North East entrepreneurs come together for International Women's Day

When the very first International Women's Day was observed in the early 1900s the globe was experiencing a turbulent yet exciting time of huge expansion in the industrialised world

Mary Ann Rogers
Mary Ann Rogers

When the very first International Women's Day was observed in the early 1900s the globe was experiencing a turbulent yet exciting time of huge expansion in the industrialised world.

Clara Zetkin was the catalyst for the day.

Back in 1910 the leader of the Women’s Office for the Social Democratic Party in Germany was at an international conference of working women in Copenhagen – the second of its kind – when she proposed the idea of a global celebration of women’s achievements when they could press for their demands.

The proposal was given unanimous approval by the attendees – more than 100 women from 17 countries – and International Women’s Day (IWD) was officially launched.

Jump forward 104 years and the event has just as much importance as it did in the 1900s.

More than 363 events are set to unfold across the UK on this year’s IWD, Saturday, March 8, and female entrepreneurs across the region are among those seizing the opportunity to use the day to show the contribution their businesses are making to the economy.

Before the credit crunch hit, studies showed that Alnwick and the surrounding area had proportionally more female entrepreneurs than anywhere else in the UK, with more than three in every 10 businesses run by women compared to the national average of 25%.

Latest statistics show a 10% leap in the number of self-employed women nationally in the last two years, outstripping the 3.3% increase in men setting up their own firms.

At the Women Mean Business event, being held in Alnwick on Saturday, some of those entrepreneurs will set up their stalls to share what they do with the public, who can also take part in workshops and taster sessions.

Julia Lyford, from social enterprise Fourth Action, the Belford-based group organising the Women Mean Business event, said: “Northumberland really is a hotbed for female-owned businesses.

“You just have to look around and you’ll see thriving female-run enterprises everywhere in Northumberland – people like Mary Ann Rogers, to ice-cream makers such as Doddington Dairy and The Proof of the Pudding near Alnwick.

“This will be the first ever event of its kind to celebrate women’s contribution to our economy in Northumberland, and we hope it will inspire even more female entrepreneurs to do it for themselves.

“This is a real celebration of local women in business. During the day there will be free business advice on offer for those thinking of starting a business.

“We are very excited about some of the workshops we have secured, especially Lindsey Foley with Tune In Coaching. By asking a few simple questions she will help people identify their strengths in order to understand themselves better, a technique which will certainly help them to progress within the business world.”

Anna Turnbull of Biteabout Arts
Anna Turnbull of Biteabout Arts

Fourth Action was initially set up as a partnership by Julia Lyford and Romi Jones.

For the first 10 years of the business all manner of work was taken to keep the income flowing, through university lecturing, co-ordinating a youth homelessness project, evaluation on behalf of the National Lottery and feasibility work for an innovative local community centre.

By 2005 the time had come to make Fourth Action a company in its own right, so that they could bid for funds to develop their work.

Lyford wanted to take on commissions and projects that helped disadvantaged people get a better deal in life, particularly women facing extra barriers to meeting their aspirations.

At this point the business really grew, with success in winning large contracts to train and support local women, to run two international community projects, and to get going on the iconic Women’s Workshop, a sustainable wooden community workshop built entirely by women.

Lyford said: “A moment of pure team work and inspiration truly was the day when a group of women from Derbyshire and Northumberland joined together. It was their combined effort that meant we were able to lift the wooden frame of our Women’s Workshop into place.

“We now aptly offer training and support for women in order for them to work within manual trades from this site.”

As Fourth Action is a social enterprise the income raised gets put back into the company to help more people. With these funds there has been the creation of two jobs, and a range of self-employed contracts to help deliver their learning and support programmes.

In the course of the lifespan of the company Fourth Action has built its turnover to over £200,000 and being a less than conventional business, operating in the community, and not having an obvious product to sell, meant that sometimes it was difficult to get the message across to potential clients about what Fourth Action can really offer women in the community.

The women that Fourth Action work with have offered the best advice. Lyford said it has been important to take a holistic approach when supporting them and helping them to meet their goal, and talking about the business in isolation does not work for many women; often the real business barriers can include lack of child care, elder care, transport, or family backing.

From this advice Fourth Action were able to review the support they give and broaden their skills, and now many of those they work with will be at this weekend’s event.

Businesses include Anna Turnbull’s Biteabout Arts, founded in 2011 at her home at Biteabout Farm, Lowick.

Anna studied Fine Art at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts in London, before returning home to Northumberland to continue her creative journey and is most well known for her sculpture of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, woven from local willows, created for Morpeth’s entry for Britain in Bloom.

Turnbull carries out workshops and creates unique items for sale, from her two material loves, wool and willow.

Hexham-based artist Mary Ann Rogers will also attend the event.

She added: “The sheer number of businesses owned and run by women in Northumberland is fantastic and the fact there are so many provides great support and encouragement to other women thinking about starting up on their own.

“Events like Women Mean Business are a great showcase for both the county and our huge diversity of female-run businesses.”

The day runs from 11am-3pm, Northumberland Hall in Alnwick.


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