“We can shine a brighter light”: Sheryl Sandberg is on a mission to change women's lives via business

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Writing exclusively for Stylist, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg explains why now’s the time to take the plunge and start the business you’ve always dreamed of

Photography: Tom Van Schelven

My grandfather was an entrepreneur. He opened a paint store in New York City that put my mother and her two brothers through college. It opened up possibilities for our family, giving us all the chance to study and pursue opportunities my grandfather didn’t have.

Most families have a story like that: the person who had an idea or took a chance that made everything else possible. And for millions of families around the world, that story is still unfolding. Small businesses are part of daily life around the world – from the watchmaker in Cornwall to the graphic designer in Cardiff. And it’s still a path so many people dream of. How many of you have imagined starting a business doing something you’re passionate about, but haven’t yet done anything about it?

Today, in the UK alone, there are more than 5.4 million small businesses. Combined they turnover £1.8trillion and account for two thirds of all private sector jobs. There’s nothing small about small business – but there’s something missing from this picture.

Like many countries, there’s a huge gender gap in the UK when it comes to starting and running a business. Just one in five of Britain’s small businesses are run by women. If women set up businesses at the same rate as men, the UK would have a million more entrepreneurs. Instead, women across the country are missing out on opportunities – and Britain is missing out on their creativity and talent.

The good news is that right now one in every 10 women in the UK is thinking about starting a business. These are women you know: friends and mothers, sisters and wives, maybe even you. If just 20% of these women started a business, by the end of 2020, the UK alone could add half a million female entrepreneurs, 425,000 jobs, and expand the economy by £10.1billion. That wouldn’t just be good for women – it would be good for the country, and the world.

Meeting female entrepreneurs is one of the best parts of my job. Over the last 15 years I’ve worked with people who founded companies in Silicon Valley and beyond. I have seen so many amazing entrepreneurs building businesses – people like Gina Bianchini, who co-founded with me, and went on to start Mightybell, which helps entrepreneurs create their own apps.

A place to start

We need more women starting businesses, because the entrepreneurs who are building companies today will help shape what the economy will look like tomorrow. We need more women sitting at the table, whether it’s pitching new business ideas or negotiating new contracts – especially here in the UK, where there is so much creative potential.

Through my work at Facebook, I know this is possible – because we have seen millions of people globally use our platform to start or run small businesses. There are more than 50 million people around the world using Facebook to help grow their business and connect with customers (2.5 million small businesses in the UK alone), and while many of the owners and founders are women, there need to be many more.

More women like Sharmadean Reid. Sharmadean couldn’t find a place for women and girls to get together and talk fashion in east London, so she started a nail-art salon and shared pictures of their art on Instagram. WAH Nails now has nearly half a million followers, and they’ve grown from a single salon to a concession in Topshop’s flagship London store.

We want more women to bring their ideas to life, so we’ve been looking at the barriers that are holding women back. Working with YouGov, we spoke to thousands of women across the UK. Here’s what we found.

British women are ambitious: of those who wanted to start a business, two thirds wanted it to become their main source of income, and over two fifths planned to employ between one and five other people in their first two years. Yet they also told us they face familiar barriers: one in three women didn’t feel ready to start a business, and one in four lacked the confidence to take the first step. One in five women felt they didn’t have the skills to properly run a business or were scared of failing.

Underneath these responses lies a complicated set of problems: there is a confidence gap, and it persists across cultures. Fear of failure isn’t unique to women, but women tend to be more risk-averse than men. In the workplace, this can mean that women hold back while men often push for the next promotion or opportunity. But there are also reasons to be optimistic. More and more women in the UK are using technology to start their own businesses.

One of them is Jules White, from Northamptonshire. Jules realised that many entrepreneurs didn’t know how to promote themselves, so she founded business development company The Last Hurdle to help other small- and medium-sized businesses grow by developing clear business strategies for them. She uses Facebook for recruiting and driving online sales. And after starting on her own with no funding, she now employs eight people.

Another is Virginie Charles-Dear, from Hammersmith, London, who decided to turn an idea she had on maternity leave into a business called toucanBox. Each month, parents who subscribe to toucanBox receive a parcel full of activities and educational toys for young children, with a different theme every time. From simple beginnings, Virginie’s company is now running craft sessions in local schools, selling children’s toys all over the UK and beyond, and just raised £3.2million in venture capital funding.

Unlocking the creativity of women entrepreneurs means a more representative workforce, and a stronger economy for everyone. Yet too many women feel they lack female role models to show them what’s possible. Nearly three quarters of the women we spoke to didn’t know a single woman running a business like the one they wanted to start.

