too. You need your professional advisers to be dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, but they need to really get under the skin of your business and be open to understanding and connecting. Working with Trowers I find they really speak the same language as our founders, and that empowers founders to make the right decisions and overcome challenges.

That is really good to hear. We've been partnered with Buy Women Built since its inception and it's been fantastic to see the community as it grows. We've been able to help some great businesses and we're excited to see them going from strength to strength. The work you are doing to showcase female founders is really interesting.

There are 30% fewer female entrepreneurs in the UK than the US, and only 3% of funded British businesses are female founded. If women started businesses at the same rate as in other developed countries, that could add an additional £200 billion to our economy. So by shopping more women-built brands, we believe we can work together to unleash the powerful contribution these businesses can make to our economy, our future and our communities.

Absolutely. Thank you, Sahar. 

With thanks to Sahar Hashemi, Co-founder of Buy Women Built.

Buy Women Built