Carolyn Currie

CEO of Women’s Enterprise Scotland

What are your hopes for the Data-Driven Innovation programme?

We need to ask ourselves – what do we actually want to see change? Women’s engagement with data is not as good as it should be. You will have heard of Caroline Criado Perez’s book around data bias and the many ways it is everywhere – it is very topical. This is a great opportunity for Edinburgh to put itself firmly as a global leader and is certainly something Women’s Enterprise Scotland (WES) would love to see happen. We can do something unique and that can make a difference – if we’re going to be the data capital then we need a strand focusing on women. Whether that’s helping businesses to use their data well so that women’s businesses can be more agile and more sustainable, it’s quite simple to do and in my opinion, makes the programme more credible by directly aligning to the Sustainable Development Goals. The City Deal needs to have a gender lens to make a sustainable economic impact.


So tell us, what do WES do ‘on the ground’?

Our vision is to create a national women’s business centre with regional hubs – that’s a model that works well in the Canada and the US, and that’s the main outcome we’re working towards.


Exciting, tell us more…

We have been going for six years now. We did start up as a very much research-led organisation. We set up a strategic policy framework on Women’s Enterprise for the Scottish Government and we do global policy work. We have started to transform to delivering some funded services and we do a variety of work, including running programmes on women’s leadership. We train business advisors to be more gender-aware in their business support provision. We do digital consultancy, we deliver early stage business creation training to help women who are thinking about the next step in their career, maybe after university, to set up their own business. We also work to help women who have established businesses, offering support for that next growth spurt. Women-owned businesses are often unable to access growth support, so we offer them leadership training and growth support tools. Right at the other end of the spectrum, we do some work to support women in the boardroom as well. Once we achieve our strategy and have regional hubs providing dedicated support to women-owned businesses, these services will become much more broadly available.


Fantastic – What was your journey in to your role as Chief Executive at WES?

Well, I’m a banker! (laughs) Every journey is unusual. I left school and worked for a bank, did my banking exams and qualified as a Charted Banker. Unusually for a banker, I’ve worked on a lot of different sides – the legal side, constructing the biggest corporate deals, the not-for-profit side, at one time I was the Head of SME [small and medium-sized enterprises] Lending and I worked in marketing. I led some large tech programmes to develop new digital sales platforms and then I moved from Head of SME Lending on to business strategy.

I was leading large investment programmes and there was an interest in women – there had been some coverage in the media, this is about ten years ago. The bank was asking if we could do something more in that area so I did some research and presented a proposal to the board and they said, right, ‘we want you to do something here!’


What a journey…

And the long and short of that, 5 years later, I had developed an initiative and trained managers to be specialists in supporting women to set up businesses. I had over 250 staff in the UK helping women to start up and grow their businesses. That’s where my interest in gender came from, really. From there, I helped to found WES. There was lobbying going on around Westminster and I thought we need that in Scotland!

So once WES was set up, I’d been in banking for 30 years. It just felt like my 17 year-old self did not set out to be a banker when she left school. There was a chance to go. So I left the bank and ended up joining WES. It’s important to know that there just isn’t one career path and you can change at any point.


It continues to surprise us during these interviews just how diverse women’s journeys are to their roles. Some didn’t go to university and went on to become senior managers and data scientists.

Well yes I didn’t go to university! I studied to be a charted banker – for goodness sake, that was as much a surprise to me as anyone else when I started my career.


What does a typical day in the organisation look like?

No such thing! There’s five of us in the WES team; amazing women I am proud to work with. We deliver various programmes, training and research projects. Often, we are giving written and oral evidence to a committee, sharing what businesses have told us and making sure the voices of women are being heard and count.


Can you tell us about any recent achievements at WES – what are you proud of?

I’m incredibly proud of the fact that we are in a place where we can articulate a really strong vision for Scotland. Our research can narrate the incredible economic contributions of women-owned businesses in Scotland – these businesses contribute £8.8 billion per year into the economy but are only 20%, of all business owners. They have created over 230,000 jobs, which is 13% of all private sector employment. We can use the data that we have to press for progress, to better align business support more closely to the needs of women who own businesses. Helping more businesses to grow and encouraging this generation of pioneering women-owned businesses and the next generation of women and girls to achieve their business aspirations.


