Ana Stewart: Net gains

First published in Business HQ on 20 June 2019

SCOTTISH Football Association (SFA) director Ana Stewart didn’t think of herself as a role model until, after making more than £2 million from the 2013 sale of the software firm she had founded in 1991, she started to turn her thoughts to investing.

After connecting with Jackie Waring, the chief executive of angel-investment syndicate Investing Women, she returned to her comfort zone in the start-up space but soon realised she was in a distinct minority, with women accounting for a vanishingly small proportion of Scotland’s investment community.

“Something I was really shocked by was the lack of women in the space investing; that was an eye-opener for me,” she says.

“I believe the statistic is that less than five per cent of the money going into businesses comes from women investors, and that’s doubled thanks to Investing Women – it was only 2% until Jackie came along.

“There’s no good reason for that other than perhaps a lack of exposure or awareness of the opportunities.”

Whatever the reason, the reality is that few women are putting the cash up to be able to share in any business successes that come along, while on the flipside many female-led businesses are missing out on the investments they need in order to grow. Male investors, after all, have a tendency, whether unconscious or otherwise, to invest in their own image.

It is a double-sided situation Ms Stewart is actively seeking to change.

“I’m about to launch a fund as part of a team and it’s right in the area I’m very passionate about: start-ups,” she says.

“I’m excited to be one of the growing number of women making a difference in this space, but I want to get more women involved; being involved directly allows that culture to be influenced.”

Although she says she did not intentionally set out “to become a woman’s champion”, Ms Stewart notes that over the last few years she came to realise that she could use her position to “do more to help mentor women and invest in women”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, when the SFA came knocking in 2017 to ask her to become the first female director in its then 144-year history she jumped at the chance. The role may have come with a distinct set of challenges, but Ms Stewart believes the fact she was appointed to it in the first place shows the organisation was committed to addressing them.

“When the first women’s international game took place between Scotland and England in 1972 the SFA still banned women from playing football because it wasn’t seen as a sport for women,” Ms Stewart says.

“There are still lots of challenges in football for women, but after the SFA initiated a quality standard one part of it was to commit to bringing the woman’s game forward in Scotland. A consequence of that was that they thought they should be bringing a woman onto the board. For them it was a natural step to take.”

Now, not only is she using her unique insight to help the SFA harness the momentum that has been generated around the national side’s Women’s World Cup bid, but she is helping it come to terms with and rectify some of the mistakes of its past, too. Having been prevented from playing the game herself as a child, those mistakes are something she is all-too familiar with.

“I was always a football fanatic, but I was told I couldn’t play football when I was young,” she says. “I couldn’t play it at school because there was no girls’ team and we weren’t allowed to play in the boys’ team. There was no infrastructure and no teachers teaching it.”

Given that experience, Ms Stewart is acutely aware of how interest in the women’s game could lead girls – and boys – to not just start playing football but to become supporters of the game too. That, she feels, presents a huge opportunity for the industry itself. 

“Football is a business and the member clubs are businesses but the challenge the SFA has is driving participation,” she says.

“Women’s football attracts a much wider audience [than men’s] – it’s a different demographic – and that creates a huge opportunity for the sector around participation. That’s going to drive support.

“Rugby has done a great job of growing the women’s game, which is driving more women to rugby matches in general, which are becoming much more event led. That’s where Scottish football could go; it could create much more of a family atmosphere at games.”

The fact that Scotland manager Shelley Kerr has succeeded in taking the national team to France should help, with Ms Stewart noting that more and more children – girls and boys – are showing an interest in taking up the sport as a result.

“Levels are steadily going up and hopefully this will inspire another generation of young girls and boys,” she says. “At the World Cup the standard is there for all to see. That will hopefully close off the sceptics and drive participation and get people involved in football that haven’t been involved before.”

Getting bums on seats in stadiums is one way to develop the sector, but sponsorship is another key area where the interest being generated by the women’s game could raise the stakes even further.

Big-name brands such as Spar have already given their support to the women’s national team while Boots the Chemist announced its backing of all five national teams in the UK, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland earlier this year. With funding remaining the one key area where the women’s game is at a serious disadvantage to the men’s, Ms Stewart believes there is a huge amount of scope to take things even further.

“The appeal of the women’s game attracts more and different sponsors [than the men’s game] and I’d like to see that being supported further,” she says.

“Typical sponsors in the men’s game are alcohol and gambling companies, but that’s not the typical fit for the women’s game, which could command more. It’s got huge potential.”

Despite her role model status, it is ultimately the impact her board membership can have on the SFA as a whole that interests Ms Stewart the most, with her newfound identity as a women’s champion having the potential to improve things not just for women in football but everyone involved.

“Diversity of thought is lacking [in business] and I’ve been exposed to that more often than not,” she says. “If you all have the same characteristics and there’s a lack of diverse opinions on a board then you are lacking all the key attributes needed to make yourself more successful. Anything that adds a new perspective I’m a firm believer in.”