SCOTLAND has the chance to become a global leader in terms of women’s entrepreneurship according to a former senior banker who is leading work on plans for a pioneering centre that could help provide a big boost to the economy.

Carolyn Currie, who recently became Entrepreneur in Residence at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, reckons the Women’s Business Centre the institution intends to launch could help unlock around £8 billion activity and provide a model that could be exported globally.

The planned centre is expected to be the first of its kind in the UK that focuses on women.

Ms Currie reckons it could help address barriers that prevent women from maximising the potential they have to become successful business builders and in the process unleash a wave of entrepreneurialism. The effects could ripple though Scotland.

“That could be an economic game-changer for Scotland,” said Ms Currie, who is also chief executive of the Women’s Enterprise Scotland (WES) organisation which she helped to found. “This isn’t just about creating more women entrepreneurs, it’s about that extra £8bn that could go into the economy. But also innovation happens in a diverse landscape; if we don’t have a divers eco-system we are significantly restricting our capacity to innovate.”

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The £8bn figure refers to WES research that found the 20 per cent of businesses in the UK that are majority female-owned contribute that much, and support 230,000 jobs. The rate of business ownership among women in the UK lags far below the US and Canada.

“If you double that 20% to 40% you get an £8.8bn uplift and 230,000 jobs,” says Ms Currie. “That is phenomenal.”

Mr Currie, who held senior roles at Royal Bank of Scotland before becoming chief operating officer at WES in 2015, says the activity of the centre will be informed by a consultation with local women-owned businesses as well as staff and students at the university. This will ensure that the needs of women are placed at the heart of the service design.

HeraldScotland: Carolyn Currie spent 30 years at RBS group Picture: Jane Barlow/PACarolyn Currie spent 30 years at RBS group Picture: Jane Barlow/PA

She notes that research undertaken by WES highlighted a range of challenges facing women including access to funding and to specific growth resources.

Around a third of respondents had experienced impressions of discrimination. Networking opportunities can be hard to come by for women.

Claiming that existing incubator facilitators tends to be “a bit Google-y” Ms Currie makes clear she is determined that the centre planned for QMU will take an innovative approach, noting: “We want to rip up what’s there, start with a blank page and go out to women and say what would be the environment in which you feel you would be empowered to start up a business?”

She adds: “It is an absolutely amazing opportunity to transform the landscape for women in Scotland, especially after the impact of the pandemic … There’s been a trend for years but what we’re seeing is women can’t access the resources they need to start and grow those businesses as effectively as they could and to use their skills and so really there has never been a more crucial time for the economy.”

The centre will be housed in the Innovation Hub that it is expected will open at QMU In 2025.

But the impact of Ms Currie’s efforts could be felt much sooner.

The centre is one of the initiatives that could benefit from the £50m commitment from the SNP to support women’s enterprise that Ms Currie may have helped to secure.

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“We launched our first manifesto as Women’s Enterprise Scotland in March last year. It was about three weeks before the electioneering started; four of five pages of PDF, it cost me about five hundred quid,” recalls Ms Currie. “We called for a National Women’s Business Centre … Three weeks later the first day of campaigning the SNP announced a £50m commitment.”

Technology entrepreneur Ana Stewart has been commissioned by finance secretary Kate Forbes to lead a short-term review of how best to target that support and help more women realise their business ambitions.

HeraldScotland: Carolyn Currie, pictured right, with Gillian Fleming and Lynne Cadenhead, with whom she founded Mint Ventures Carolyn Currie, pictured right, with Gillian Fleming and Lynne Cadenhead, with whom she founded Mint Ventures

The Scottish Government provided funding in March to support a drive by the women-led Mint Ventures business angel network Ms Currie helped found to recruit more members.

Ms Currie reckons QMU is the natural place in which to base a business centre for women in view of the fact it developed from the former Queen Margaret College. The university notes that the college was established in 1875 as the Edinburgh School of Cookery to create educational opportunities for women and to support efforts to improve diets, particularly those of working class families.

“Look at the history of QMU what better university to partner up with than the university that was actually founded to help progress women’s knowledge and education and of course many of the subject matters that the university still teaches today have a high proportion of women,” observes Ms Currie.

QMU has strengths in areas such as nursing, food and drink and media.

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But Ms Currie’s work as entrepreneur in residence at QMU will not be limited to supporting activity related to women.

“The aim of the role is to encourage a culture of enterprise across the whole of the university including staff and students,” says Ms Currie who is offering “bookable 1:1 sessions for everyone”. The centre will foster links with the community around QMU, the campus of which is close to the East Lothian town of Musselburgh.

Ms Currie is absolutely sure that entrepreneurialism can be taught. This involves encouraging people who might not have thought about starting businesses to recognise that anyone can do so and to develop the mindset and practical skills that can support success.

She has helped run web-based programmes covering subjects such as how to come up with an idea for a business and how people juggling different commitments can maximise their productivity and secure funding for early stage ventures.

The mother of three learned to think big during her career with the old Royal Bank of Scotland group, which she joined as a 17-year-old trainee in its Princes Street Mound branch in Edinburgh.

She went on to hold senior positions including heading the key business lending operation before being asked to lead the development of a pioneering programme to support women-owned businesses for the group. After starting with a team of 12 she expanded the programme to include around 250 relationship managers working across the Royal Bank and NatWest networks who were trained to provide the appropriate support.

However after spending months commuting between Edinburgh and London, Ms Currie decided that 30 years at RBS group was probably enough. “I just thought I did not want to be a banker all of my life!” she recalls with a smile.

 

Q&A

What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why? 
I loved visiting Australia as part of a banking study visit while I was at Royal Bank of Scotland. There was a lot of pioneering work being undertaken on women’s entrepreneurship and it gave me many insights to bring back to my work in the UK. 
 
When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal? 
I wanted to own a bookshop. I loved reading and the thought of my own supply was really appealing. One of my favourite places is 
still Glasgow Women’s Library.
 
What was your biggest break in business? 
Being appointed to manage the bank’s business lending portfolio worth billions of pounds. I gained approval to invest in new product development, new communication campaigns and new digital operating platforms.
 
And your worst moment?  
Standing up to give an address at a large business event to find out the teleprompter had stopped working and there was no sign 
of the pre-printed back-up of my speech. I had a few seconds 
of standing up there in front of everyone and my mind going completely blank before the adrenalin kicked in. 
 
Who do you most admire and why? 
All the Women’s Enterprise Scotland role model ambassadors are pioneering women who have successfully started up their own businesses and are now taking the time to speak up, share their different experiences and help support and inspire the next generation of women and girls. 

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to? What was the last film you saw?
I’m finally reading the Thursday Night Murder Club by Pointless 
and House of Games presenter Richard Osman. I like the character Elizabeth. I’m listening to Neil Young (Harvest Moon), the Manic Street Preachers (A Design For Life) and Heaven17 (Temptation). 
The last film I saw was Love Actually.