Can you give us some insight in to the partnerships you hold, who do you work with?

We work with business organisations such as Entrepreneurial Scotland and the Federation of Small Businesses, we partner with them on events as it’s important to engage both men and women. We have a role model ambassador programme where we get incredible stories of pioneering businesswomen in Scotland out there in the media. People that young women and girls can actually relate to and who have inspiring business experiences and stories to share, instead of just the celebrity-type stuff. We try to get these real stories out there across the media and encourage women we work with to network and tell their stories. We work with a whole variety of businesses – I’m at the Royal Highland Show today and met women who have led the diversification of farms and rural enterprises. Yesterday I met a woman who owns a spa business with 13 different outlets. We have women who are working with innovation, in medicine for example. A real variety up and down Scotland.


What would you like to see change?

I would love to do ourselves out of business (laughs) and we would love to get to a place where 50% of all business start-ups are led by women. Statistics show us that this actually is the case at the minute –but we want to see 50% growth pipeline businesses owned by women and 50% of account managed businesses with economic development agencies owned by women. A gender balanced business ecosystem benefits everybody. Where you have gender diverse teams and gender balanced teams, that’s where innovation lies, because you have that diversity of thought.


What do you think are the biggest challenges for women in the field?

It’s a multi-layered challenge. The impact that everyday sexism has on people. The fact that there are less women in data and science, if their stories aren’t being amplified, it’s assumed that these sectors aren’t places for women and girls. Women and girls are less likely to aspire or see themselves in those fields. We just miss out on SO much talent. That basic stereotyping is a real problem. Then when you do get women coming through, often the environment they’re going in to is not conducive to them because many of the workplace practices have been designed around men.

It takes a lot of targeted work to tackle some of those issues but progress is being made and sometimes we have to shout out about best practice, even if it seems small. For some businesses, even taking on a new woman in to the workforce – where that woman successfully stays in that company, that is a great piece of best practice that needs to be shared. There is undoubtedly a lot to be done, the data is telling us that, and in the end we want to get to a place where there are equal opportunities for men and women and we need to work together to achieve that. Men and women working together will take us so far but we if we want to get there quicker, initiatives that target women only help to speed up that process and provide that resilience. That’s why we partner with mixed sex organisations – we can provide part of the solution with women-specific support and then together we can work on partnership events across the whole of the business ecosystem. There are a lot of great men out there that want to see change happen and when invited, they will play that part.


What do you look forward to at WES?

Lots of exciting projects – we have two big events that we’re planning for the Autumn. One is an international conference event which will bring global experts on women’s economic empowerment to Edinburgh, including members of the G20 think tanks. We have our annual awards in September, which is always a great event for everybody. There is nothing better than seeing women who have created brilliant businesses in Scotland inspiring everyone with their achievements. It’s great to hear those stories. It’s one of those moments when you think ‘this is what it’s all about’ – and we have plenty women and men who come along to join us on the evening to mark all these achievements together.


Is there anything you’d recommend to women and girls who would like to be you?

There is no one path to success. A career isn’t a linear thing. Do what you love and believe in yourself – if you think an idea has merit, you’re more than likely right. Don’t put obstacles in your way.


Do have a fun fact to share and a hero or heroine?

Oh my goodness! Fun fact – I love to talk about economics, not sure if that’s fun but I think it’s epic! Did you know that the amount women-owned businesses contribute to the Scottish economy every year is more than the food and drink sector or the tourism industry?

My heroine is Michelle Obama. I was lucky enough to go to the dinner Michelle Obama spoke at last year here in Edinburgh. The previous year Barak Obama had spoken at a dinner in Scotland. My daughter is so inspired by him and did politics at university because of him. I didn’t even try to get a ticket and I regretted that, I thought ‘why did I not try’? When Michelle Obama was announced as a speaker, I phoned up my Chair and said ‘we need a table!’ – and low and behold, we actually managed to get one. We were able to offer tickets to some of our women-owned business Ambassadors and it was terrific to be able to offer something back to the brilliant women who support our work and our vision at WES. It was a living example of ‘just don’t set limits’.


Image of Carolyn Currie
Picture by Lesley Martin, interviewed by Poppy Gerrard-Abbott

Where you have gender balanced teams, that’s where innovation lies. You have that diversity of thought

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