Busy Izzy sees WiRE catch fire

Women in Rural Enterprise (WiRE) was recently awarded a Queen’s Anniversary Prize and continues to go from strength to strength. SARAH CRIPPS talks to founder Izzy Warren-Smith about the inspiration behind the organisation; how it developed and how WiRE can help women in rural businesses.

THAT Izzy Warren-Smith is inspirational is something she would modestly deny, but her work in setting up WiRE (Women in Rural Enterprise) at Harper Adams University College, Shropshire, has been recognised widely and, last year, it earned her an OBE.

More recently, the college was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize in recognition of the significant contribution that WiRE has made to developing and supporting women-owned rural businesses.

In a nutshell, Izzy saw a gap in the market and created WiRE, a company aimed at helping rural businesses succeed. Although she shrugs off the credit for the success of WiRE, and she has an outstandingly good support team behind her, there is no getting away from the fact that she has been the driving force behind it.

Although she does not come from a farming background, she has always had an interest in agriculture – an interest that led her to read agriculture and economics at Bangor University in the 1970s, and which has shaped her career.

After a stint working on a World Bank Project in Nigeria between 1980 and 1982, and some years in an ‘extremely stressful’ London-based job in economics, she took a job lecturing economics at Harper Adams, the beginning of a strong long-term partnership.

Her work in Nigeria had shown Izzy the importance of women’s roles in the development of rural economies, but it was not until she was at Harper that she began to look at the contribution of women to the farming economy in the face of falling farming incomes in the UK, and looking at how farming families cope.

Diversification is one of these coping strategies, but it is not necessarily an easy path to take.

“The people coming forward to ask for funding for diversification – on farm but non-farm – were invariably women,” says Izzy. “They had all these great ideas but were having trouble finding support. Often they would approach bank managers only to be asked: ‘Does your husband know about this?’ or be unable to meet demands for loan securities.”

A pioneering WiRE conference was held in 2000 to test the water, and attracted 400 delegates from across the UK. The high levels of interest and attendance proved to Izzy the need for an organisation dedicated to offering business support to women in rural enterprise, and she determined to shape WiRE so that it offered help to all those women who needed it.

Funding was a serious issue for the organisation and at first WiRE was limited to Shropshire, but it received a boost in 2001 when Izzy was asked to give a presentation to Prince Charles as part of his ‘Business in the Community’ project.

Her talk captured the Prince’s imagination: “He said he would like to see what was happening in Shropshire, happening nationally,” she says. “That actually was on the same day that foot-and-mouth broke out, so it was very timely and gave extra support to rural community.”

But money was still a problem, and although WiRE ‘limped through 2001 and did a couple of courses’, the real breakthrough came in 2002. “We actually got some higher education funding and it just developed from there really.”

Wire now offers members a large number of benefits, from specialist help and advice to business training and personal development, marketing workshops, funding assistance and a large network of other rural businesses to tap into. It has a database of 3,679 members both past and present, of which 1,600 are current. Izzy originally expected that WiRE would help pre start-up and start-up businesses, and that after a year or so, they would grow up and leave. “In a lot of cases this hasn’t happened but in a lot of cases it has. We’ve got a very steady continual through-put.”

It is not just small businesses that pay the £30 annual membership fee, as 20 per cent of the organisation’s members generate a turnover of well over £100,000/year. The staff numbers within the organisation have increased to meet demand and it now employs 22 staff across the UK, including an office in York, with Izzy and colleague Fiona Davies in the headquarters at Harper Adams.

She attributes part of WiRE’s popularity to the way it addresses problems specific to rural businesses, such as isolation, lack of access to services, and premises with a lack of passing trade. The organisation works to help people in rural business deal with problems as members encounter them.

“What we did as a modus operandi was find out what the issues were and find a solution,” she says. We didn’t try to find a solution before we knew what the problems were. We responded to what people were telling us was needed.

“People know what they want, they know where they are a bit weak and where they need help – which they tell us.”

“Often they would approach bank managers only to be asked:
‘Does your husband know about this?’ or be unable to meet demands for loan securities.”

Izzy Warren-Smith

Networking opportunities for members are one of WiRE’s draws, she says. “People want to talk to someone who has been in the situation that they are in now, six months ago; sorted it out, found a solution and gone forward. “And the networking offers that. We do a lot of what we call ‘business to business mentoring’, and that is particularly valuable, particularly because farming is so bureaucratic.”

The opportunities for umbrella marketing for fledgling businesses, which can take a stand in the organisation’s marquees at shows/events at reduced rates, are equally valuable.

“We provide training in visual merchandising and usually manage to get a discount for people, and it is usually a positive experience. It also tells them whether or not it is a good business to do.” She is realistic and readily admits that some businesses just do not work out, but sees this as a positive learning experience.

“They have learnt a lot and not lost too much financially.”

The importance of successful diversification projects to a farm is not something that should be underestimated, as Izzy found through a small piece of research. “We found that the 59 per cent of the diversifications we interviewed were generating over 75 per cent of the family farm income. So that’s not peanuts, whereas the myth is that a lot of these businesses are for pin money, in actual fact they are anything but.”

Izzy is adamant that women play a vital role in the rural economy. “I quite passionately believe that the contribution women make to the rural economy is quite systematically and invidiously underestimated.

“I am trying to do a survey to establish exactly what the contribution is. Women play the enterprise game very well, but we do it to better rules – we can trade ethically as consumers.” WiRE members are split into 40 per cent farm-based businesses and 60 per cent other rural-based businesses.

The organisation’s contribution to farming is as much about change management as anything else, she says.

“We’re helping farming families face change.”

She has been amazed at the range of enterprises in WiRE’s membership base. “The thing that is incredibly exciting is the variety and the diversity of what is actually out there,” she says.

“We have got everything from cake making, catering units, value added food production to clothing manufacturers, nurseries, and business services.

“We have just got such a diverse range, although I would say that the majority – over 75 per cent of them – are service sector and I think that is actually as it should be, given our economy.

“We are no longer a primary producing economy, neither are we a secondary manufacturing economy, we have moved into that tertiary sector, and I think the fact that the WiRE businesses reflect that is a very positive thing.

“It just shows how flexible and adaptable farming families can be.

“I am really encouraged by it.”

Izzy is optimistic about the future for rural enterprises, believing things to have improved during the course of the organisation’s lifetime. “There are much more comprehensive services for rural businesses than there ever were before, but the fact that we’ve got such a big membership, still tells us that its not quite as comprehensive as it needs to be.”

• For further information, please call 01952 815338, email info@wireuk.org, or visit www.wireuk.org

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