How Women Are Rising in Business
Article by Suzanne Smither
The new arena for business is being built from recycled shards of the glass ceiling. It is a welcoming space for women entrepreneurs, where collaboration, consensus, and diversity rule. Much of it is virtual, as more and more women opt to do business online.
The number of female founders and owners has increased dramatically in recent years, and the impact of businesses with women at the helm is significant in terms of revenue and hiring.
According to a 2018 report from SCORE, which provides free mentoring services to small business owners, the number of women-owned enterprises increased 45 percent — five times the national average — from 2007 to 2016. Women-owned businesses comprise 39 percent of all small businesses in America, employing nearly 9 million people and generating more than $1.6 trillion in revenue.
Additionally, “The 2018 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report” from American Express found women run 40 percent of all firms of all sizes in the US. According to the report, women of color own 64 percent of all new women-owned businesses.
Women of all ages are launching businesses. While the majority — 77 percent in SCORE’s report and 65.5 percent in American Express’s — are 35-64 years old, millennials and seniors are also making their marks.
American Express attributes the rise in female entrepreneurship to both opportunity and necessity. Women surveyed by SCORE mentioned four major motivations for starting their own businesses: having the experience to start a successful enterprise, financial readiness, following a passion, and desiring flexibility in their lives.
Although most women entrepreneurs are founding businesses in sectors like retail, health care, education, arts, travel, food services, marketing, and other professional services, some are choosing traditionally male-dominated fields like construction and manufacturing. While women-owned businesses in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) are still rare, that is changing thanks to a boost from two bills recently signed into law, the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act and the Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act.
Modern female entrepreneurs lead from feminine strengths like effective networking, empathy, and an inclusive and holistic mindset to grapple with issues as universal as the future of Earth and as personal as the day-to-day challenges of being a woman. Some even believe that motherhood, which once diverted careers to the “mommy track,” makes them more productive in business.
Pioneering futurist, economist, and author Hazel Henderson sees this as a great time for female entrepreneurs: “One of the advantages women have now is that we’re very good at improvising, and we’ve learned there are all kinds of niches, that you don’t have to be a big, powerful, well-capitalized organization to provide a good service.”
Henderson, a self-taught expert with four honorary doctorates and several best-sellers to her credit, has advised government agencies including the National Science Foundation. With a passion for “building the green, clean, knowledge-rich future,” she founded her company, Ethical Markets Media, in 2004, when she was 72.
“I have a lot of fun,” Henderson says. “We are a typical global, internet-based media company, operated out of the garage in my house.” Her St. Augustine, Florida, home also boasts a studio from which she broadcasts and distributes a TV series to business schools and public libraries around the world.
Growing up in a typical British family, Henderson noticed the authoritarian way her CEO father managed money, keeping her smart, competent mother at home and short of cash. Later, studying economic theory, she saw the same patriarchal thinking in the texts most financial managers relied on: a narrow view of market risk and interest-rate risk, ignoring big-picture risks like income inequality, climate change, and water shortages.
Henderson teaches financial managers to shift from stranded fossil fuel assets, realize the benefits of what she calls “ethical biomimicry finance — operating your company on nature’s principles,” and act in the best interests not only of shareholders but also of stakeholders — employees, customers, the community, and the planet. Ethical Markets Media operates as a socially responsible B Corporation and tracks trillions of dollars of investments in green sectors worldwide.
Henderson says the global view comes easily to female entrepreneurs: “Women connect all the dots. … Almost every company that is forward-looking, looking into all these issues and how to turn them into positive opportunities, tends to be led by a woman.”
She advises women starting businesses, “Don’t take outside investment unless you absolutely need it.” Even then, she says, “Make sure investors are totally aligned with your values and understand your business plan in its long-term goals and purposes.”
Raising a family is a long-term goal for many women, including Sarah Lacy, an intrepid Silicon Valley journalist, internet entrepreneur, and single mom. She started her first company, PandoMedia, an investigative journalism site covering the technology industry, in 2011 when she was on maternity leave from her job as senior editor at TechCrunch.
Lacy found that motherhood made her a better entrepreneur as well as a better version of herself. In her 2017 book A Uterus Is a Feature, Not a Bug, she writes, “There’s something liberating about realizing that owning your motherhood could give just as many benefits in public life as denying it.”
The book chronicles how women are knocking down the longstanding “maternal wall,” male executives’ belief that women can be good managers or good mothers but not both. Raised by a mother who deferred her career because she believed she “couldn’t be a perfect mother and a perfect teacher at the same time,” Lacy admits that she, too, bought into this myth for a long time. Now, she realizes “the most successful entrepreneurs bring their whole selves to the job.”
“I came up in newsrooms and working in male-dominated environments, and every manager I had, male or female, managed by screaming,” Lacy recalls. “It was only after becoming a mother that I realized that managing people by screaming is a really great short-term motivator, but it’s a really bad long-term motivator and a really bad way to build a culture.”
