Women's empowerment will be front and center in 2015 as more companies and communities invest in women's entrepreneurship -- and as women continue to invest in themselves.
Facing a continuing tendency to be locked out of traditional leadership positions, and continuing to earn an average of three-quarters less than men even with the same education in the same occupation, women have begun to carve a different path creating a shift in the economic landscape. While many women have been spurred by Sheryl Sandberg's call to lean in and take a "seat at the table," many others have decided to build their own.
For the last 20 years, women have consistently been starting businesses at a higher rate than men. Eschewing corporate politics, disinterested in climbing and clawing their way up the corporate ladder, or working long days without feeling the fulfillment they crave, women have been starting businesses aligned with personal values seeking freedom, flexibility, and independence.
As millennials continue to increasingly view their vocations through the lens of creating their own jobs, whether traditional in appearance at first glance or entrepreneurial in nature, these large demographic groups representing dynamic buying power are changing the status quo of the business world.
Encouraging movement has been seen in three of the biggest challenge areas facing women entrepreneurs, including funding, support, and mentorship.
Babson College released a report of U.S. venture capital investments in women entrepreneurs citing: "The amount of early-stage investment in companies with a woman on the executive team has tripled to 15 percent from 5 percent in the last 15 years. Despite this positive trend, 85 percent of all venture capital-funded businesses have no women on the executive team. Importantly, only 2.7 percent of venture capital-funded companies had a woman CEO." This, despite statistics that show businesses with women entrepreneurs perform as well or better than those led by men. "Businesses with a woman on the executive team are more likely to have higher valuations at both first and last funding (64 percent higher and 49 percent higher, respectively)."
Still, the findings showed that the composition of the venture capital firms matters: "Venture capital firms with women partners are more than twice as likely to invest in companies with a woman on the executive team."
While financial institutions still need to do a better job of banking on women's potential, and the numbers are still small, opportunities are increasing as women invest in other women. Entrepreneurial personalities don't often wait for governments or systems to build the perfect environment for success, but go out to create them. And so women have begun building the networks and bringing together the resources to catalyze their own change, building their own vibrant and layered ecosystems.
After spending years at Smith Barney, Merrill Lynch and US Trust, Sallie Krawcheck spoke publicly about being fired from two big jobs, embraced her lessons learned and refused to hide afterwords. She now owns and leads Ellevate, an expansive and diverse global network dedicated to the economic engagement of women worldwide that helps women connect, learn and invest.
As a growing number of women speak up to address the gender gap in technology, a group of visionary women in the technology sector founded Women 2.0 in 2006. Offering conferences, pitch competitions, meetups and investor hangouts, women in technology, female founders and female investors come together to drive change for women and in their industry. These organizations and others like them are providing leadership, access to capital, and connections to accelerate growth of women-led companies at an increasing pace.
But unleashing the economic potential of women doesn't just include entrepreneurship. Forward-thinking organizations seeing the potential for talent lost have already begun to tap into the power of women's empowerment.
To be more open and receptive to the great contributions offered by women still requires knocking down outdated obstacles that hold women back in the traditional corporate landscape. This means taking diversity seriously. It means continuing to hire women, promote women, and invest in women.
This evolution is occurring in corporate cultures, with men participating and helping lead the way in what sometimes seems like the most unlikely of places. While most consider looking to the left coast or right for such visionary thinking, it's also happening in the middle.
Stimulus Engineering, a provider of creative consulting, engineering, and technology commercialization solutions located in Indiana, features a leadership team half comprised of women.
"The biggest obstacle to starting new companies, or growing successful ones, is a dearth of talent so severe it hinders innovation. There's a huge incentive to get all the talented people we can. That includes 50 percent of the population, and requires a willingness to utilize unconventional strategies for hiring and retention," said Tim Wagler, CEO of Stimulus Engineering. "Staying on the cutting-edge requires a company culture built on a meritocracy that favors intelligence and merit, allowing the best ideas to emerge. Those best ideas most often come from a diverse team that includes strong women. Strong women equals a strong company culture that accelerates growth."
Small business and entrepreneurship has always been the driving force of the U.S. economy, and in that arena, women are making great strides. As thriving micro-businesses and growing communities bubbling below the surface increase, along with a coming political contest sure to bring gender as a topic to the forefront again, and as women's voices increasingly grow louder, more women are connecting to the funding, support, and mentorship they need and finding success.