Racy and Sophie Tyrell founded The Squirrel Sisters, a sugar-free snack business, after Gracie was diagnosed with heart disease and, after surgery, couldn’t tolerate sugar. The sisters began making their own naturally sweet, but sugar-free, recipes and launched in 2015. He now has a thriving business, selling £2 million of his snacks through stockists including Whole Foods and Selfridges. But gender discrimination, The entrepreneurs The British, say, is embodied in business – and lagging them and others.
“When we started the business at 27 and 29, we were relatively young and lacked confidence as neither of us had any experience in running a company. Being a team of two young women who engage in large meetings with older, fit men, we quickly noticed that we were talked about differently, not taken seriously and had too many meetings. I felt protection.
“At one point, when we were talking about marketing strategy for a big launch, an elder jokingly suggested that Sophie and I should ‘run down the street naked’ because it would ‘get a lot of attention. .
“We managed to secure listings with major retailers in our first year of business but struggled to raise investments. We received a few investment offers over the years, but the offer we pursued was eventually turned down as investors questioned Sophie’s ability as she was a first-time mother. He was questioned about his ability to work, and the investor wanted to add a clause to the contract where he could walk out of the deal and get his money back if Sophie ‘goes off the rails as a mother’. We took it out.
“We have a lot of male entrepreneur friends in the industry who have been in a similar situation to us but managed to raise investments right away. We’ve questioned why we couldn’t: was this an issue of trust in our favor? Aren’t we Bolshi enough?
“After much deliberation we realized that potential investors were too focused on our age and personal situation – by then we were 29 and 31 years old and living in long-term relationships, with our partners. Asked personal questions about relationships and even asked ‘Are children on the cards’? It was clear that investors were becoming cautious with us as we were of the age of ‘having children’. During one pregnancy (she’s now a mother of two), someone we worked with said: ‘I don’t agree that you’re pregnant, stop using this as an excuse.’
“It was not just our business, it was happening – and still is – for many female-led small businesses that we knew. But it never seemed to be an issue for male-led companies. In the UK economy Women-led SMEs contribute £85 billion, yet only 1% of women companies receive financial investment.
“Our society is not set up to allow women to advance in their careers. If a heterosexual couple wants to start a family, it is up to the woman to bear the heavy physical and mental load. Women have to sacrifice time with their kids and their careers because the support doesn’t exist. If women are offered more options and support, they will be able to thrive and not just survive in their careers.
“Initially we didn’t have the confidence to call anyone so we would laugh at any sexist comments. Now we have the confidence to speak up. We make it clear that we don’t accept being spoken or treated in a certain way.” If we think someone is treating us unfairly, we’ll talk to them about it and walk away if they don’t respond or behave in a way we don’t like.
“We still believe that there is no better time than now to launch a start-up. Running a business takes a lot of hard work and you have to have passion for what you are doing. Starting Squirrel Sisters Earlier we had no experience in running a business, but we knew that if we didn’t do it, we would regret it forever. Trust your gut and believe in yourself.”