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As a woman in business, you’ve probably attended at least one female-focused networking or support event. What did you think of it? Was it useful? Was it relevant? Do we even still need women-only networks or are they outdated?

All these questions occurred to Sue Nelson, CEO of Breakthrough Funding, and Deborah Turner, founder of You Image Consultancy, when they considered setting up a new venture for Kent’s business women. After drawing on their own broad experience of such events, they decided there was a call for a new network based on quarterly events – but it had to be fresh, it had to be different and it had to offer something meaningful to the female business community.

Jane Connolly, who joined Breakthrough Funding as Marketing Director last year, explained how Breakthrough Women aimed to break the mould.

“Personally, I’ve been to many female-only events and the speakers have been very interesting, but they’ve often spoken about day-to-day business issues, such as how to improve your PR or enhance your productivity,” she said. “While this sort of advice is very useful, Sue and Deborah realised that there is a need for something slightly different, where women talk about the problems they’ve faced, the mistakes they’ve made, how they’ve juggled commitments and overcome crises of confidence. So they decided to focus the events on role models who lead by example and are living proof that anything is possible.”

In their respective businesses, both Deborah and Sue have witnessed the seemingly perennial female problem of low self-esteem and how it can hold back very capable, talented women.

As the leader of Tech London Advocate’s Food Tech Working Group, Sue is passionate about seeing more women succeed in traditionally male-dominated industries, such as technology, engineering, science and manufacturing. She set up Breakthrough Funding to help SMEs in these sectors claim R&D tax relief, so she sees innovation in action every day – and she’d like to see more female founders breaking new ground in these industries.

Image consultant Deborah helps people of all genders develop a strong personal brand, plus she’s the FSB’s Regional Champion for Women in Business, so she’s well-placed to understand the psychological challenges that women still face.

“Sue and Deborah realised that any amount of motivational quotes can’t really take away the underlying lack of belief that afflicts so many women,” Jane said. “It’s certainly not something that hampers every woman in business, but many of us do still labour under the idea that females are less likely to succeed or less capable than men in certain sectors, which at heart we all know is nonsense. But it seems that seeing is believing – if you flick through the mainstream business press, you tend to see a whole lot of male, pale and stale. However, if we see women who’ve smashed the glass ceiling and achieved the things we’d like to attain ourselves, that’s more inspiring than anything else. Nothing beats seeing a woman stand up and say, ‘I’ve achieved something brilliant and this is how I did it.’

“So, female role models became the focus for Breakthrough Women. We don’t do business gurus, or people who give advice without being able to show their own track record of success. All our speakers have achieved something incredible and not always in business; in their own way, they’re all pioneers who have gone somewhere many other women fear to tread – until now. Self-belief is just as important if you’re pitching for a big contract as it is if you’re striving to become a world class athlete or to be noticed in a male-heavy industry.”

So far there have been two events, with speakers including Olympic gold medallist skeleton racer Amy Williams, digital entrepreneur Penny Power, Master of Wine and Saturday Kitchen resident wine expert Susie Barrie, and Jill Pay, who made history when she became the House of Commons’ first female Serjeant at Arms.

But why, you might ask, do we still need events that are exclusively focused on inspiring women? There is a view that segregating women into separate networks and events is unhelpful, as it suggests they can’t hack it with the men and exacerbates the idea that women are inferior performers.

“I don’t think that’s the case at all – experiencing some femaleonly networking is a huge boost to a lot of women, for many different reasons,” Jane said. “No one’s suggesting you should limit yourself to women’s events, but it’s a very positive aspect of your networking activity. For women who are new to business or returning to work after a career break, it can be reassuring to be surrounded by successful, ambitious ladies and to learn new skills from them. But we also believe that women often do business in a different way to men; these differences are strengths, not weaknesses and you shouldn’t be made to feel otherwise.

“In terms of our speakers, they would be vastly inspiring to audiences of all genders.

But without doubt, the female experience in the workplace is different and at Breakthrough Women, it’s all about sharing stories that inspire, motivate and speak to ladies in a way they perhaps wouldn’t to men.”

You can keep up-to-date with Breakthrough Women’s upcoming events by following them on Twitter @breakthroughwib or emailing Emma@breakthroughwib.com

Sue is actively looking for new members for Tech London Advocates’ Food Tech Working Group. Visit www.techlondonadvocates.org.uk to find out more and email Sue on sue@breakthroughfunding.com to become an advocate.

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