It’s 1996. The Spice Girls have just released their first album Wannabe, and the term Girl Power is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Unbelievably, it’s still two years until The European Union passes the Human Rights Act. Lads Mags dominate the media landscape. There are a record 101 women in the labour party. It’s a tumultuous and contradictory time to be alive.
In amongst these events, something remarkable is about to happen. A woman in Liverpool is about to start an organisation dedicated to helping women in business. She won’t know it yet, but by 2019 she’ll have supported over 55,000 women to improve their economic position – many who have become female founders themselves. And she’ll have done it all during a struggling economy, cuts to funding and the constant question “Why isn’t there a Men’s Organisation?”.
That woman is Maggie O’Carroll, CEO of The Women’s Organisation in Liverpool. And, miraculously, we had the honour of interviewing her about how she became the force she is today.
The Women’s Organisation is a hub of female empowerment that aims to develop the confidence and skills of aspiring women in business. It has now become the single largest female-focussed enterprise support agency in the UK. Of course, it’s in Liverpool. They provide support, training and advice that allows female founders of the future to flourish.
This is Maggie O’Carroll. And this is her story.
1. Why did you start your business? What spurred you on?
Having grown up on a farm in the west of Ireland my mother was my first example of entrepreneurialism. She would be dealing with suppliers, managing finances and operations alongside juggling her family responsibilities. Unconsciously, that triggered something in me and in search for what that might be I made the decision in the 80s to move to the United States. Immediately, I was struck by the visibility of female business owners and women in corporate leadership roles. Reading newspapers, watching TV and listening to the radio, the talk around women in business was upbeat and diverse – and more importantly, they were present. Women made a huge contribution to the U.S economy and this had a profound impact on me, subsequently shaping my own professional path.
My mission was to set up a social business supporting women to take the leap into business.
The notion I brought back to Liverpool from the U.S. was that more women should be supported to start their own business in the U.K. It seemed odd to me that, throughout Europe, women remained a huge untapped entrepreneurial market. My mission was to set up a social business supporting women to take the leap into business.
2. What are the unique challenges you have faced as a female founder?
When I arrived in Liverpool, the economy was struggling and, with a lack of role models and professional support, women faced significant barriers in the professional world. Setting up The Women’s Organisation in 1996, we faced the usual questions: “Where is the men’s organisation?”. Our response was, and still is: look all around you. Business support services were typically designed by, delivered by and marketed to men. Perhaps this was unintentional, but enterprise was a man’s game and to some extent still is. We are working to tackle this and feel proud of the organisation’s impact but know there is still a long way to go.
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3. What were the 3 steepest learning curves during your first year in business?
- If you want to build a sustainable and competitive business, you have to continuously innovate and plan ahead. As a business owner, it’s up to you to delegate and build a great team that believes in your idea as much as you do.
- The importance of female role models. It’s true what they say: “you can’t be what you can’t see” – seek leadership and inspiration in positive role models.
- As a business owner, you have to live and breathe your own mission and demonstrate the willingness and tenacity to convince others to believe in it too. People will doubt you – persist.
4. What is your favourite thing about founding your own company?
The Women’s Organisation is a charity and social enterprise born through a mission to address the gender imbalance in business, and particularly in self-employment. Therefore, my favourite thing about founding a purpose-driven company can only be measured by the impact the organisation has had on the lives of women. Hearing the real stories of the women whose lives we have changed is what is really important.
The Women’s Organisation has grown into the largest female-focused enterprise support agency in the UK helping women across Europe, China and Africa. I’m pleased that over the years we have contributed to a marked improvement in women starting and growing their own businesses in the U.K. However, I’m far more interested in meeting a woman we helped and have her tell me what a difference it made to her to have that support available.
5. What is the best business advice you have been given by someone else?
When I started The Women’s Organisation, I was encouraged to never rest of my laurels, but to always look ahead and innovate. I put my energy into building great teams who share my vision and I believe this is a fundamental part of building a sustainable and competitive enterprise. Secondly, don’t be scared to relish opportunities for business growth. Women-led businesses make an enormous contribution to the local economy, creating jobs and generating wealth. It is my hope that more local female entrepreneurs will feel empowered and supported to scale their businesses – something that we, at The Women’s Organisation, can help them do.
6. Do you ever suffer from Imposter Syndrome? If so, what do you do to tackle it and move forward?
In the earlier days, yes – but it’s definitely got easier with time. So many businesswomen often experience a nagging feeling that they’re going to be exposed as a fraud any minute.
I think it’s about time we, as women, begin to own our own success and know our strengths.
7. What’s the best book on business you’ve read?
A book which had a profound impact on me was “In Search Of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies” by Robert H Waterman Jr and Tom Peters. It was a must-have for boardrooms and business schools during the 80s and 90s and, despite the business world evolving so rapidly since then, there is still a lot to take from it today.
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8. Tell us about another brilliant business woman you think our readers should know about
The Liverpool City Region is not short of inspiring women, so it’s hard to single one out. Someone who has inspired me over my career is Mary Robinson, the first female President of Ireland during 1990-1997, who grew up in the same county as me. She was a revolutionary pioneer for women advocating the legalisation of using contraceptives, removing the prohibition of divorce and for women to be able to continue work in the civil service after they married. Mary famously said: “I was elected by the women of Ireland, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system”.
9. What piece of advice would you give yourself if you were starting your business now?
Get advice. Back when I began The Women’s Organisation, support for starting and growing a business was thin and far. Liverpool City Region is now lucky to offer free expert advice around starting and growing a business through Enterprise Hub. Leaping into self-employment can seem daunting, but there is help available to guide you every step of the way.
10. If you were working with a marketing budget of £1,000 what would you spend the money on?
Brand-building is everything in business and it’s often said that people buy into people, not products. That said, I’d spend the money on PR.
Thanks for reading!
If you’re feeling inspired and don’t want to stop relishing in empowerment just yet, take a look at our other posts in the #FemaleFounders series. Follow us on Instagram and Twitter and we’ll keep you posted on when you can read about the next badass businesswoman.