Women’s Stories Reveal the Richness of Female Entrepreneurship

We collected and analyzed the stories of 1,000 women business owners. Our key findings paint a picture of female entrepreneurship that's far bigger and far richer than the prevailing business culture would suggest.

Riva Richmond By Riva Richmond

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PrintBusinesses often start in poetry, but they always operate in prose.

“I believe that literacy is part of the solution to every issue challenging us today, and that one of the best ways to ensure a literate adult Chicago in the future is to work with its children now,” says Stacy Ratner, sounding like a campaigner on the stump. Driven by this idea, in 2006, she founded Open Books Ltd., a social enterprise that collects donated books and sells them to fund or uses them for its literacy programs.

But the path to realizing her vision — now a $1.3 million enterprise — was hard won and not at all bookish. Open Books’ first warehouse was in a “rough” neighborhood, its doors punctured by bullet holes, she says. Initial funding came from family and friends and Ratner’s own bank account. She worked hard to craft a sustainable business model, and it took 15 months to really get things moving.

“Just about every detail of the original idea, from proposed location and projected team size through types of programs and needed resources, has changed dramatically as we grew, learned, changed, grew again and learned some more,” she told us.

StacyRatner

Stacy Ratner, founder of Open Books Ltd.

Ratner is one of 1,000 female entrepreneurs across the globe who shared their business stories with The Story Exchange over the last three years. We launched the 1,000 Stories campaign in October 2012, in partnership with Babson College, the renowned entrepreneurship academy, and collected our one-thousandth story in November 2015. Now, with this milestone reached, we are able provide a uniquely deep look at why women start companies, how they view success, their top challenges and their role models.

The result is 1,000 portals into the diversity and power of individual women creating fascinating lives through business ownership and making important contributions to families, communities and economies around the globe. The Story Exchange has been publishing their stories since the project began and, today, unveils an interactive map to help readers explore them by location and industry.

The stories comprise, we believe, an unprecedented qualitative dataset on women business owners. And together, they paint a picture of entrepreneurship that is far bigger and far richer than the prevailing business culture would have you think.

That culture, especially in the U.S., lionizes size, growth and profits to judge a business’ worth. Largely dismissed are the millions of sole proprietorships and small businesses that hum along nicely for years, serving happy regular customers, providing solid livings for owners and employees, and adding strength and vitality to countless communities. Yet these are the kinds of companies most women run.

Regardless of the cold shoulders, the women we’ve met over the last three years are stretching the definition of business value well beyond its traditional “masculine” measures. They are adding to the mix — and even elevating — traditionally “feminine” values like helping, inspiring and satisfying other people as well as personal goals like finding meaning, happiness and pursuing passions.

Indeed, these contours of female entrepreneurship combined with the increasing presence of women in business can and are changing business itself. Social goals and measures of value are on the rise; just look at the emergence of social entrepreneurship and B Corps.

Our Study

The women in the 1,000 Stories project are self-selected and well-educated (84% possess a Bachelor’s or more advanced degree), and most live in the United States (77 percent of respondents) — though India (19 percent), Canada (18 percent) and the United Kingdom (16 percent) have significant representations among a total 50 countries reached. While our data cannot be called representative of female entrepreneurship globally, our findings are broadly in line with other studies of women entrepreneurs.

Our data’s most important contribution lies in its wealth of intensely personal and often dramatic life stories of women in business. These women have surmounted challenges in love, profound loss, homelessness and even murder. And they have persevered and gone on to found and nurture companies that provide meaning, serve others, stoke passions and provide solid livelihoods for them, their families and their employees.

At age 19, CJ Scarlet was raped by a sheriff’s deputy she had been dating. That painful experience propelled her into a career as a victims’ advocate. But she became determined to prevent victimization in the first place. So recently, she developed a wearable, voice-activated personal security device that she is now commercializing through Tiger Eye Sensor Inc., of Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

“I will know I am successful when I receive the first email from a customer telling me her life was saved by our Tiger Eye Security Sensor,” she says. “Our aim is to prevent sexual assaults and other violence, and I won’t rest until our product is in the market and doing its job.”

