Professor Anastasia Konstantopoulou

Edge Hill University has joined partners in the Leeds City Region to launch a new £1.7 million project to enhance the resilience and growth of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), by building the leadership skills, capabilities and opportunities of women.

Led by Leeds Beckett University, the three-year #WECAN (Women Empowered through Coaching and Networking) project is led by a team of academic experts alongside professional development specialists from the Leadership Centre within Leeds Business School. It will increase the skills and opportunities for women who are self-employed, or working for small businesses and social enterprises across the region. 

#WECAN is funded through the European Social Fund with support from the Department of Work and Pensions. The project aims to improve the outcomes for SMEs in the region through collaborative working and knowledge exchange, increasing productivity and boosting the local economy. 

Professor Anastasia Konstantopoulou, Associate Dean for Learning and Teaching in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Edge Hill University, said: “We aim to extend the inclusive legacy of Edge Hill University’s founding history, by inspiring and empowering women from all demographic categories to develop their existing professional roles and support them in their career progression plans.” 

Dr Martina Topić, Senior Lecturer and Research Lead for #WECAN, explained: “Women have huge potential to enhance the success of SMEs. However, historically women have not always used networks to advance their career prospects or known how to maximise their aspirations to achieve leadership positions. We will use this project to encourage networking and create those informal opportunities that often result in formal promotions – as well as coaching women on how to lead.” 

The Leeds Beckett team will work with a network of partners – including Edge Hill University, She Business Leeds, the Yorkshire Asian Business Association (YABA), and Social Enterprise Yorkshire and Humber (SEYH) – to: 

  • Offer bespoke support to SMEs and their female employees and managers
  • Provide opportunities for SMEs to work with universities and other organisations to design a tailored approach to learning
  • Foster a culture that recognises, retains and develops talent whilst proactively addressing gender inequality
  • Create a range of leadership and management training opportunities
  • Provide bespoke accredited or non-accredited training, to enable women to progress into – and within – leadership roles in SMEs across the Leeds City Region

Professor George Lodorfos, Dean of Leeds Business School, said: “As an Anchor Institution we are committed to supporting local SMEs and entrepreneurs – especially during these difficult times. Strong leadership is key in achieving resilience and future sustainability, and it is critical that we identify and maximise the untapped potential of women in SMEs. We and our partners are excited to create opportunities that will make a real and long-lasting impact for our region.” 

Amarjit Singh, Chair of the Yorkshire Asian Business Association (YABA), said “YABA are delighted to be part of the #WECAN programme, an innovative opportunity for women to learn about their own barriers and engage in development to improve their progression opportunities.” 

Ali Ward, General Manager of Social Enterprise Yorkshire and Humber (SEYH), said: “Women are underrepresented in leadership in social enterprises across Yorkshire. SEYH are excited for this project’s potential to help change that, and give people the tools to go on and themselves be able to make a difference elsewhere.” 

Paula Grizzard, Founder of She Business, said: “I’m delighted to be part of the #WECAN programme – it’s a groundbreaking way to help hard-pressed businesses accelerate the advancement of women at work. We are looking for bold leaders who know that supporting women to succeed also helps their male counterparts. Let’s do this!”