As an expert on women entrepreneurs, I'm often asked questions such as:
Why do female entrepreneurs have a problem of scale? Why do they continually start and run businesses that are low-profit, low growth, small enterprise, and low-tech? How can they be encouraged to build larger, higher-tech, more noticeable businesses?
In short, I am being asked: "How can we get female entrepreneurs to start those blockbuster businesses that are so often started by men?"
And I get very frustrated, because in my mind this is the wrong conversation.
These questions are problematic because they reinforce the strong dichotomy that exists in the mind of the general public between businesses that are fast-growing, capital-rich, and highly-visible (and undeniably mostly male) and businesses that grow more organically, remain closely held, have greater longevity, have less capital, and stay smaller.
The first group gets deemed the legitimate "real" entrepreneurs, while the latter group, especially if they are run by women, gets passed off as "lifestyle" or "lipstick" entrepreneurs. While in reality businesses in the latter group are run by both men and women, I've yet to see a man's business pejoratively referred to as a "lifestyle" business.
Of course, it is also frustrating that women receive only 5% of venture capital and have historically had limited access to the necessary training, networks, and education required to get equity funding. I absolutely support the call for greater access to capital for women entrepreneurs and consider the funding disparity to be a big problem. However in reality, these conversations about women in technology and women's ability to access capital take into consideration only a minority of women entrepreneurs and only one model of entrepreneurship.
It can be easy to forget that of the 8-10 million women entrepreneurs in the U.S., only a very small portion are fundable by the traditional VC model, and only a portion are even interested in this kind of funding. The over-emphasis on these conversations not only prevents us from talking about the real issues that impact and matter to the majority of women entrepreneurs, but also detracts from the value and legitimacy of the majority of women entrepreneurs.
Lifestyle entrepreneurship makes someone's life work seem like a hobby -- an indulgent, half-serious "interest" pursued in one's spare time. This doesn't describe the women entrepreneurs we work with: women who actually work quite a lot (probably more than in their corporate gigs), who depend on the income they generate, who are interested and invested in the strategic growth and development of their venture, and who constantly seek challenge, variety, and new opportunities.
These are women who spotted an opportunity and took significant risks; they make tough decisions about growth and direction, watch costs and calculate cash flow and profitability, and invest in marketing and product/sales development. Many of them built their business in response to a problem or need that they felt called to fix.
I don't think I'd call them anything but entrepreneurs.
The difference between the women we work with and our society's well-reinforced notion of "real" entrepreneurs is that most of them are focused on the long-term viability and sustainability of their venture instead of its fast growth and quick sale. Generally, they are looking to create something that can grow with them overtime, meet their changing needs, and remain something that they can control.
Growing a business in this way is not a process taken haphazardly, here and there, as you think of it, and in between other extracurricular activities. Instead, it requires careful planning, constant assessment, and frequent recalibration. Categorically calling these women lifestyle entrepreneurs undermines the risks they take, the impact they make, and the value they create.
Of course, and as with most social justice issues, the rigid dichotomy does a disservice to both sides. It relegates female entrepreneurs to second-class status and limits male entrepreneurs' ability to comfortably experiment and explore a variety of entrepreneurial models. If everyone is either a "legitimate" entrepreneur focused on fast growth and capital acquisition or a lifestyle entrepreneur, where does that leave men who are also incrementally building something great that they want to keep for the long haul?
So of course, if "how can women's firms be more like men's" is the wrong conversation, then what is the right one?
Recognizing the variety of reasons that one becomes an entrepreneur and the many ways to go about it, we should be asking whether women entrepreneurs are able to achieve their goals. Are they getting where they'd like to go?
I have previously suggested that given the average revenue metrics, the answer is likely not. I still maintain that in order to improve these statistics we need, among other things:
• Greater contributions to the Kauffman Foundation, which works on behalf of all entrepreneurs and lobbies for small business-friendly policies.
• To encourage the media to profile a wider variety of businesses (beyond those that are high-tech, fast-growth, and capital laden) and to highlight more varied measures of success (rather than money raised or money made).
• An expanded SBA loan program with an increased focus on early stage entrepreneurs and women.
• Some bright entrepreneurs to come up with more creative and women entrepreneur-friendly funding alternatives.
• More education and programs that teach about multiple models of entrepreneurship and various ways to grow a company and obtain profitability.
Some of these are admittedly big items, and in the meantime I think it's high time that we put a little effort into reframing entrepreneurship in a way that helps us stop seeing women business owners as second-class entrepreneurs.
Let's each start by working to:
• Expand our collective definition and measures of success.
• Recognize and respect the many models of entrepreneurship and the variety of motivations that drive them.
• Stop judging what kind of entrepreneurship is real or legitimate.
And, lastly, if you are a woman business owner, please claim the title entrepreneur. Chances are you really deserve the credit.
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