While more and more women are starting businesses, there’s still a gap between the number of male startup founders and female. In fact, a sobering statistic suggests that if women set up businesses at the same rate as men, the UK would have an additional one million entrepreneurs. Clearly, more needs to be done to support women in business.

Navina Bartlett is the founder and Boss Lady of Coconut Chilli - a business selling delectable meal pots inspired by South Indian flavours - and one of our Virgin StartUp ambassadors. In this article she discusses five invisible struggles that face female entrepreneurs, and how to deal with them.

I’ve written this article because I've faced struggles on my business journey - some I had to overcome pre-launch, and then more adversities were faced while growing my startup. Awareness of these invisible struggles is important; here are five to reflect on.

1. Be ambitious

Being unrealistic means you start to think bigger. Women especially hold themselves back because of a fear of ‘having it all’, or because of other commitments in life in addition to your business or entrepreneurial idea. You need to be able to conquer that insidious voice of guilt, or silence your nearest and dearest if they try and tell you that you should be more realistic. Yeah right.

2. Care for yourself first

You are your business, so make yourself the centre of it. If that means no clients after 3pm, then make that decision and stick to it. If you need to include admin support in the early days, then budget for it. Don’t get caught up in the belief that you won’t succeed by not working 80-hour weeks in the beginning, this simply may not be possible – your business should thrive in the way you want it to. There is no legislation about timescales to become profitable or to hit your turnover goals.

Navina Bartlett - Coconut Chilli

3. Watch your language

Female entrepreneurs constantly face patronising terms such as ‘kitchen table entrepreneur’ – especially in the media. One way to fight back is to use words and phrases often only whispered in tech circles. Minimal Viable Product (MVP) is my favourite – use it when you’re developing your prototype, or when you’re making changes to your marketing strategy, and call it ‘being agile’. It’s also important to speak your truth, so don’t use phrases which demean what you might already have achieved. I’m guilty of having said ‘I’ve got a little start-up business’ in the past – but now, I make sure that never happens. I avoid shrinking words like ‘just’, and ‘only’ and talk about positives such as how ‘I am making a significant contribution to the UK economy’.

4. Challenge business norms

There are all kinds of reasons for setting up your business – a flexible lifestyle, creating social change, or to try and earn enough money to fly first class around the world. For me, it’s not ALL about profits. My legacy is about creating more sustainable food systems around the world. This is a long game and I’m willing to play full out. Building my future B-Corp, Coconut Chilli, is my way of doing this. (B Corps are for-profit companies certified by the non-profit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.)

I’ve been approached by growth accelerators with a traditional view of how to make money in the food industry and I had to be brave to tell them this isn’t how I want to grow my business. This is especially true if those on the other side of the table are supposedly ‘older and wiser’.

When I established Coconut Chilli, I believed the way I would scale my business was to drive volume by getting listed in supermarkets, thus reducing product costs. I entered Ocado’s Next Top Supplier competition and felt ecstatic when the buyer was super-excited about the flavours in our lamb and black pepper meatballs. But his remit was to source products for a cost price well below what we could achieve as a start up.

At the moment, I need to make at least a few pence profit on every single unit I sell – Coconut Chilli doesn’t have massive financial backing, so there was a huge disconnect and I wasn’t willing to sell my family jewels in order to finance multi-buy discounts. Now we sell office hampers of our gourmet South Indian meal pots directly to businesses via our website. Margins are better, and although I felt disheartened at the time, I brushed myself off and realised that retail can come later. Which brings me to my final point.

5. Use your emotional intelligence

You must be able to persuade many people that you are capable of running your business – so it’s essential to use your emotional intelligence (EQ). Whether it’s customers, suppliers, staff or those all-important investors, you must learn how to deal with others (male and female) giving ‘advice’ on your business. It’s important not to take this advice-giving personally – remember this is not about your own inadequacies. Men (especially) want to help, and advice-giving is helping. But don’t feel like you should listen/act on anybody else’s advice if it doesn’t feel right. This is your idea/business – always stay true to yourself.

Now you’ve heard some of the struggles, sweep them to one side and go take some inspired action. Building a business really isn’t rocket science (unless you’re in the spaceship business); it just takes small steps every single day.


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