Female-founded companies account for only one in five UK start-ups - but the entrepreneurs behind companies including Brolly, PensionBee and GetRentr tell their stories on how they've found success

Female-founded start-ups

Female start-ups founders (clockwise from left) Phoebe Hugh, Merlie Calvert, Romi Savova and Charlotte Cuzzo

Female-founded start-ups may feel like they’re constantly facing an uphill struggle – but it hasn’t stopped these women from finding business success.

According to data analysed by insurtech Digital Risks, of all the start-ups launched in the UK between 2000 and 2018, only 19.4% were set up by women.

Evidence suggests that female-led start-ups generate 10% more in cumulative revenue over five years, yet only receive 12.8% of total funding.

To find out more on the issue, we spoke to six female entrepreneurs about how they’re defying the statistics to pave the way for generations of women to come.


Female-founded start-ups

Phoebe Hugh

Founder and CEO at Brolly, the UK’s first artificially intelligent insurance advisory application

Access to capital is crucial in the early days for most start-ups, and I was shocked when the numbers were published to see that only around 2% of venture capital investment is going to female-founded start-ups – which is astronomically low.

The average deal size is also less than half of what male-led companies are raising. This is obviously a massive barrier.

young tech entrepreneurs, female-founded start-ups
Phoebe Hugh, founder of Brolly (Credit: Youtube)

That being said, Brolly has an incredible group venture capital and angel investors backing us from the US and UK.

When I was working in insurance at Aviva, I saw first-hand how broken the industry industry is – most people are over or under-insured, with little idea how much they are paying or even what they’re covered for. It’s a mess.

I quit my job to build a trusted, consumer-first insurance company, Brolly, and firmly believe that we can use AI to consolidate and automate personal insurance.

I knew that change would be slow from within the insurance companies, and that the fastest way to solve these problems would be to start a company.


Romi Savova

Founder and CEO at PensionBee, an online pension planning platform

I knew it would be incredibly difficult to set up a new and disruptive business from scratch, especially in the world of pensions, where some providers still insist on offering customers an old-fashioned and confusing experience involving snail mail and fax.

The biggest obstacle by far is affordable childcare.

There are myths that women are less confident or sometimes even less capable than men of taking up senior roles and starting their own businesses.

Romi Savova, female-founded start-ups
Romi Savova, founder and CEO at PensionBee

However, having experienced the childcare dilemma first-hand, I’m convinced that we have to do more to enable women to focus on their careers after having children.

Bearing children is not optional for women, and businesses need to have the right policies in place to encourage and support women to return to the workplace in their full capacity.

I think integrating home life and work life, enabling mothers to fulfil their career ambitions, is the direction we need to take as a society.


Merlie Calvert

Founder at Farillio, an online legal solutions platform

I was my only real barrier. Once I found I had the courage to start, then it just kind of happened because I worked super hard to make it happen – often by finding the right people to help me at the right time on our journey.

The challenges never go away, but when you look back at the things that stressed you out six months ago, for example, they often seem far less of a big deal, because together with the right people, you did manage to resolve them and then you moved on.

Merlie Calvert, female-founded start-ups
Merlie Calvert, founder of Farillio

Tenacity and holding your nerve are two of the most valuable traits that you need – and if you don’t have them already, you soon develop them because without them, you can’t make that dream business a reality.

People make the magic happen. To build the kind of business that we have, you absolutely need the right people on that journey with you.


Charlotte Guzzo

Co-founder and COO at Heterogeneous, a patient-centric research platform

There is an underlying pressure for women not to give any reasons to be seen as less productive than men in the workplace.

I met many successful women who acted as if their pregnancies had had no impact on their work and it led me to believe this was something you could just breathe through.

As naive as it sounds, I was surprised to discover just how significant this journey can be.

Charlotte Guzzo, female-founded start-ups
Charlotte Guzzo, Co-Founder and COO at Heterogeneous

Inertia is the enemy of entrepreneurship.

It is entirely possible to test your initial assumptions, do market research, talk to people and build a prototype while maintaining an income on the side.

We did not go full-time until we were sure we had a valid business model and had raised funds to pay ourselves.

We did, however, feel passionate about our mission and managed to convince others to join us on this journey as we grew.


Orla Shields

CEO and co-founder at GetRentr, a geo-spatial property compliance platform that uses AI to track property licensing regulations and consultations in real time

I had a burning desire to fix the broken private rental market after a bad experience with a landlord renting in London.

That experience never left me and it is the genesis of GetRentr – a company on a mission to improve the residential rental market for all stakeholders.

Orla Shields, female-founded start-ups
Orla Shields, CEO and co-founder of GetRentr

That includes tenants but also estate agents and councils.

To be a CEO, you need to have hard conversations and above all you need courage and resilience.

Look after yourself.  If you’re burnt out, you’re not clear, productive or any use to your team and company, so it’s important to get the balance right and ensure you’re looking after yourself.


Sam White

CEO of Pukka Insure, a managing general agent providing a range of motor vehicle insurance products and services to customers who have been overlooked

I realised there were businesses out there with great products who simply couldn’t sell what they had to offer and I thought that if they could outsource the sales function to someone else, someone effective then they could focus on getting their deliverables right.

I felt like for certain businesses, this would be a cheaper option than overhauling their sales team.

Sam White, female-founded start-ups
Sam White, CEO at Pukka Insure

One thing I’ve always been is a natural sales person, I love a hustle and I knew that I had the capability to sell lots of different concepts simultaneously.

If you’re a business struggling with sales then I felt like I was an attractive, cost effective solution.

Sometimes I really do believe that we can be at our most creative when we let go of our conventional fears.

Trust your instincts and don’t be frightened of asking for help, you could be very surprised where it leads.

Accept failure as part of the experience and remember, it’s never too soon or too late to give it a go.