Entrepreneurs are supposed to be the new masters of the universe and every second millennial seems to run a start-up. It is with these tropes in mind that I arrive at the EY World Entrepreneur of the Year event in Monaco, and head to the women leaders networking reception at the Fairmont Hotel on Wednesday evening.
Entering the rooftop bar (and heading straight for cover after a glance at the ominous-looking clouds) I run into Amanda Thomson, a British entrepreneur whose brand Thomson & Scott makes Skinny Prosecco, Skinny Champagne, and Skinny Wine. Ms Thomson seems to share my sentiments about the current vogue.
“Entrepreneur is a sexy word right now,” she agrees. “But when it comes to hiring, people’s vision of what an entrepreneur does is diametrically opposed to what entrepreneurs actually do.” It’s not all about networking and drinking champagne and posting photographs on social media, she says, waving her glass of champagne.
“Millennials seem to like the idea of joining a start-up but without any idea of the reality of what’s required. There’s the sexy perception versus the reality of blood and sweat and tears that anyone here who has built a business will know all too well,” she says.
Ms Thomson gained a taste for champagne during her time as a BBC reporter but left to enter the wine business, “because I wanted to party but I also wanted to feel good in the morning”. Her organic and vegan-certified creations are low in sugar, and fanatical on ingredient transparency, a rarity in the alcohol industry. So how does she feel about the old-school Taittinger champagne laid on by EY on Wednesday evening, I ask? “Let’s see in the morning,” she laughs.
The five-day EY World Entrepreneur of the Year event brings together all the country winners from around the world and many of the women on the rooftop had met before at some of EY’s regional events.
As old contacts gladly reconnected, not everyone was singing the praises of the sisterhood. And the scarcity of men at the cocktail was also noted.
Men will not take us seriously if we only go to women-only events, rather than attending mixed ones, says Mila Litvinjenko, a Serbian entrepreneur who set up Aura Cosmetics over 20 years ago. “We’re accusing men of holding us back but it’s not men — it’s women. Someone should talk about this: women don’t have a problem with men they have a problem with each other.”
We discussed some of the reasons this might be, perhaps some combination of jealousy, insecurity and Queen bee syndrome. So what does Ms Litvinjenko think might improve this situation? “Talk with each other, share experiences, give advice to other women,” she says. “It’s not important if you’re in the same sector — every business faces similar challenges.”
One perennial challenge for entrepreneurs of all sexes is access to funding. But, as the FT reported on Wednesday, for women the struggle can be all the more difficult.
According to a report published last year in the journal Venture Capital, 97 per cent of all US venture capital was handed to male chief executives between 2011 and 2013. I mull over this with Francesca Webster, who has flown over from her home in Australia to attend her event.
Her own entrepreneurial journey has taken her from Chester in the UK to Brisbane in Australia, and from opening Brazilian bikini wax salons to breeding stud cattle. Now Ms Webster, owner of Clunes Crossing Angus, is working on cloning cattle in food production “to create the perfect steak every time”.
She is currently raising money for this latest venture and acknowledges that pretty much everyone she is approaching for fundraising is male. The agriculture industry is notoriously male-dominated and so of course there is also the challenge of being taken seriously. But Ms Webster reckons she has got this one under control. She says her Aberdeen Angus bulls are ranked number one in Australia.