Scotland needs to prioritise the establishment of a network of ‘Pups’ – so-called ‘pop-up pre-start’ facilities – to make it easier for women to access entrepreneurial education and support, according to the co-author of a landmark report on equalising opportunities for women in business.

Ana Stewart, a tech founder and investor, said she would like to see the Scottish Government embrace the idea of creating hyper local facilities offering women who are in primary carer or home manager roles to make it easier for them to access entrepreneurial advice and support.

Stewart, who is a partner at St Andrews-based impact investment firm Eos, said that would be one of the first of her 31 recommendations to government that she would focus on implementing – to start making an immediate impact on women who are not able to play as meaningful part as they could in the wider economy.

Speaking at the Pathways Forward: A New Approach for Women in Entrepreneurship – Live Panel event today in Edinburgh, she said: “In terms of the areas that we want to make sure the government are embracing, are things like this different way of reaching entrepreneurs, and those that are not represented enough in the ecosystem just now.

“And things like Pups, you know, the pop-up pre-starts, to me is a very important first initiative for them to embrace because it opens up an opportunity for those that are not getting in just now.”

Stewart took part in a panel discussion with her co-author Mark Logan, CodeClan chief executive Loral Quinn and Professor Norin Arshed from the University of Dundee School of Business.

She was asked how the government is responding to the report she co-authored with Scotland’s chief entrepreneurial advisor, Mark Logan, seeing as it was received before the change of First Minister. She said that she was working hard to make sure it “didn’t fall between the cracks”, and Pathways now has its own branding to try and raise awareness of its aims. She said though that she will be speaking to Neil Grey, cabinet secretary for wellbeing economy, fair work and energy, later this week about its progress and that she has been assured she will receive a “formal response”.

She added: “So that’s what we’re pushing at. And we’ve been doing that, you know, very aggressively, making sure that we do get get a response and hopefully get the embracing of the recommendations. That said, we don’t know what it will say. So it’s an opportunity again, here, to discuss it and highlight how important it is that we embrace all the steps and the recommendations and the folio of interventions that we’ve recommended they adopt.”

With the recent emergence of the Techscaler network, Logan said a “cohesive and coherent” strategy is being developed in Scotland to support greater levels of entrepreneurship. The Pathways report is an ‘extension’ of that strategy which builds and reinforces it, he added.

He said: “And it seeks to enfranchise a much larger population into entrepreneurship that were previously not able to access it that way that other half could. So what that does is double our entrepreneurial heft, it creates great opportunities and great energy. So to that there’s a real optimism, I think, in government that we can do something really, really important.

He added: “So to that there’s a real optimism, I think, in government that we can do something really, really important. I was thinking of the meeting that took place last week, it was a meeting at Oxford University of ecosystem builders from across Europe and the UK. And there was a general sense amongst those very capable and insightful people that Scotland is actually starting to lead in how you build entrepreneurial ecosystems in at least Europe, if not further afield. And Pathways is another opportunity to change the game again.”

In terms of how the ‘Pups’ would work, Logan expanded on the format. He said he would like to see some of the principles of Techscaler used to build similar support for women entrepreneurs in Scotland – going to places that are convenient for them, if they are limited in terms of where they can travel by caring responsibilities.

For example, that could be in disused retail space in shopping centres, or library spaces. But the key thing is that the provision would reflect local conditions.

“When you start talking to people in entrepreneurial areas, or ecosystem builders in different parts of Scotland, you find that we have really great people executing local initiatives, and with a real knowledge of local needs,” he said.

“And those essentially are the starting material for these, these pre-start centres. Some will be permanently based and will be mobile, but what we should be doing is working and I would call it a hyper franchise model, to find and support these people and say all you need to do is what you’re doing just know, plus this minimum service footprint, and we’ll help you financially to do that. And that allows us to blend the goals of of the Pathways review with local knowledge at scale.”

There would be no point running a small pilot for three years simply to tick a box, he said, as the only thing that matters is being able to scale that model, he said.

“So using that model allows us to get to scale immediately. So that’s that’s kind of how we were thinking about it. And I’m confident that we will get that done.”

The panel discussed some of the wider challenges of inclusion for women. Professor Arshed decried the lack of consistent data on representation for women because many organisations are simply not mandated to record the gender disaggregated data for funding opportunities, for example. Loral Quinn highlighted that CodeClan collects gender data, and they have managed to ascertain that female course participants are on average 27 per cent across digital skills programmes, but when that course is part-time it “rises to “rockets up to over 50s”.

She said: “That’s part of the reason why we really want to launch a full immersive style content programme, which will enable women to get the same qualification but over a longer period of time, to do it in a way that suits them that works around their lives. And, you know, it’s flexible, and available from wherever you are.”

At a more structural level, the panel explored some of the deeper societal and educational issues impacting female participation. Logan said there needs to be more male advocates to address a “societal problem that removes opportunity from roughly half of our population”.

He said: “I’ve had, you know, like everybody else around this table challenges in life, you know, things have gone well, things have gone badly. But I need to be more conscious that I’ve spent all that life under the blanket of white male privilege. So it’s just easier. And I think we’ve got to kind of come out from that blanket and say, ‘Well, you know, how do we wrap that around more of the population, I just think we’ve got to be brave enough to talk about that.”

He added: “And, you know, this isn’t a zero sum game. If you have more female entrepreneurs, you don’t have less male entrepreneurs, you actually have more male entrepreneurs, because you’ve got more economic activity. So we need to think about it differently.”

He said how it had even been controversial to describe the kind of societal ‘sexism’ he and Stewart wrote about in the Pathways report, adding: “Actually, our society is based on a bunch of gender stereotypes that are rooted in the sexism of our society. And it shouldn’t be controversial to say that because it’s it’s blatantly obvious wherever you look. And it shouldn’t be controversial for Anna and I to write that in the report, but it was controversial.”

When asked for examples of sexism in her own career, Quinn, who was previously the founder and CEO of tech firm Sustainably, said there had been occasions where she had been treated differently.

She said: “I definitely felt like I was treated in a different way, you know, particularly in investor meetings. And, you know, I have heard, you know, other women entrepreneurs saying that they did bring a token man along to their investor meetings, just to close the deal. And that is really kind of alarming.

And, you know, I was on a programme as well, where there an actual discussion in a spreadsheet with all the VCs to avoid, because there had been like, you know, inappropriate behaviour, you know, sexual kind of things that were happening to these women that were getting kind of felt up at investor meetings.”

The lack of inclusion of women from ethnic minorities is also a major challenge for business to overcome, said Arshed.

“In Dundee, I hosted an event with 40-plus ethnic minority women, and not one of them had heard of any of the government and enterprise organisations that are on the ground, helping them. So that was 40-plus women, who all had small businesses, but they got through these challenges by themselves, and helping each other networking with one another.

“They didn’t think of, you know, tapping into the available support and resources. They didn’t think they would ever approach a university or a bank. So that was a game-changer for me in terms of, okay, we have all this great support, and I know Scotland has this great ecosystem, but it’s not as effective as it should be.”

In some ways we have even gone backwards, Logan said. He gave an example of a statistic from 25 years where participation levels for women on undergraduate computing courses were about equal. But since home computers were marketed at boys, those participation levels have been steadily declining.

He said: “So I think we’ve got to, you know, educate people as to the reality of why we get to where we get to, so they don’t make up their own narratives.”

The panel also agreed that there needs to be more of a push on entrepreneurialism at university level, with technical students encouraged to mix with business, arts and design students.

To see the video recording of the event, visit here.