Italian business support bodies are looking to recreate the successful model of a Midland women’s enterprise agency in the foothills of the Alps.
The Women’s Business Development Agency (WBDA), based in Coventry, is working with representatives from the local authority and Chamber of Commerce in Biella, the capital of the northern Italian region of Piedmont.
The Italian town’s economy, formerly heavily dependent on the textile industry, has been hit by the gradual exodus of clothing and textile production away from Italy towards lower-cost countries.
But after discussions with WBDA, Italian local authorities believe encouraging the latent entrepreneurialism among women in the town could be a significant help in regenerating its flagging economy.
WBDA director Sally Arkley said: “We realised that a lot of the lessons we learnt in the West Midlands in terms of regeneration would be applicable to this area in Piedmont. “It is my view that encouragement of women’s enterprise can be a driver in communities and regeneration.
“We had a three-hour meeting with the women’s support section of the local Chamber of Commerce and they were transfixed with what we were doing.
“We agreed that we would go out to advise them on our products and services and make them aware of how we do things. We have 20 year of experience, but also there is the chance for us to learn from them too – they have experience which is valuable for us to look at.”
In particular, WBDA’s work with online training and business support is one of the things the Italian authorities are keen on replicating in Piedmont.
In November last year, WBDA launched the virtual Women’s Business Centre for the West Midlands designed to encourage more women to think about setting up on their own, access business support and take advantage of online training and mentoring to grow their businesses.
The collaboration between the two countries, which is still in its early stages as funding for the venture is being assembled, grew out of a friendship between Ms Arkley and Nicoletta Bertolone-Jones, a former employee of the Italian diplomatic service with a background in education.
Ms Bertolone-Jones lived in Birmingham for 30 years and worked with WBDA to develop a serious computer game used for delivering enterprise education in schools before returning to her home town of Biella.
With her experience of living and working both in the UK and in Italy, Ms Bertolone-Jones contradicted the common view of Italy as being an difficult place for women in business. “It will probably seem strange but whereas in England women are often penalised, women here are treated more like men are when they have reached a position of respect.
“For example, when they go to their bank manager they are treated the same way as a man would be. “The only difference though is probably that women are not as confident in starting their own business. But that is changing now – women are starting to take on their father’s business when he dies, for example, in making wine.”
But Ms Bertolone-Jones pointed to the fact that she was from Northern Italy, a region often seen as having more in common with its neighbours to the north of the Alps than its Italian counterparts further south.”