Pushing The Boundaries Of Entrepreneurship – Dinah Bennett, Founder at ICE International Consultants For Entrepreneurship And Enterprise
Dinah Bennett – Durham University Business School Masters in Entrepreneurship Class of 2000
Tell us more about your company and what you do
ICE is a UK-based consultancy that provides worldwide insights into enterprise and entrepreneurship with the objective of helping financial, commercial and government institutions to get closer to the small business community; to become more enterprising; and to introduce effective enterprise strategies and policy.
Much of my work – and my passion – focuses specifically on realising the potential of women through enterprise. I launched the business back in 2007 following 20 years working as an academic with the University of Durham during which time I increasingly found that my research led to the conclusion that female entrepreneurship was being stifled – not by the limitations of women, but because 9 times out of 10 the policy and structures that exist to support entrepreneurship either disregard or under-deliver when it comes to women. Although the context we operate in over 15 years later has changed, those challenges still exist. The potential of women to create a better world is vast, however there are too many examples of women being held back and I am driven by my aspiration to change this status quo.
What inspired you to start a business focused on women’s challenges, and how did you identify the specific needs or gaps in the market that your business addresses?
People often ask me why do something different or separate for women? I have to be honest my answer has changed over the years. I used to talk about gender equality, and that half of the world’s population has as much right to explore and release their best self through entrepreneurship as their male counterparts. However my language and understanding has evolved and my response now is more about equity, and calling out the failings in policy and practice worldwide that are, in the most case, unintentionally impeding women, and that can’t be allowed to continue – just because women are not prevented from working for themselves, for example, does not mean that the infrastructure makes it as easy for them to do so as it might be for their male counterparts. Unintentional is no longer an excuse.
There are so many things that get in the way for women, from language and imagery to practical life experience and inaccessible support structures. My inspiration is my work with women at a grass roots level to enable me to bring real life insights to policy makers to compel them to make deliberate changes to make sure women are proactively encouraged and supported in a way that’s appropriate to them.
How important is it that this key area has more start-ups focused on tackling this specific challenge for women?
This is a global challenge, impacting on the lives of billions of women and girls, so there’s a lot to do! Just as a few examples, my work has taken me to every continent working in unique and challenging situations such as post conflict zones in Libya. I have supported women to start and grow businesses in non-traditional sectors in South America, and bankers in Australia and sub-saharan African countries to understand the support needs of small business owners, including women. Most recently my work has involved business environment reform in Central Asia. I’m proud of our successes, personally and through collaboration with a wonderful array of colleagues who are as passionate as I am about making a difference. I also realise, though, there’s so much more we need to do. Changes in policy and structures can take generations, and I’m not sure we have that long to wait, so I would encourage anyone who has a passion to drive forward the economic empowerment of women to start a business in this field.
What is your long-term vision for your business, and how do you see it evolving?
My aim is to continue to challenge the status quo, and in doing so, exchange my knowledge and experience with others whilst I continue to learn every day.
My recent participation in the Investment Climate Reform Training Programme, for example, has not only consolidated my existing experience but has also equipped me with new tools and frameworks to apply to my work, as well as offering me new insights into women’s economic empowerment in the African Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries. Most recently I am providing co-leadership for Enterprise Development and Trade with the Women’s Economic Imperative, an NGO whose provenance stems from a United Nations High Level Panel. This is extending the reach of ICE, providing new opportunities and challenges.
What advice do you have for other women who are interested in starting a business focused on women’s challenges, and what resources or support do you recommend they seek out?
There are so many examples across the world of women supporting women to realise their full potential. Our need to challenge, to strive tirelessly for social justice and encourage everyone we connect with to do the same, has never been so important. I would encourage any woman looking for fulfilment through starting a business to seriously consider this sector. I have met many wonderful and inspiring people, have travelled the world, and gained so much satisfaction from my work, I would be keen for anyone to share this with me. As the Japanese notion of ‘Ikigai’ suggests, “your true passion and calling in life is what gets you up every morning”.