The number of women running and starting businesses in the North West has always lagged behind the male statistics and over the years much has been written about the many reasons cited for this.
This year marks 10 years since the movement to address the barriers to women going into business was established right here in the North West.
Women in Enterprise, the first of the networks was established when the Small Business Agency (LEDU) wanted to run a programme for women entrepreneurs.
The initial idea was just to repeat the same programme that had run before however in a change from the norm in the North West they decided to scratch below the surface and ask successful business women and business advisers for their opinions.
Existing business women were quickly able to cite the barriers that constricted them when setting up, such as lack of role models, peer groups, networks and access to finance.
It was agreed that Women in Enterprise be formed with the main and very simple aim that remains to this day of “supporting women in and into business”.
It was concluded that women need different supports than their male counterparts, that they do not access the same networks and that they found it difficult to access finance sometimes because they had not held a bank account in their own name.
The women at the meeting, that included the late Mary Breslin, who went on to become patron, and successful entrepreneur Anne Marie Slavin fully supported this suggestion and with the leadership and support of Moira McGee and Vincent Lusby funding applications were successful and Women in Enterprise was formed.
Tracy Hegarty became the person who would effectively drive the organisation through the next 10 years supported by a voluntary yet dynamic board of influential women and men.
Very soon the vision started to become a reality as we watched many women come up with ideas, explore their options and set up in business, many of whom are still members today and who now support and inspire other women to go into and grow their businesses.
Women in Enterprise in the North West then started to talk to others throughout Northern Ireland who saw the value of the network and four other networks were established covering the whole of Northern Ireland.
These networks now form Business Women’s Networks NI (BWN NI), a body comprising approximately 500 members and communicating regularly with over 1,200 women as well as running events collectively, attracting annually over 1,600 high calibre business women.
Through passion, commitment and dedication Women in Enterprise and its partners in BWN NI have succeeded in addressing the barriers to women and highlighting the need for gender specific support that the networks go some way in providing.
To celebrate the last 10 years and the achievements of the many women who have been involved in the networks we have launched the BWN NI Awards aimed at highlighting and celebrating the unique membership who have gone from strength to strength.
These awards give a well deserved round of applause to the women business owners across Northern Ireland and will inspire others to take up the challenge.
Once again the North West has led the way in developing a pilot network that is now replicated across Northern Ireland.
Without these women leaders, trailblazing, inspiring and wanting to support others the gender issue may never have been raised and many women would have missed out on the opportunity.
Through these prestigious awards and the ongoing work and dedication of the networks we know more women will be inspired to take this life changing step.
The closing date for entries to the BWN NI Business Awards is March 5. Entry forms can be downloaded form the BWN NI website www.bwnni.com.
Toni Forrester is CEO Letterkenny Chamber and a founder member of Women in Enterprise.