The new arena for business is being built from recycled shards of the glass ceiling.
It’s a welcoming space for women entrepreneurs, one where collaboration, consensus and diversity rule. The number of female founders and owners has increased in recent years, as has the impact of businesses with women at the helm.
Women in business: a look at the numbers
A 2022 annual report by the National Women’s Business Council found that women owned 20.9% of employer businesses in 2019—a growth of 16.7% from 2012—while the growth of male-owned employer businesses during the same time period was only 5.2%. Additionally, the report found that women-owned businesses “employed 10.8 million workers in 2019 and grew their workforce by 28%… between 2012 and 2019.”
The 2019 “State of Women-Owned Businesses Report” from American Express finds women-owned businesses “now represent 42% of all businesses—nearly 13 million—employing 9.4 million workers and generating revenue of $1.9 trillion.” Women of color-owned firms saw a growth of 43% between 2014 and 2019, while firms owned by African American women saw both the highest growth rate (50%) and the highest number of “net new women-owned businesses” (42%). Women “sidepreneurs” saw even more growth than women entrepreneurs, with a growth rate of 39% compared to the 21% growth rate of entrepreneurs.
The women surveyed in Guidant’s “2023 Small Business Trends” report were primarily motivated to become entrepreneurs due to being “ready to be their own boss” (28%) and “[dissatisfied] with corporate America” (23%), with only 13% seeking to pursue their passions. Other reasons included “not [being] ready to retire” and the loss of their previous job.
Women of all ages are launching businesses. While the majority—just over 47%, according to Guidant’s report—are Generation X, millennials (12.92%) and baby boomers (39.63%) are also making their mark. And the pool of millennial small-business owners is growing—just last year, they made up only 7% of the survey sample.
The industries of women in business
The industries these women settled into differed between the reports. According to Guidant, the highest number of women-owned small businesses were in retail (18%), followed by “food and restaurant” at 12% and “health, beauty and fitness services” at 10%. The National Women’s Business Council found that the top five industries (“healthcare and social assistance; professional, scientific and technical services; retail trade; and administrative and support and waste management and remediation services”) made up 66.2% of women-owned businesses. And American Express found that services such as “hair and nail salons and pet care businesses” made up 22% of women-owned businesses, followed by “healthcare and social assistance” at 15% and “professional/scientific/technical services” at 13%.
Women are still underrepresented as business owners and in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), both as employees and business owners. And some organizations are looking to help change that.
Betsy Dougert, vice president of external relations for SCORE, which provides free mentoring service for small business owners, wants female entrepreneurs in all fields to know that SCORE’s more than 10,000 volunteer mentors have their backs every step of the way. “We’re here for the life of your business,” she says, adding that “all resources are free because they’re prepaid with your tax dollars.”
Traditionally feminine strengths are good for business
Modern female entrepreneurs can lead from traditionally feminine strengths as broad as collaboration and empathy to those as personal as the day-to-day challenges of being a woman. Motherhood has a potential effect as well—both as a leader and a colleague. A 2020 study by WerkLabs that looked at the effect of having colleagues who are also mothers found that “[two out of three] female employees with mom managers agree that their manager enhances overall team productivity” and 81% of mom managers “are rated favorably for encouraging collaboration among teams.” Not only that, but in workplaces where the CEO is a mother, “80% of female employees report that [diversity and inclusion] efforts are a top priority.”
Pioneering futurist, environmental activist and author Hazel Henderson saw 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 that 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 thought leader with three honorary doctorates and nine books to her credit, “served on the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Engineering Committee on Public Engineering Policy,” according to her website. With a passion for “building the green, clean, knowledge-rich future,” she founded her company, Ethical Markets Media LLC, in 2004, when she was 72. “I have a lot of fun,” she said. “We are a typical global, internet-based media company, operated out of the garage in my house.” Her St. Augustine, Florida, home also boasted a studio from which she broadcasted a TV series and distributed it to business schools and public libraries around the world.
Women in business tend to look at the bigger picture
Growing up in a patriarchal British family, Henderson noticed the authoritarian way her 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 texts most financial managers relied on: That is, a narrow view of market and interest-rate risk while ignoring big-picture risks like income inequality, climate change and water shortages.
She taught financial managers to shift from stranded fossil fuel assets, realize the benefits of what she called “ethical biomimicry finance, operating your company on nature’s principles” and act in the best interests of not only the shareholders but also the stakeholders—employees, customers, the community and the planet. Her own company, Ethical Markets Media, operates as a socially responsible B corporation.
Henderson said the global view comes easily to female entrepreneurs: “Women connect all the dots… Almost every company that’s forward-looking, looking into all these issues and how to turn them into positive opportunities, tends to be led by a woman.”
She advised women starting businesses, “Don’t take outside investment unless you absolutely need it,” and even then, “Make sure investors are totally aligned with your values and understand your business plan in its long-term goals and purposes.”
Being a parent benefits women in business
Raising a family is a long-term goal for many women, including Sarah Lacy, the founder and CEO of ChairmanMe. 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 not only a better entrepreneur, but 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 mothers, but not both. Raised by a mother who deferred her career, believing 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, however, she realizes that “the most successful entrepreneurs bring their whole selves to the job.”
Parenting skills are management skills
“I came up in newsrooms and working in male-dominated environments, and every manager I had, male or female, managed by screaming,” she 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. You cannot tell a 2-year-old you’re going to fire him if he doesn’t get potty trained.”
She believes that motherhood enhances 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.”
Women in business help each other
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, ChairmanMe, 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 Sharon Hadary, D.B.A., a women’s leadership and entrepreneurship thought leader, to take up the founding executive director position at 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 or creating jobs and revenue.
Her 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 the $1 billion in lending for female business owners, which Wells Fargo announced in 1995 and distributed by 1996.
Advocating for women in business
In her 2012 book, How Women Lead, co-authored with Laura Henderson, 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!’”
Mina Shah, formerly a peak performance strategist and speaker in Tony Robbins’ organization, instills confidence in adult women through her company, mina meetings, a “live, interactive online course that provides the structure of the 3 things [environment, accountability and consistency] necessary to achieve any goal you are after,” according to the website.
In her TEDx Talk, “What happens when women stop believing the lies,” the Florida-based motivational speaker 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’s OK to be a woman, it’s OK to speak up, it’s OK to be ourselves, it’s OK to take leadership positions.”
Shah says it was hard to leave the Robbins team, where she had worked for more than four years. She loved her job—while there, she felt validated and performed at the top of her game—but 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.”
Still, partnerships between both genders can be beneficial
Each of these entrepreneurs, however, acknowledges that male-female business partnerships produce some of the best outcomes for all involved.
“Particularly when it comes to access to capital, until men become part of the solution, we will still have the challenges,” Hadary says.
Lacy blends her roles as CEO with mothering her son, Eli, and daughter, Evie. She’s a big believer in networking and building relationships with colleagues of both genders. “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 ChairmanMe, 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 said. “And maybe to lead for a while.”
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of SUCCESS magazine and has been updated. Photo by PeopleImages.com – Yuri A/Shutterstock