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Finding our voices at the National Economic Forum

At the beginning of May, I had the privilege of attending the National Economic Forum in my capacity as an Ambassador for Women’s Enterprise Scotland, and as a business owner based here in Scotland.

I was selected as a WES Ambassador earlier this year and am proud to be part of an organisation which is working hard to create an environment where women-owned businesses can start-up and thrive, unlocking the full potential of women in business in Scotland. Women owned businesses currently contribute £8.8bn GVA into the Scottish economy, an increase of 76% since 2012. This contribution is greater than Sustainable Tourism (£3.9bn) and Food & Drink (£4.1bn). While this phenomenal growth in the contribution of women led businesses’ clearly shows that things are moving in the right direction, women business owners still face innumerable obstacles.

The National Economic Forum was a great opportunity for women to have their voices heard. The theme of the half day conference was around internationalisation, aiming to explore how Scotland can be more resilient, increase capacity, ensure sustainability and maximise opportunities for growth.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Mr McKee, Scottish Minister for Trade, Investment and Innovation presented us with an Export Growth Plan which sets out an investment package of £20m for trade over 3 years. The aim is to see an increase in the value of Scottish exports and also an increase in the number of businesses in Scotland which export. These increases will generate additional value for the Scottish economy - creating benefits for all of us across our communities - and ensure that our export base is diversified and resilient.

The plan appears to be robust, based on extensive analysis and consultations with key business partners and stakeholders with extensive exporting experience.

Currently the top 100 businesses in Scotland account for 59% of all Scottish exports. The top 500 Scottish companies account for 80% of all Scottish exports. The aim to broaden this base could increase our current exports by £2.9bn.

After the main presentations, 4 Breakout Discussion Groups were held with members of Scottish Enterprise and Government Ministers. I attended a Breakout Session on Making the Most of Scotland’s international footprint and networks. Much of the support for internationalisation is available through economic development agencies such as Scottish Enterprise, or to businesses above a certain turnover level. One of the barriers to women is that less than 9% of women owned businesses are account managed within Scottish Enterprise, so they don’t have access to the support or funding needed to break into international markets. I asked what support is being put in place to specifically help women owned businesses to access international support. This sparked a very positive discussion, and the Scottish Enterprise representative met with me after the session to talk in more detail about my experiences as a business owner trying to access support through Scottish Enterprise.

The atmosphere over the whole event was open and positive. The speakers and representatives were keen to hear business owners' views and concerns. There was a spirit of openness and of genuinely trying to move things forward.

I was proud to be a part of such an event, and to have the privilege to make my voice heard.

Allison Harrison is the owner of Hot Yoga Edinburgh and a WES Ambassador.