Leaders of the new school 

A surge of online courses is supporting a new wave of entrepreneurs 

Starting your own business can be a daunting prospect, but online courses to help entrepreneurs realise their dreams are booming. And many of these virtual schools are being launched by women, catering for a growing number of predominantly female entrepreneurs as the business landscape continues to shift to accommodate a more flexible approach to work.  

Online learning is particularly useful for women who can fit courses around the demands of other work, childcare and family commitments. The global pandemic has also intensified the longstanding challenges faced by working women; a study published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that even in the recent lockdown, when both parents have been furloughed or are working from home, it is still mothers doing the majority of the childcare.  

London-based writer and author Annie Ridout has made it her mission to support women – particularly those with children – who want to run their own businesses. Ridout was working as a copywriter for a London-based tech startup when she discovered she was pregnant with her first child. However, her contract didn't entitle her to maternity pay and she was informed that her job might not be kept open for her should she want to return after taking leave.  

Following the birth of her daughter, Ridout decided to become a freelance journalist and copywriter to give herself more flexibility. She set up a parenting platform called The Early Hour and later wrote a book called The Freelance Mum, which supports women who want to make the daunting leap from full-time employment to self-employment after having kids. 

Ridout established a strong and loyal following on her social media platforms, which enabled her to successfully launch her first online course in 2019 when she was pregnant with her third child. 

Annie Ridout, writer and author

‘During the first few months, I saw that it was almost solely women signing up – or the odd woman would sign her up husband or boyfriend – and so I decided to adjust my messaging accordingly,' says Ridout. 'I have learned that it’s better to be niche.’ 

Over the past year she has created further online courses, and her current ones include Become Your Own Boss, How to Get More Clients, and How to Launch an Online Course. 

The courses were originally an attempt to set up a passive income stream but Ridout had no idea how lucrative the venture would turn out to be. Inspired by their success, this year – alongside her husband, Rich – she launched a dedicated online business platform for her courses called The Robora, which means ‘to encourage’ in Latin.  

Talking openly about her six-figure earnings from online courses has become a key facet of Ridout’s marketing strategy and, as a result, her How to Launch an Online Course remains one of her most popular offerings. She hopes that her honesty will encourage other women to follow in her footsteps.  

'Men find [sharing details of income] very difficult, but women tend to find it empowering,' she suggests. 'When you can see that another woman – especially one with kids – is able to earn really good money from home, many of us think, “If she can do it, I can do it”. The more open we are, the more we can teach one another that it’s OK to want plenty of money. And then we can also teach people how to earn more money.' 

Sarah Akwisombe, No Bull Business School Founder

This transparent approach to income is one that Sarah Akwisombe, founder of online education platform No Bull Business School, believes is vitally important for women too. 

'When it comes to money and finances, we are not taught anything at school,' Akwisombe told The Times Money Mentor earlier this year. 'In the future, most people will probably work for themselves but kids are not being taught how to think like entrepreneurs or how to promote themselves.' 

As with Ridout, a key component of Akwisombe’s success lies in the candid conversations about money that she conducts across her social media channels. Her nearly 43,000 Instagram followers know just how much she earns.  

One of No Bull Business School’s earliest courses, the Money and Manifesting School, remains one of her most popular. It's billed as a ‘30-day, life-changing course to reprogram your mind for financial success’ and she discusses the topic further in her upcoming book, The Money Is Coming: Your Guide to Manifesting More Money. 

'The overall aim is to have more women with power, more women with money,' she says of her school’s ultimate goal. 'We need more women-owned businesses and more women making decisions. The overall idea is that we all rise. This is not for me, this is for our kids.'  

One of the issues that has long held women in business back is a lack of self-confidence and self-belief. The Alison Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship, a survey conducted in 2019 for HM Treasury, suggests women are 55 per cent more likely than men to cite a fear of going it alone as a primary reason for not starting a business. The survey also found that women are less likely to believe they possess entrepreneurial skills. Only 39 per cent of women are confident in their capabilities to start a business compared to 55 per cent of men. This is a perceived gap in ability, rather than an actual gap in skill sets. 

'It’s true that women are more insecure than men, probably because of our upbringing,' says Maria Melloni, Head of Talent at The Office Group. ‘When it comes to tackling a new challenge, in my experience, women are less likely than men to try and “wing it”. They have less self-confidence and self-belief so they want to be well-prepared.' 

For Melloni, the same applies when it comes to promotions. 'Research shows that a woman is more likely to think that she is not qualified enough for a new job, whereas a man would just go for it whether they are qualified or not,' she says.  

Maria Melloni, TOG Head of Talent

Melloni is currently in the process of establishing a learning academy within TOG to support employees throughout their career. 'The academy will not be a physical space,' she says, 'but instead will be an online portal for organising all of the courses that the company offers. Employees will be encouraged to enrol, not only on specialised courses that are specific to their chosen career path, but also on ones that teach broader skills that can be applied across different roles and aspects of life – like a pick-and-mix menu. 

'What I have noticed is that women are more open to personal development courses that deal with issues such as stress management,' she adds. 'I believe that women are much more open to talking about their mental health than men, and they are better off for it.' 

Consequently, many of the emerging online courses for aspiring female entrepreneurs focus on topics such as building confidence and self-promotion.  

When Natalie Jones decided to leave her successful career in London in 2014 to set up a lifestyle store in Bruton, Somerset, it took a healthy dose of confidence and self-belief. Earlier this year, she teamed up with fellow Somerset resident and entrepreneur Kate Simpson to launch Outland, a creative platform that offers online courses as well as an affordable one-on-one consultancy for those wanting to set up independent retail businesses.  

'A large proportion of those I meet visiting Bruton want to or are in the process of moving out of the city,' says Jones. Post-pandemic, these numbers could be set to rise as searches by Londoners for homes outside the capital have risen by 51 per cent, according to property website Rightmove. Job losses could lead to a rise in self-employed workers, while early studies show that those that are employed want to continue working remotely. All of these factors would suggest that the demand for online courses aimed at entrepreneurs is only set to increase. 

'Although our courses are not for women specifically, most of our customers are women, so far,' says Jones. 'When it comes to business, I think women are more open to asking for help. Perhaps it’s because for so long women have taken a back seat in business. Having a community and the support and feedback from other people is important to help build confidence. In the end, I think women are better off for that.’ 

Ali Morris is a writer, editor and consultant who has worked with Wallpaper*, Dezeen and Elle Decoration, among others