Louise Stewart: Female founders can flourish in the UK, free from sexism and political interference.
A recent report by the Female Founders Forum revealed that just 3.5% of equity investment for the first half of 2023 went to female-led businesses. In terms of deals agreed, only 10% were with female-led startups, compared to 75% involving male-led start-ups.
The UK Treasury estimates that up to £250 billion of new value could be added to the British economy if women in the UK started and scaled new businesses at the same rate as men do.
Whilst the gender funding gap remains challenging for female entrepreneurs, I have a very different perspective, having relocated to the UK from Australia with assistance from the UK Government’s global entrepreneur program. In my experience, the UK has been a very supportive environment for a female founder. My fintech business, ProjectPay, which provides payment protection for construction industry projects, has been awarded over £700,000 in grants by Innovate UK to scale up its offering.
In the UK there is a diverse political climate and entrepreneurs can access support and funding, regardless of their gender. Sadly, in Australia the situation is not the same. Recent scandals have shown that big business and some politicians still operate like an unaccountable boy’s club. Whilst these ‘boys’ continue to misuse their positions of power to scratch each other’s backs for personal gain, women are locked out from achieving their full potential, and the gender pay gap is widening with more Australian women retiring into poverty. The dial is moving in the wrong direction.
In my early years when returning from a career in information technology in London to Western Australia, I frequently encountered this sexism:, recruiters refused to put me forward for the jobs I wanted, telling me my gender meant I wasn’t “a hunter”; in Sydney, I was asked in a job interview if I ever used my sexuality to get what I wanted. I watched men get promoted instead of me because they were “a good bloke”.
When I decided to go it alone and started building my first tech start-up, I stuck with what I knew, working with large corporates, but when the CEO of a public listed company was more interested in trying to date me than closing the deal, I decided to abandon corporate Australia altogether and focus on small businesses.
Being a female founder, women get very little investment, so I bootstrapped my first tech start-up, ultimately selling it to a global pharma company with significant revenue and profit and no debt. All while I watched male founders steal my ideas and be able to raise significant investment on an early concept that I’d already built and proven.
Political pressure and ‘debanking’
Unfortunately, when you have such a concentration of businesses that operate with monopoly like power which Australia has, it gives them incredible influence over government and important decisions, this is made worse by government ministers that are only interested in keeping their jobs and privileges rather than acting in the best interests of Australians. Sadly, I experienced this first-hand – and I know I was not the only one.
After selling my tech business, I had planned to retire to focus on my family. But when my husband’s business collapsed because five builders failed to pay him, I became aware of the huge payments problem in the construction sector. The government stimulus to build new schools after the GFC had overheated the sector, resulting in builders getting paid and then collapsing their businesses into bankruptcy before they had passed on those payments to subcontractors who were left penniless.
I became the Chair of a Subcontractors Association, working with government to create new laws to fix the payment problem for small businesses and protect homeowners in the sector. After an extensive industry consultation process the new laws were agreed, when there was a government intervention at the eleventh hour to remove the insolvency protections from already written legislation without any industry consultation. I became disillusioned. In 2019, I stood as an independent candidate in the federal election, campaigning against the Liberal Party on a promise to introduce statutory protection for payments on building projects. The measure would have protected homeowners and small business subcontractors from devastating losses when building firms collapse. In the absence of the promised statutory protections, I built a digital solution.
I had already built and tested the digital payments solution to the insolvency crisis hammering Australia’s construction sector, it had been tested on over $20m worth of projects and over 200 contractors. It was offered to governments providing Homebuilder grants to homeowners, to ensure the flow of government stimulus money to the small businesses that had done the work and protect homeowners from devasting losses when builders collapse. Despite government being very aware of the huge losses the stimulus grants would create, they proceeded anyway without any insolvency protections for Australian homeowners and small businesses.
At the time I was in the advanced stages of a two-year integration partnership with Macquarie Bank to integrate ProjectPay. However, after I stood in the election campaign, they abruptly ended the relationship.
An email from the bank in October 2019, cited disparaging comments made about me by Mathias Cormann, former Minister for Finance and the current OECD Secretary-General, as a reputational risk for the bank. They warned they would have to “work through the negative sentiment” if they were to continue with the integration partnership.
A month earlier, Macquarie Bank had also terminated a 20-year relationship with another independent, who ran against the Morrison government. That seems more than a coincidence.
My contact at the bank said the Morrison government would not be prepared to work with me because I had run against them and that there were people working to discredit me. I was told that it was pointless trying to reverse the decision because the Executive Team would not change it.
Last December, I made a subject access request to Macquarie Bank under the Privacy Act 1998, requesting details of any internal correspondence or discussions between executives about my business and the reasons for terminating the relationship; however, they have failed to comply with their obligations within the 30-day window.
I moved to the UK because I could no longer continue to watch or accept the abuse of power of some government ministers and big business in Australia who act with self-interest and not to benefit everyday Australians. I identified an urgent societal problem – finding a way to protect homeowners and small businesses from builder insolvencies by implementing statutory payment protections and a digital solution – yet the Morrison government seemed to have been more interested in discrediting me than finding a solution.
Fairness and female empowerment
In Australia I was told that I was too pretty to be a politician or to run a fintech business in the construction sector. Standing in the federal election, I was sometimes told “You are more intelligent than you look,” as if this was an acceptable thing to say.
For any entrepreneur, it is vital to be able to work in a fair and equitable environment where the only thing that matters to your partners and financial backers is the strength of your business model, not political considerations or your gender. I have integrated with Lloyds Bank, and am now working on a channel partnership strategy to deliver ProjectPay to their construction clients.
Meanwhile, the UK government understands that the platform will speed up payments to subcontractors in their supply chain and protect them if a prime contractor fails, ensuring they are still paid. They want us to help solve cashflow shortfalls in the construction industry, using digital payments with new flows that enable embedded finance.
It is refreshing that my gender has not proved a barrier to business growth in the UK. Construction is traditionally a male-dominated industry and our digital innovation is not just transformative for the industry but also for the role of women in fintech. Two-thirds of my team are female, we empower women and minority-owned small businesses for democratised financial access.
So, when I read the Female Founders Forum report on the barriers facing female founders, it rang true. But there are opportunities, as well as challenges, for female founders and inspiring other women to pursue a career in fintech and excel in a sector previously dominated by men motivates me to break down those barriers. And that’s a great deal easier to do that in the UK than in my homeland.
In Australia I was sacked over the telephone by an ASX listed company CEO when I told him I was pregnant with my first child. In the UK, I can run a business without being discriminated against because of how I look or because of my gender; I can be rewarded, live the full life I have worked hard to achieve and fulfil my potential because the UK government wants to empower women to be their best.
Louise Stewart is founder of ProjectPay, a digital payment platform for the construction industry, backed by Innovate UK
This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by Lucie Hayes .
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