This lack of visible success stories is discouraging women from starting businesses, because you cannot be what you cannot see. We can shine a brighter light on the incredible women like Sharmadean, Jules and Virginie who are creating new products, new businesses and new markets in Britain and beyond. I’m planning to continue sharing their stories, and I want you to join me. We can all do more to celebrate the women we know who are inspiring the next generation of female entrepreneurs.

But celebration isn’t enough. Women also need more advice and support at the critical time of launching their businesses. More than half of the women we surveyed said that better access to technology and digital skills would help them get their business off the ground, connect with their customers and grow from a small start. More than one in three said what they really need is practical support – workshops, advice on attracting customers, and a support network to help them overcome the hurdles.

That’s why we’re launching #SheMeansBusiness, an initiative by Facebook in the UK to help more women turn their business ideas into reality. We’re partnering with organisations like the Federation of Small Businesses and its Women in Enterprise Taskforce to provide advice, knowledge and tools to help give more women across the country the practical support they say they need.

So if you’re thinking about starting something but you don’t know where to begin; if you have an idea but you’re worried it might not work out; if you’re ready to go but need practical advice on what to do first, there are people and things that can help.

The business you start could change people’s lives – lifting up other women, creating jobs in your community, and inspiring the girls today who want to see that they too can start their own businesses. And maybe one day it will be your granddaughter remembering you – and how the business you ran helped women, helped others and changed your family’s future.

For more help, inspiration and advice go to


How to start your first business

Ready to ditch the 9-5 and transform your idea into reality? Here’s Stylist’s step-by-step guide to the journey ahead and loads of useful resources to make your dream come true

1. Refine your idea

If you’re going to start a business you need a viable idea that you can turn into a product or service.

For help with developing your idea visit one of the 39 Growth Hubs led by the Local Enterprise Partnerships in England ( Or, for a more active approach to building on your concept, apply to Entrepreneurial-Spark’s free Entrepreneurial Enablement programme ( which focuses on helping you to develop an enterprising mindset in a collaborative environment. The course lasts six months, but can be extended to up to 18 months and has 13 UK locations.

2. Form a business plan

Once you’ve nailed down your fundamental idea, it’s time to write a business plan. This needs to cover future expenditure and income in order to secure funding from investors or the bank.

Online service Prowess ( has an easy-to-follow plan or, for a more creative solution, read Jennifer Lee’s book The Right-Brain Business Plan: A Creative, Visual Map for Success (

3. Learn the basics

Build your confidence by decoding all the business lingo and identifying potential obstacles you might encounter. For support in managing your Employment Law & HR and Health & Safety compliance obligations, you could look at NatWest Mentor’s advice and consultancy services ( Or check out the British Library Business & IP Centre national network (, where you can read about everything from funding sources to trademarks, or attend practical workshops and inspiring talks.

For additional support you can apply for their Innovating for Growth programme for three months of free specialist help growing your business idea, worth £10,000.

4. Seek allies

Networking with other entrepreneurs is a great way to get support and help identify any pitfalls in your plan. Everywoman ( works to raise the status of women in the UK economy by providing training, resources and services to help women maximise their business potential.

In June you can also join in the Boost Your Business Summer Tour run by Facebook ( as it makes its way round Europe. Network with other local small business owners, gain practical face-to-face support from marketing experts and attend ‘how to’ workshops.

5. Visualise your brand

Before you go public with your business, you’ll need branding that reflects your ideas and resonates with potential customers. 99 Designs ( is an affordable resource that allows you to contact freelance designers who can create personalised logos and marketing materials.

6. Find a space

If working from home isn’t an option, or you need to host meetings, check out enterprises like The Trampery (, with four London hubs for creative and tech businesses, or Central Working ( which has workspaces in London, Cambridge and Manchester.

7. Fill in your skills gap

If you are new to the worlds of marketing and advertising, sign up for a webinar session on and watch videos showing you how to grow your business, target customers and optimise mobile advertising.

You can also sign up for one of 50 online courses for small business owners on Facebook’s Blueprint programme ( which you can complete from home for free.

8. Grow your business

Once your business is off the ground and hitting targets it’s time to think about how you will expand your services, increase staffing to diversify its skill-base and get your service to new customers.

Become a member of a community like Enterprising Women ( for access to growth workshops, and to facilitate connections to potential new partners, collaborators, distributors and suppliers among its 45,000 members.

You can also join one of its monthly Business Clubs to exchange ideas and expertise with fellow female entrepreneurs in your area.

Additional words: Hayley Spencer
Photography assistant: John Baca-Dubets