'We started a business in male-dominated industry while having babies - and raised £5m despite not getting invited to golf'

Just 18% of companies in the UK are led by women, and while data suggests female entrepreneurs are on the rise, men still receive more funding and are entrusted with higher average loans to get them started.

In an eight-part series for Sky News' Money blog, our reporter Jess Sharp speaks to women who are bossing it in their respective fields - hearing their stories, struggles and advice for those who want to follow in their footsteps.

This week, she has spoken to Kelly McCabe, the co-founder of the UK's first virtual cancer care clinic Perci Health...

When Kelly and her co-founder Morgan Fitzsimons set up their business, they made an unusual decision - they sat down and planned when they'd both have children.

It's a topic many men will never feel the need to discuss with their business partners, but as two women, it was something they realistically needed to think about.

"We had a long conversation and made a decision that we would have children at different times so that one person would stay in the business to allow the other to take the time out they needed," Kelly said.

"Of course, you can't plan this thing perfectly, but we were fortunate enough that it kind of happened that way."

Morgan was the first to have her baby and returned to work after a couple of months off, and Kelly gave birth six months later.

A month after having her now nearly two-year-old son, Kelly returned to work and Perci Health has continued to grow ever since.

'Whether it was NHS or private care - I saw the same problem'

Despite Perci Health being a virtual care clinic, Kelly's career background had nothing to do with app development - she started out in the NHS.

One of the roles she had was helping people with cancer eat and drink while receiving treatment.

Working mostly with people with head and neck cancer, she supported them with tube feeding and their rehabilitation back to solid foods.

After working in a similar area in private healthcare, she realised all cancer patients were experiencing the same problem.

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"There was a universal experience at the end of treatment where you would have your final review with your cancer nurse or oncologist, and they would say 'see you again in six months or 12 months time'," Kelly said.

"Patients would come back into our follow-up clinics with all sorts of problems they had been living with for six months or 12 months and no one was really managing them.

"They had to just be grinning and bearing it, thinking it was just par for the course after having cancer."

She decided to come up with an idea that would connect people living with cancer with professionals who could provide long-term support and optimise their wellbeing.

Male investors in a male-bias sector

With a plan in mind, she reached out to her friend Morgan, who had a background in digital marketing, and the pair got started working weekends and evenings to build their company.

When COVID hit, they made the decision to "just go for it", quit their jobs and put all their focus on the business.

Their first round of funding came from family and friends, raising £500,000, which gave them enough to pay themselves a reduced salary and hire a small team.

But more funding was needed, and they started reaching out to investors.

With Kelly's clinical experience, the issue she was trying to solve in the health care sector seemed "obvious", but the first hurdle she faced was convincing others that it was "important enough to solve".

"The challenges seemed very obvious to us, but they might not necessarily be obvious to investors, and I think that is particularly true if you're solving a problem that affects women," she said.

"I'm really sad to say that it's kind of the old-fashioned things you think of, like a lot of them sell on the golf course or over lunch or going shooting, and we don't get invited to golf or to shoot.

"You don't get many female-owned technology businesses, so that was a barrier."

Read more from this series:
How accident in cafe and £400 turned into a genius business idea that's about to go global
'How I went from mum with no qualifications to owner of big law firm'
Meet the woman behind the UK's first net zero whisky distillery

Pregnant, pitching and spotting red flags

While meeting potential investors, Kelly was heavily pregnant and was "nervous" to explain her situation out of fear it would put them off investing.

"When I had my first conversation with our now lead investor, I was 38 weeks pregnant, so we just did all the conversations on Zoom," she said.

"She called and said 'we'd like to invite you in to meet the team and do a formal pitch. Can you do it next week?' and obviously I had to tell her I was heavily pregnant.

"She could tell I was nervous about telling her... but she said she was sorry that I had to explain myself, and we could just delay the pitch.

"We pushed it back about six weeks, but not all investors are that understanding, which is why I was so nervous to explain it."

Unfortunately, Kelly said she was "definitely asked" in the early fundraising rounds if she was planning to have children.

"The feedback from male investments clubs was that women don't know how they feel and may not return to work after having a baby or their motivation to run a business may change," she said.

"Early on, we were just looking for investment and we would have taken any partner, but now these are the red flags that we look for.

"There is some definite progress to be made."

In total, Kelly has raised £5m and still owns 40% of Perci Health.

All the challenges

Away from the challenge of fundraising, Kelly also had to deal with life as a new mum, which brought its own challenges as a business owner.

She explained how having children early in the company's life meant it was still "relatively fragile" and there wasn't the chance to take maternity leave knowing her job would be safe when she returned.

"There was a bit of a juggle with that and needing to go back to work very quickly after the baby was born, and then the other challenge is childcare," she said.

"You don't want to be taking too much money out of your business and you're rewarded with equity rather than a salary - but of course, equity doesn't pay for childcare."

Kelly also found there was an "underestimation" of her abilities from male investors, and it was something she noticed in the choice of language used to describe her.

"I believe women business owners are underestimated and that is evidenced by the fact that less investment goes to us, but there's research that shows women-owned companies are more profitable," she said.

"The language they use is interesting. For example, I'm often described as a conservative CEO within the portfolio because I'm focused on financial preservation... but would my male counterpart be seen as such or would he be seen as having optimal control?"

Kelly's advice

Kelly's top tip is to find a business partner, possibly even two, that can help your business grow.

"Building a business alone would be significantly harder," she said.

"Co-founders just help ease the burden when one of you needs to take time out, so find yourself a good business partner."

She also recommended taking "a lot of time" to build a "strong network", which she said would help "protect you as your business grows".

"There are a lot of female entrepreneurs or female business networks that are great. Morgan and I are members of lots of them," she added.

"It's amazing how the amount of advice and support that we have been given for free from other women just wanting to help."

She said it was important to have a "really thick skin and to be very persistent".

"Even in the very best businesses, you get those 100 no's before you get that one yes," she added.