Donna Ward-Higgs, founder of DWH Coaching and Consultancy

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Donna Ward-Higgs is a specialist in designing, delivering and supporting learning and development. She runs her own company, DWH Coaching & Consultancy (now Learning Partner Solutions), which she recently founded in 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Passionate about supporting the development and growth of other people, Donna works with various individuals and organisations across the public, private and charity sectors. She helps managers and leaders build their coaching capabilities to lead healthy and high-performing teams. Donna also co-founded Learning Partner Solutions which aims to support individuals who want to cultivate their learning, passion, and confidence.

What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
My first foray into supporting entrepreneurs was almost a happy accident. When I was building up practice hours during my first coaching certification, I worked with a couple of entrepreneurs who had put themselves forward. Since then, it has remained a part of what I do. I love supporting others to achieve their goals and reach their full potential, and I realised that this has been the common thread throughout my experience, be that working in fashion retail, charities, or strategic roles.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
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Entrepreneurship is about having the courage and tenacity to put yourself, your skills and your creativity, out in world and to go: ‘Here I am, and this is what I do, this is what I have to offer!’

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
I believe that the ability to learn is crucial for entrepreneurs. It’s powerful to recognise the gaps in your knowledge, so that you can fill them and learn more. With that, it’s also important to scan the horizon for opportunities and to spot gaps or potential trends in your field of interest. It’s not just the skill of problem-solving but also about identifying problems in the first place. Lastly, collaboration is key. Even this early on in my own journey, I have found that the biggest differences and developments have come from networking. I would advise entrepreneurs to actively collaborate with others and to network as soon as possible, because it’s the best for everyone involved.

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
I love being a part of someone else’s journey. I find all people fascinating, so it’s perfect that I get to meet a lot of different individuals through my work. It allows me to pursue my curiosity about people and to be the helping hand, the listening ear, as well as the person who asks the challenging questions. It’s a real privilege to help someone with their professional growth as well as their personal journey.

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
For years, I have been inspired by Jo Wright who has co-founded Coaching Culture Ltd. I love her ethos that coaching isn’t some dark art, but rather basic skills that are taken for granted in everyday life. Coaching is about truly listening and providing a safe space in which someone is enabled and empowered to think aloud in order to find their best way forward. It’s not about asserting your own opinions but about being curious and asking the right questions.

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I’m excited to share that I actually did get to talk to Jo! I recently reached out to her on LinkedIn and told her that I’d been following her journey, found her inspiring, and was curious about any opportunity for potential collaboration now or in the future. When she said yes to a conversation, I did a little happy dance in my kitchen from excitement! I had an amazing conversation with her for almost an hour over Zoom. It felt really special, and I’m so happy that I put my big-girl pants on and reached out to her. I hope this serves as a good reminder for putting yourself out there. If you want something: just ask because you won’t lose anything if they say no. But what if they say yes?

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
One of my coaching clients recently wrote a testimonial about the difference I had made to her life and her business, in her confidence to put herself out in the world and as a result be interviewed for a piece in the Wall Street Journal, which moved me. I need to be more comfortable with accepting that praise, but I’m honoured when someone tells me the difference that I’ve made. My first instinct is to say that they were the ones who did all the work though – and I believe it! I’m supporting them in the background, and I’m happy when they experience success.

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
Overall, most of the lessons I’ve learned centre around personal growth. I have learned the power of not taking things personally. In some cases, I’m not the right person to support someone’s journey and that’s okay. While it can be an uncomfortable journey, self-awareness is key.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
In Oxford, there’s the Federation of Small Businesses and Enterprising Oxford. But I think I would stress the importance of networking. Who inspires you? Reach out to them! Not only that, but I would also advise going beyond your realm to connect with other people outside of your remit and world view. See what they can teach you. You can’t see what isn’t in your vision, so you can gain a wider perspective by seeing how others look at the world differently. Finally, I would recommend volunteering to stay well-rounded, give something back and indulge in your other areas of interest. Sometimes, the best comes from supporting someone else and it’s not just about what you gain from it.

Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them
I’ve found that I need to provide more support in terms of cultivating the confidence and assertiveness of women entrepreneurs. There is an extra level of imposter syndrome. While a lower level of self-assurance is not exclusive to women, it is a more common theme. I meet more women who need that confidence to stand in their own power. I’ve also noticed how some women try to fit in with a male-dominated environment, whereas I firmly believe that we don’t need to play by the rules of the ‘boys’ club’. We don’t need to fit a mould that the world has suggested is the right one. At times, it’s been challenging to try and change some entrepreneurs’ perspectives on this. Ultimately, I’ve realised that if I can’t help them with seeing it another way, then I’m not the right person to help them.

What resources would you recommend for other women?
Nothing specific comes to mind, but I recommend surrounding yourself with people who demonstrate the qualities you love and want to step into. Follow strong female role models and join empowering women’s networks. Oh, and work with a coach!

How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
I think the first step is to do lots of work around awareness. Especially for old, established institutions, it’s crucial to recognise biases that have become a part of the norm. The work starts by looking in the mirror – not through big initiatives and funding. It’s about these institutions asking themselves: How do we behave? What language do we use? What culture does that create and perpetuate? For old institutions, these cultures are hundreds of years old and outdated. I can’t offer any specific ‘solutions’ because the problems depend on the individual institution, and I don’t want to generalise. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but a commitment to self-awareness and raising awareness is necessary for any change to take place.

Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Own who you are and what you have and put it out in the world! People will always have something to say, so don’t live your life through that lens. Otherwise, you’ll never feel truly happy or satisfied.

Any last words of advice?
Be brave and give it a go! Everything is an opportunity for learning.