Activating Women to Become Entrepreneurs

Helena Puhakka-Tarvainen, Satu Mustonen, Heidi Vartiainen

W-Power project has developed a unique business idea competition model for women to boost new business ideas and lower the threshold to share them in public. The concept is based on the Draft-program. The initial role of Draft Program®, developed also at Karelia UAS, has been to support business ideas of the students, staff members and alumni. The competition developed by W-Power project aimed at activating women to consider entrepreneurship as a career option or to develop their current businesses.

W-Power project – Empowering Women Entrepreneurs in Sparsely Populated Northern Communities is funded by the NPA programme. The project is coordinated by Karelia UAS and its aim is to empower woman entrepreneurs in the sparsely populated Northern communities. W-Power encourages woman entrepreneurs to set-up, develop and grow their businesses. The project offers possibilities for capacity building, transnational learning and networking, support for new business ideas and chances to participate in gender sensitive business coaching.

Piloting the concept transnationally

The first business idea competition for women was launched transnationally in 2019 when the project looked for new business ideas to support female entrepreneurship across the project regions. At that time, a total of 24 teams from different countries participated in the new pre-start-ups funding call.  Out of the applicants, five international teams received a voucher worth of 2,000 euros each, to test, pilot, and document their idea. In addition, they received support from selected business coaches of the expert network that was provided by the project to further develop their business ideas.

Picture 1. Sanna Jeskanen and Heini Heinilä, the founders of Juuriska sour dough bakery in North Karelia. They were one of the five awarded international teams of W-Power business idea competition in 2019. Photo: Satu Mustonen.

The key idea of organizing the business idea competition is to encourage women to innovate and consider entrepreneurship as a career option. As in the original Draft program, the aim is to lower the threshold to present hidden business ideas in public.

Regional pilot competitions in 2020

In autumn 2020, the competition was organized again. Now, it took place both simultaneously and regionally in North Karelia and Lapland in Finland, Norrbotten in Sweden, and New Brunswick in Canada.  The call received a total of 102 applications! The valuable feedback collected from the first pilot was utilized in the planning process of the second call to ensure that the participation would be more profound and a useful experience for both applicants and the judges of the competition.

The funding call of North Karelia had three different themes:

  1. New business ideas
  2. Expanding your business globally
  3. An idea or operating model that supports female entrepreneurship

Most of the received applications belonged to the first theme. These applications were represented by individual applicants or teams with ideas for a new product or service.
It was not a surprise that many of the ideas were built around supporting well-being and including nature in one way or another. On the basis of the applications it could be concluded that business ideas coming from women do indeed have a “softer approach”. There were only few ideas around technology or manufacturing in general.

Interestingly, the second category of expanding business to the global markets did not receive many applications. However, there was one team in this category that raised the jury’s attention. The presented idea was considered to have potential and worth testing and, therefore it was not a big surprise that eventually after the actual pitching competition, this team was among the awarded winners.

With the third theme, the project was hoping to map out new ideas on how to help and support women to both start new businesses and grow women-run businesses in the European Northern Peripheral and Arctic regions. The region has a significant need for new businesses and ideas which would support women-led businesses to succeed and bring much-needed jobs to keep the women in these sparsely populated northern regions. Unfortunately, this category received the least number of applications. None of them reached the second stage.

Meet the winners from North Karelia

Eventually, the North Karelian competition had 13 pre-selected finalists. This second stage of the competition consisted of an online pitching competition in front of 20 judges in November 2020. The contestants were provided with an opportunity to test the online platform beforehand and become comfortable with the technicalities of the process. This allowed each team to concentrate on their pitches while knowing they were competent with their web cameras, microphones and sharing their presentations.

The winners of the business idea competition were selected by a jury that represented a wide range of experts from North Karelian business life.

Picture 2: Winning teams of the North Karelian Business Idea Pitching Competition.

The following four business ideas were selected as winners in North Karelia. The results were based on the highest amounts of points given by the jury:

  1. Relax for a moment and Before I break down- nature experiences /Marjut Räty, Tytti Alastalo, Satu Ketonen and Susanna Manninen (Picture 2, the top right corner).
  2. Natural based cosmetics home kit –concept / Oiteli and Ilmeini Lasarov (Picture 2, Oiteli at the top left corner, Ilmeini in the middle).
  3. Wisdom of the Kaleva women for modern times/ Riitta Ward (Picture 2, the bottom left corner) and Raija Kivimetsä.
  4. Solving the issues of office premises and increasing well-being/ Minna Nirkko (Picture 2, the bottom right corner).

The total prize of 7,000 euros was awarded among the four winning teams. The value of the given voucher varied among the four winners depending on their idea and development plans. The prizes are to be used for testing and developing the pitched business ideas. In addition to the financial support, the winning teams will receive tailored business support during the first months of 2021.

Modelling ensures dissemination and implementation

W-Power project is not likely to organize and fund further business idea competitions. Instead, the next phase is to describe and share the process and the methods to motivate the project stakeholders to organise such competitions in the future. In addition, the experience and feedback gathered from both the project partners and the participants will be shared to be furthered in possible future approaches.

On the basis of the experiences gathered in the pilots, it is clear that there is a specific need for a targeted initiative for women. The project partners in Sweden, Lapland, North Karelia and Canada collected feedback from the participants, and according to the results nearly half of the Pilot 2 respondents stated that they considered their participation in the competition to be an important push towards becoming an entrepreneur, or alternatively, it supported those who had already started their businesses. In addition, many of the respondents stated that they may not have had the courage to participate at all without this special targeting.

A testimonial from one of the local competition participants from New Brunswick, Canada describes her experiences as follows: “This was both an exciting and demanding experience; even though I did not win I am so proud of myself for pushing myself out of my comfort zone and giving this a try!!”

More information about our findings in these two reports:

Scott (ed.) 2019: Mapping the challenges for woman entrepreneurship

Holmbom & Hägglund (eds.) 2019: Capacity building needs for woman entrepreneurs


Text: Helena Puhakka-Tarvainen, project manager; Satu Mustonen, project coordinator; Heidi Vartiainen, lecturer/project expert, Karelia UAS

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