CSR

28/09/2020

Female thought leadership: a new example for sustainable growth and development

by Lorenza Morandini, managing director of Angels4Women, and Sara De Grossi, PR manager of Angels4Women

Business growth and development take place within a vast, convoluted system where untapped potential needs to be identified and fostered, especially that of women

All articles

So what do we mean by growth?

Growth means:

- change,
- adaption,
- proactivity,
- tailored career paths.

In the natural world, the growth process is uneven yet harmonious, with unpredictable encounters and struggles and changes in response to interaction with the external environment. However, growth also comes from:

- listening,
- collaboration,
- inclusiveness,
- caring,

- empathy,
- communication,

- and the acceptance of diversity above all.

Therefore, as an individual invariably grows through interaction with their external environment, a company’s growth and development is similarly part of a vast, convoluted system offering different and varied opportunities. Identifying and enhancing untapped potential is essential to facing future challenges and defining business strategies. This approach means the primary objective is not simply to make a profit but to ensure that investments have a positive effect on individuals and the environment in both quantitative and above all qualitative terms.

Sustainable business strategies

The green economy or impact investing shows us that this redirection of investments is already happening. It is changing business development strategies, which increasingly factor in social and environmental sustainability issues as an integral part of a company’s business model and profit-making goals are tempered by a sustainable way of doing business which positively impacts the local community and environment. Sustainable business strategies tend to be embraced by companies with a holistic view of the possibilities offered by the market and society and their needs not only today but also in the future.

To facilitate this change process, production and consumption must move beyond a merely unilateral and strictly hierarchical design to a more nuanced approach, with strong leadership based around soft skills, i.e., the ability to:

- listen, 
- collaborate,
- be inclusive,
- be caring,
- be empathetic,
- communicate,
- promote diversity.

These are a few of the key characteristics that a thought leader needs in today’s world to be able to act sustainably and to have a positive influence on the ecosystem of which they are an integral and integrated part. Putting aside strategic abilities for the moment, these interpersonal qualities tend to be strongly associated with women, who are disposed to apply them naturally during any form of interaction, be it personal or work-related.

Creative vision, sensitivity, focus, patience and perseverance, adaptability, flexibility, listening skills, collaborative skills, the ability to care - traditionally erroneously regarded as secondary qualities needed to sustain and run a household - belie the enormous potential to adapt during the start-up and growth of a business.

Even so, the idea that the embryonic sustainable approach at the heart of the new business strategies will support a leadership model different from the traditionally stronger, more pervasive one based on fear, hierarchy, manipulation and control still seems far off. A priority for the transformation of the business world is to eliminate the gender gap, which should have the same importance as environmental and social responsibility.

Investing in female start-ups

So what does it really mean to approach business from this perspective? How can a strategic leadership plan incorporate ideas that are traditionally alien to the world of business and investment?

In the 1920’s, Virginia Woolf invited the female students at Cambridge to procure money, which we can imagine as the three guineas of her famous book, and a room of one’s own*. A century later, three guineas can perhaps be conceived of as investments in those creative and productive hothouses that are today’s female start-ups, which offer strong growth potential

Angels4Women was set up in 2018 for this very purpose. It is the first association of business angels who invest in female start-ups founded by 20 women investors and two major companies, AXA Italia and Impact Hub Milan, whose key values include inclusion, female empowerment, innovation, focus on the individual, the community and our planet. Today, the leadership priorities of the 61 women who invest in women through listening, communication, mentoring and growth go beyond profit maximisation, continuing to pursue the aim of closing the gender gap which has always held women back from setting up high potential, innovative companies.

The gender gap in business

Female entrepreneurs continue to be a minority, with an estimated mere 13% of start-ups women-run and which generally receive 50% less funding than start-ups pitched by men. Yet despite the difficulty in attracting investors and gaining market share, the revenue earned by female start-ups is 10% higher than those developed by men and they also show faster and steadier growth rates (over time).

Angels4Women has been instrumental in getting some of these start-ups off the ground, investing in highly innovative and productive female-led projects that are hard-wired to develop quality products and services without losing sight of the start-ups’ impact on the local community and the environment, as well as the importance of enhancing the “made in Italy” concept.

Since its inception 18 months ago, the business angels have financed Orange Fiber, which manufactures sustainable fabrics using orange peel, Cynomys, which has designed an IoT solution for environment stewardship, Chitè, an online made-to-measure luxury lingerie brand, hand-crafted by Italian artisans, as well as a fast track for start-ups of Impact Hub Milano. Angels4Women also mentor 150 female start-ups with enormous potential.

Reinventing the business model

These investment experiences have shown that reinventing and developing the traditional business model and the image of a team leader is both possible and desirable.

Operating in a way that promotes female-run businesses, outside the hierarchical power system, characterised by values such as inclusion, sharing, listening and collaboration, provides access to new investment channels and profits, offering the possibility of shaping and developing an innovative leadership model underpinned by strong ethics and sustainability

Although closing the gender gap is just one tiny part in the role the much broader concept of diversity plays in shifting the boundaries of what is possible on the market, supporting and providing tangible assistance to female-run businesses are essential in the endeavour to change the business world, a constantly mutating system that embraces change, as part of an ongoing discourse with a society that continues to evolve and requires a holistic vision, which thought leaders would do well not to forget.

 

*Page 34 of “A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf, Feltrinelli edition of 2017.