“When you have a child, yelling and intimidation don’t work,” she continues. “You cannot tell a 2-year-old you’re going to fire him if he doesn’t get potty trained.”
Lacy believes motherhood enhances universal feminine traits like collaborative leadership, empathy, consensus-building, active listening, and competent multitasking. To lead effectively, she says, “You really have to learn how to meet people where they are, how to be empathetic, how to understand what’s going to motivate them, how to understand why they’re stuck where they are, and manage everyone differently, the same way you raise your children differently.”
The importance of sisterhood — “one woman at a time standing up to a hostile environment, and all of us supporting her” — is a theme that runs through Lacy’s book. In 2017, she launched her second venture, Chairman Mom, which she describes as “a subscription-based platform where badass working women can help each other solve the hardest problems they face.”
The desire to stand up for “invisible” women inspired former IBM executive Sharon Hadary, PhD, to found the nonprofit Center for Women’s Business Research in 1988. At that time, she notes, women-owned businesses were perceived as small, not growth-oriented, and not creating jobs or revenue.
Hadary’s research team, based in the Washington, D.C., area, set out to identify what women needed to grow their businesses and “to showcase that women business owners in fact were running sizable businesses that were making a contribution to our economy,” she says. “In our first press release, the lead was, ‘Women-owned businesses employ more women in the United States than the Fortune 500 do worldwide.’”
That revelation led Hadary to appear on ABC’s Good Morning America, which in turn led to a flurry of phone calls asking to buy the research report she had mentioned on the show.
“The corporations took notice, and the legislators took notice,” she recalls. The next link in this chain of support was $10 million that Wells Fargo lent to women entrepreneurs in the following year.
In the book How Women Lead, coauthored with Laura Henderson and published in 2013, Hadary outlines eight success strategies women can use to embrace their strengths, advocate for themselves, and design their own careers. She says, “Today, as I look around, what inspires me is that so many women are saying, ‘Yes, I can!’”
Hadary wants to hear many more women saying that in the future. She runs Enterprising Women events for high school students to focus on STEM, talk with business owners in related fields, and learn how to present themselves professionally.
“We need to make sure that we help them see … that they can take control of their lives and their destinies and that they have the skills and the knowledge to do that,” Hadary says.
Mina Shah, formerly a top trainer in Tony Robbins’s organization, instills confidence in adult women through a year-long program of monthly Mina Meetings held by 300 chapters in 52 countries. Through group discussions and holding one another accountable for action items, participants work on learning their value, then claiming their worth.
In her TEDx talk, “What Happens When Women Stop Believing the Lies,” Shah encourages women to free themselves from the sexist myths they’ve internalized from society and family, as well as the “intimate lies” they tell themselves.
“We’re in a transition,” Shah says. “We’re coming into a place where we’re understanding it is okay to be a woman, it is okay to speak up, it is okay to be ourselves, [and] it is okay to take leadership positions.”
Shah says it was hard to leave the Robbins team, where she had worked for more than four years loving her job, feeling validated, and performing at the top of her game. However, her inner voice told her she had another purpose to fulfill. She moved on in 2012 and founded Mina Shah Enterprises the following year, self-funding with income from consulting.
“Mina Meetings are profitable by design,” she says. “I’m proud to say we’ve been profitable from year one and in every year since.”
Each of these entrepreneurs acknowledges that, while unconscious bias still impacts women leaders, male-female business partnerships produce some of the best outcomes for all involved. While their feminism is strong, so is their desire to gain men as allies.
Hadary says, “Particularly when it comes to access to capital, until men become part of the solution, we will still have the challenges.”
Lacy blends her roles as CEO with mothering her son, Eli, and daughter, Evie, with the help of their father (her friendly ex-husband) and her supportive boyfriend. She is a big believer in networking and building relationships with colleagues of both sexes. “If I had not spent 20 years building relationships and trust with really good men in this ecosystem, I would never have gotten past the starting block as a founder,” she says.
In her book, Lacy quotes Andy Dunn, former CEO of the menswear company Bonobos and an early investor in Chairman Mom, as saying, “The next hundred years will be referred to as the ‘female takeover.’ And by ‘takeover,’ I don’t mean, ‘Run for the hills, guys!’ I mean, ‘Your life will be improved by the ascendance of women.’”
Cautioning against getting too hung up on gender, Shah emphasizes fostering mutual respect with everyone. “Women focusing on their own self-confidence, their own lives, how they are showing up, is really what’s going to move the needle forward for everybody,” she says.
“The really mature men know that what the planet needs now is for women to be in totally full partnership,” Henderson says. “And maybe to lead for a while.”
Suzanne Smither is a writer and researcher based in South Florida.