When a successful female entrepreneur is held up as a role model, is it a good thing or not? There is now so much evidence that women can be as effective (and in some circumstances, such as rural economies in developing countries, considerably more successful in business creation) than men, that the fact we still need gender-specific role models is deeply troubling.  It underlines the continued existence of stereotypes that make it more difficult for women to obtain business loans, or to be taken seriously when selling into masculine business cultures.


Nearly 30 years ago I conducted a study, which found that the majority of female entrepreneurs (or entrepreneuses, as we called them) had benefitted from having a mentor, who encouraged them and gave them self-belief, as well as helping them to make wise choices in how they created and developed their businesses. Since then, I have had the benefit of hearing the stories of many entrepreneuses. Based on their stories, here are some of the groundrules for finding and using a mentor:

  1. Don’t be too concerned about whether your mentor is male or female. Ideally have one of each gender. The male mentor will be likely to provide more direct help, such as introductions to networks; the female mentor to provide greater empathy. Paradoxically, when a male mentor believes strongly in you, it often has a more powerful impact than in the case of a female counterpart.
  2. Recognise that a male mentor may not be aware of the subtle gender barriers that you face – so spend time educating them. Be aware also that many women (especially successful women) tend to block these barriers from their consciousness., so don’t expect a female mentor automatically to recognise the impact of stereotypes on you and your business.
  3. Have the courage to think big. If you think small, the best you get is small successes. If you think big, small successes are the least you will get! Mentors generally respond better to people of either gender, who demonstrate ambition.
  4. Don’t expect your mentor to be your sponsor – but do ask them to help you find sponsors. When the roles of mentor and sponsor become confused, it often leads to situations where you feel obliged to follow their advice. Use your mentor to learn about yourself and the context of your business; use sponsors to gain access to personal and business opportunities.
  5. Share your successes and disappointments with your mentor, so that they feel a valued member of “Team You”. Thank them while the relationship lasts and especially when you outgrow them.


A useful and very relevant book for any aspiring entrepreneuse to read is Helen Jamieson’s My Business; My Success (a guide for women wanting to set up in business). Helen has launched a series of workshops to support potential female entrepreneurs in thinking through their business ideas. For more information, access: https://www.mybusinessmysuccess.com/workshops/

© David Clutterbuck, 2013

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