For our latest Ulster Bank Boost Index, we wanted to test a theory -getting under the skin of a 'two track' approach to business growth that's become clear to me since we launched the programme six months ago. Many sectors are in good health - but there's an important distinction that we've seen at work.
The Boost Index - which is made up of interviews with the owners and directors of SMEs with between five and 50 employees across a range of sectors - paints a positive picture overall. In fact, 38% of respondents have increased sales in the past 12 months. Most of the remainder (53%) have seen sales stay the same. More than half of firms (54%) said that they had experienced growth in the past year, with most of the remainder (43%) describing their business as stable. But the real divergence is between men and women.
Women-led small businesses in Northern Ireland are less likely to be exporters and female business leaders are less likely to consider investing and expanding than their male counterparts.
This is something to ponder ... but also a real spur to action. There will be a range of reasons why this differential exists, but it gives me real determination in my role, as a Business Growth Enabler, to tackle the real and perceived barriers to entrepreneurship among both women and men.
Exporting doesn't necessarily mean investing in large and complex supply chains. It could mean something as simple as creating a website from a template and taking orders via email. It also doesn't need to reach every market around the world - there are plenty of near-market opportunities in the rest of the UK and Ireland that are there to be seized.
Ultimately, there's no magic bullet for getting more people exporting. We know that there are many studies that show different attitudes to risk between women and men, and that the nature of the businesses that they own and operate can have an impact on appetite for things like export. But by continuing to make these opportunities available, and having an open and honest debate, we at Ulster Bank hope to provide the platform and support to help those businesses thrive.
Owning her own business was never really an aspiration for Karen Yates. But a desire to find the perfect gift for her daughter led her to set up a company that designs, manufactures and sells designer quality handbags and purses.