Christine Woods: what entrepreneurial women need most

Opinion: The theme for International Women’s Day on 8 March is ‘inspire inclusion’. Professor Christine Woods suggests some ideas to embrace on this day, and always.

Professor Christine Woods
Professor Christine Woods is the Theresa Gattung Chair in Women in Entrepreneurship at the Business School. Photo: William Chea.

While significant challenges face entrepreneurial women in Aotearoa New Zealand, three concepts – allyship, mentoring and paying it forward – offer effective strategies for building gender-inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystems.

These interconnected concepts form the backbone of my work that focuses on unlocking and amplifying entrepreneurial potential through research, teaching and engagement to break down barriers and biases.

The goal is to empower girls and women on their entrepreneurial journey. Throughout my career, I have been supported by wonderful allies and mentors and am fortunate to be part of the University’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, so it’s important for me to share why these concepts are so important.

Allyship is embedded in solidarity and support. It is so much more than mere acknowledgement of gender bias – it involves active advocacy and action. In entrepreneurship, allyship involves men leveraging their positions, influence and resources to amplify women’s voices, visibility and opportunities. It requires a commitment to challenging biases, dismantling structural inequalities and fostering environments where women can thrive. In short, it’s about changing the system, not the woman.

On the eve of the first match of the 2022 Women’s Rugby World Cup, the University launched the Aotearoa Centre for Enterprising Women (ACEW) at an event co-sponsored by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise. We heard from a number of influential women involved in world rugby, including Vicky Dombroski. Instrumental in establishing the women’s game, Vicky helped name the Black Ferns and has been their only female head coach to date.

Central to her conversation with us was the support of Laurie O’Reilly, an ally who worked tirelessly for women’s rugby. His support, vision and mentoring of other men (including then head coach Wayne Smith) helped build a platform for the success of girls’ and women’s rugby.

Mentorship is a cornerstone of allyship and involves the transfer of knowledge, guidance and support from experienced entrepreneurs of all genders to emerging talent. Mentorship is a vital conduit for bridging gaps in access, skills and networks.

Women entrepreneurs, in particular, often face unique challenges ranging from limited access to funding to pervasive gender biases in business settings.

Mentoring counteracts these obstacles by providing guidance, insights and essential connections. Importantly, mentorship extends beyond traditional one-on-one relationships to include diverse support networks and communities.

Businesswoman Theresa Gattung has been pivotal in mentoring women entrepreneurs as well as establishing and supporting mentoring networks such as Coralus, Global Women and ACEW. She is a great supporter of the University’s research, and a strong example of a woman who pays it forward.

At its core, paying it forward transcends individual
success to engender systemic change and transformation. 

Paying it forward embodies the ethos of reciprocity and communal giving, urging beneficiaries of mentorship and support to extend similar opportunities to future generations. As individuals progress in their entrepreneurial careers, they carry the invaluable lessons, insights and networks they have gained. The invitation to ‘pay it forward’ asks those who have succeeded to reinvest in nurturing the next wave of aspiring entrepreneurs.

At its core, paying it forward transcends individual success to engender systemic change and transformation. It catalyses a ripple effect of empowerment, inspiration and inclusivity, amplifying the impact of allyship and mentoring. Through fostering a culture where success is measured not only by personal achievements, but also by collective advancement, paying it forward creates virtuous spirals of empowerment that transcend gender boundaries.

Crucially, the intersectionality of gender and entrepreneurship demands nuanced approaches that recognise and address intersecting identities, experiences, and challenges. Wāhine Māori, Pacific and other women of colour, Rainbow individuals, and other marginalised groups encounter compounded barriers stemming from systemic racism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination. Allyship, mentoring and paying it forward among entrepreneurial groups require concerted efforts across multiple fronts. Policy interventions, university engagement and community-led programmes play complementary roles in dismantling systemic barriers, and promoting and nurturing inclusive cultures.

The part we play in ACEW involves several initiatives in teaching, research and engagement. As part of the curriculum, we offer two specific for-credit courses on women and entrepreneurship. The first is open to any stage-three student at the University, while the second is part of the MBA.

With all the demand, it’s great to see the University’s response to need, including developing a masters level course on inclusive entrepreneurship. In partnership with Rise Global, which offers leadership and coaching for Indigenous women, we have a scholarship focused on wāhine Māori entrepreneurial leadership. We also have funding for another PhD scholarship in gender and entrepreneurial finance and several masters degree scholarships, thanks to support from the Chau Hoi Shuen Foundation.

Research in progress is exploring the gender investment gap, building on a report commissioned last year by Theresa. And Girls Mean Business is now under way following a successful launch with nine schools in November 2023. GMB is a university student-led programme offered to Year 7 and Year 8 girls. Supported by ACEW, in-person and online programmes are being developed to engage and encourage the potential of the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Allyship, mentoring and paying it forward are powerful ways to boost women’s entrepreneurial potential. If we want systemic change, individual growth and collective prosperity, we need to incorporate this kind of thinking into our daily practices and organisational cultures.

Professor Christine Woods is the Theresa Gattung Chair in Women in Entrepreneurship at the Auckland Business School and director of the Aotearoa Centre for Enterprising Women. She gave her inaugural lecture on 29 February.

This article first appeared in the March 2024 edition of UniNews

The views in this article are personal opinion and not necessarily those of the University of Auckland.