Posted: 1st May 2018
Of course, I don’t need to tell you that the history of women in business enterprise is a proud one. In less enlightened times, women tirelessly supported the rural businesses invariably headed up by their male relatives, without pay or recognition. Indeed, ‘support’ is misleading; frequently, they were equal partners in terms of work with their contributions to childcare, budgeting, accounts and record-keeping, but remained in the background, their astonishing multi-tasking unseen and, let’s be honest, underappreciated.
But times have changed. We know that women head up a significant percentage of small and medium-sized rural enterprises, and we know that in turn the Young report has acknowledged the valuable contribution these businesses make to the economy. And the playing field has broadened, too – a ‘woman in rural enterprise’ is no longer a fancy way of saying a farmer’s wife, but covers a huge number of fields: women who work in the Arts, tourism, the food industry, crafters, therapists and professional service providers to name just a handful. I frequently find myself in awe at the tenacity, dynamism and creativity of women in rural enterprise. The Hills was designed as an online platform to promote the very best of rural business, but I have to admit that I regularly find myself cheerleading most loudly for the female entrepreneurs pushing themselves to the forefront of diversification and innovation against all of the odds.
Because of course, women in rural enterprise still face challenges; it would be irresponsible of me to try to claim otherwise. I’ve already alluded to to the historical hangover of women’s secondary status in countryside businesses, although thankfully in 2018 this is more a case of The Ghost of Rural Enterprises Past. In practical terms, there are the long distances rural business owners have to travel – and account for in their invoicing – to reach suppliers and clients, or visit trade fairs and conferences etc – and there is also the ongoing issue of rural broadband – a topic I’m happy to see remains at the top of WiRE’s lobbying commitments. Rural areas are also far more at risk of ‘brain drain’, i.e. talented youngsters moving out of the area and heading for a nearby city to improve their employment prospects, making recruitment difficult for all rural business owners, male or female. All of this in addition to the usual stereotyping and cultural, systemic and institutional discrimination women can face in the workplace makes for a heady mix of what we might optimistically call ‘challenges’.
There’s also the isolation of the entrepreneurial life, certainly in those early start-up days. Whereas a city setting easily lends itself to trendy and inexpensive co-working spaces, a small village or market town doesn’t afford the same opportunities. I’m a big advocate of seeking out networking events – and of course, WiRE leads the way with its wonderful network groups which cover large rural areas and offer a wealth of support, inspiration and opportunities to build relationships with other like-minded women. Does the thought of networking fill you with dread? Don’t let it. After all, people buy from people – real people – but networking isn’t just a selling exercise. It’s also an opportunity to bounce ideas around, spark connections, even find a mentor with a wealth of experience in a related field. Which business guru said that the third idea was always the best? Trust me, it can be a long, torturous process coming up with that first idea when you’re on your own, never mind a third idea!
But here’s a problem: real-life networking is all well and good when you’ve booked it in and allocated several hours of your precious time to it. However, that time is scarce. Throwing yourself into a new business enterprise simply doesn’t leave an awful lot of time for networking – in the first twelve months at least you’re burning the candle at both ends just to get through things, and get by! But community and networking remains vital to the success of the rural start-up – and its continued development and long-term good fortunes, obviously. Sharing skills and experience is an essential part of the process; especially for women, I feel, who thrive on stories and meaningful communication. So what’s the solution? Well, it’s no coincidence that online business networking has had a real boost in recent years, providing the support needed day-to-day in between the big all-singing, all-dancing IRL business meet-ups. Hence the reason I was so pleased to see that WiRE is continuing to push the rural broadband issue – our sanity depends on it!
Choosing a working life of entrepreneurial innovation may have its downsides – uncertainty being one – but with the help of a supportive community of like-minded women around us – virtual or otherwise – some strong coffee and some thoughtful advice, I honestly believe we can achieve anything. And add a bit of cake into that mix and – well, the world really is your oyster!
Janet Hill is founder of The Hills, a country lifestyle blog and business directory – an easy and effective way to promote your countryside business. Find out more: https://lovingthehills.com/register