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Why flexibility is key to balancing entrepreneurship and childcare

And how can parents juggle raising children with starting a business? Peter Ranscombe explores some of the solutions.

A mother entering the nursery school yard with her pre-school boy
Providing adequate childcare can unlock economic growth opportunities. Image: Shutterstock

When an entrepreneur sits down to start their own business, there are likely to be some familiar tasks on their to-do list.

These may include raising finance, finding premises and hiring staff, for example.

But what about childcare? If the inspiration to start a business has struck while on maternity or paternity leave, or being away from the office has simply been the catalyst to turn a long-held dream into reality, how can parents juggle giving birth to a business after giving birth to a tiny person?

Childcare higher up political agenda

The cost and availability of childcare have risen up the political agenda since Humza Yousaf became Scotland’s first minister in March and reiterated many previous promises over expanding entitlement during last month’s programme for government.

North of the border, 1,140 hours of childcare are paid for by the state through taxation after a child turns three. Some children – those from low-income households – qualify from the age of two.

Yet the challenge of balancing childcare and starting a company can still be immense.

Childcare image
Free childcare is available from the age of three and in some cases two years. Image: Shutterstock

“Childcare is one of the key barriers in getting a business off the ground for women,” said Silka Patel, founder and chairwoman of Scotland Women in Technology (Swit), which will present its annual awards on Thursday (November 2) for the first time in three years.

She added: “So often, the stakeholders who you need to have conversations with – from investors such as business angels and venture capitalists through to your mentors and advisors – want to speak to you during the hours when you don’t have childcare.

“Therein goes the multitasking, and that’s probably where the stereotype comes from where women are trying to do two things at the same time.”

Silka Patel, founder and chairwoman of Scotland Women in Technology.
Silka Patel, founder and chairwoman of Scotland Women in Technology. Image: Peter Ranscombe

When it came to setting up Swit after becoming a mum, Ms Patel began to challenge the status quo.

She explained: “I questioned why the rules were applied in a certain way and asked why I couldn’t change them.

“Why does the board meeting need to happen during the hours of nine to five, or even nine to four?

“And why can’t the board meeting happen in the evening once I put my kids to bed, when I can actually give it my full attention?

“Also, why does the chairperson have to be present at every single board meeting.

“And why can we not have feminist governance that rotates the chairperson’s role or perhaps has a shared option?”

Young focused woman motherusing laptop and thinking about work t ask while son gently hugs her.
Why can’t more meetings be arranged to fit in with childcare demands? Shutterstock

Holding meetings at times to suit board members and rotating the role of the chairperson allowed Ms Patel to recruit a broader range of people to Swit’s board.

“Once I broke that mould, the floodgates opened and the type of talent I suddenly had access to was incredible,” she said.

“There are people who are applying for the board who never would have.”

‘Taking what you’ve learned and applying it’

As well as introducing flexibility to the trade body, Swit’s board members have taken what they’ve learned and applied it to their own businesses.

These include technology consultancy Leidos, where Ms Patel is social value manager.

She said: “We often go into our own organisations and challenge the way they think.

“One of our values at Leidos is ‘inclusion’ so one of the questions I ask in meetings is have we got the most inclusive people around the table to have this discussion?

“Do we have the most diverse team for a particular project?’

“It’s not that it’s done intentionally – nine times out of 10, it’s not.

“But it’s not until someone raises it that you realise you need to bring someone else in on that call or that project.

“It’s just going back to your employer, and taking what you’ve learned and applying it.”

Nursery school image
Nursery school playtime. Image: Shutterstock

Nathalie Agnew, an ambassador for Women’s Enterprise Scotland (WES) and co-chairwoman of the government’s new deal for business wellbeing economy sub-group, pointed to the affordability and availability of childcare as major barriers.

Ms Agnew said: “Research has shown women take a much larger share of caring responsibilities than men, so more should be done to support women who are running businesses to have sufficient childcare.

“This forms part of WES’s bid for funding for a specialist Women’s Business Centre.

“A key priority from the wellbeing economy sub-group of the new deal for business focuses on how to unlock talent into the workforce and access to affordable childcare is critical to this.

“Many women want to work more hours, but are financially or practically restricted by caring responsibilities.”

Women’s Enterprise Scotland ambassador Nathalie Agnew.
Women’s Enterprise Scotland ambassador Nathalie Agnew. Image: Muckle Media

She added: “Looking at countries such as the Nordics can offer innovative models for delivery.

“It’s critical that government, business and the childcare sector work together to deliver a sustainable plan for childcare delivery to unlock substantial economic growth opportunities.”

Smart technology

Flexible Childcare Services Scotland (FCSS) – a charity that runs nurseries and out-of-school clubs in Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, the Highlands, and Moray – has turned to technology to help parents book flexible childcare.

Its flexible childcare services had proved popular with parents, so it developed its Caerus software to help other childcare providers offer similar flexibility, allowing them to manage staff rotas and take bookings from parents.

Susan McGhee, chief executive at Flexible Childcare Services Scotland.
Susan McGhee, chief executive at Flexible Childcare Services Scotland. Image: FCSS

Following the Covid lockdowns, FCSS signed up to CivTech, a government programme through which digital technology developers solve problems for public sector bodies.

The latest version of Caerus – described as an “Airbnb for childcare” and due to be released as this article went to print – not only allows parents to book nursery slots and other childcare, but also out-of-school activities, such as dancing or swimming.

The software will also gather data about the activities parents are searching for but can’t find.

And it will highlight where central or local government can provide more funding or facilities, and give commercial operators the chance to spot under-served communities.

Caerus software
The new Caerus software. Image: Flexible Childcare Services Scotland

FCSS chief executive Susan McGhee said: “The Scottish Government wanted to be able to plan for childcare provision and particularly the school-age childcare they have committed to in the programme for government.

“Rather than do just a static survey, they were interested in how they could gather data that would be continually up to date, anonymised and aggregated.”

The next step for Caerus is to offer more services to parents.

“We could include children’s clothing exchange programmes, or the ability to order nappies in bulk and then pick them up from your nursery,” Ms McGhee added.