1,000 Stories years-in-business breakdown

1,000 Stories businesses’ years in operation

Overall, the businesses in the 1,000 Stories project are fairly new; 35 percent are 2 years old or less and 34 percent are 2-to-5 years old (see chart). They also tend to be small in size, with sole proprietorships accounting for 35 percent and businesses with 2-to-5 employees for 41 percent (see chart). The top five industries represented are professional services (other than finance and marketing) at 13 percent, apparel and accessories at 11 percent, other consumer goods (excluding children’s goods) at 11 percent, personal services at 9 percent and marketing and public relations at 9 percent.

Employee Count - ALL

1,000 Stories business sizes, by employees

Whatever their size, whatever they do, these businesses represent women’s careers, scores of jobs, local economic engines and much more. “There’s a ripple effect” when women operate businesses, says Susan G. Duffy, executive director of the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership at Babson College, which partnered with The Story Exchange on this project. “When women invest in their communities, they invest in their employees, they invest in education…  It impacts local economies, but also local health and education in communities.”

Starting and Running “Good” Businesses

One thing that’s clear from our project is that women entrepreneurs are determined to start and build “good” businesses that give back to their communities and people in need, and don’t just provide livelihoods. Overwhelmingly, they say they started their companies, not for financial gain, but to serve others or actualize themselves.

Two-fifths of participants say they started their business to fill a gap in the market or solve a problem (41 percent), 20 percent were seeking meaning or purpose, 16 percent started out of raw entrepreneurial drive and 13 percent to pursue a passion. Surprisingly, economic necessity and the pursuit of financial goals account for just 4% and 2% of motivations described, respectively.

Take Holly Twining, who did start Maine Yoga Adventures in Orono, Maine, out of economic necessity. She had been let go by Maine Audubon, where she had worked part-time for a decade and had led quarterly yoga and nature workshops. She decided that last bit of her old job was a kernel for a new business and today offers yoga and nature adventures that are combined with seasonal outdoor activities like hiking, birding, kayaking, paddleboarding, horseback riding and skiing.

“The loss of a part-time job made me a business owner — the best thing that could’ve happened to me,” she told us.

Financially, Twining’s goal is to make the same amount of money she earned at Maine Audubon. But she defines success as “an ability to inspire people and bring them into a community that moves, shares, connects and imagines together. Success is simply seeing faces light up with glee during an adventure that I’ve designed.”

Indeed, women are busting the myths of entrepreneurship by resolutely prioritizing human values above cold hard cash.

Only 8 percent of the women we heard from define success based on financial gain, while 26 percent talk about helping or inspiring others, 17 percent about satisfying customers or employees and 17 percent about finding happiness or pursuing a passion. When they do mention money, it is often in the same breath as taking care of family, employees, customers and other beneficiaries of their success.

Debunking the myths of females in the workplace, only 11 percent define success through a balance between their work and personal lives, such as flexible hours for family time, even though their embrace of “feminine” caretaker roles is infused throughout their stories.

Their Challenges

Of course, like all business owners, women encounter a world of challenges. Most women in our project are busy primarily with the nuts and bolts of running companies, while bigger-picture strategic issues get much less of their attention.

We identified a dozen major themes in open answers when we asked for their top challenge. Overall, most mentioned are sales and marketing (26 percent), personnel and management (17 percent) and finances and cost management (16 percent). Personal challenges rank fourth (12 percent) and are primarily related to confidence issues and difficult events like personal or family health crises (another 2 percent cited discrimination, including sexism and ageism). Only 5 percent talk about work flexibility or work-life balance as a top challenge.

The big picture is where women may have the greatest struggles — perhaps without knowing it.

Strategic issues around starting up, scaling up, setting business strategy and working with partners and suppliers were cited by a meager 11 percent of respondents.

The Story Exchange, Atieno 'Ati' Okelo Williams, Home Buzz

Ati Okelo Williams, Founder of DC Home Buzz

Spending too much time working in the business, rather than on the business, is a common trap for new entrepreneurs, of which there are many in our group. If women are to build companies of the quality and size they desire, they need to “think big and bold earlier in their entrepreneurial careers,” says Duffy of Babson. Otherwise they risk getting and staying mired in the weeds.

“My top challenge has been getting out of my own way. For a long time, I had the ‘entrepreneur dizzies’ — I wanted to do everything,” says Ati Okelo Williams, the Kenya-born owner of DC Home Buzz, a real estate agency in Washington, D.C. “Over time, I addressed the problem by learning to hire very capable people who understood the vision I had and the culture of this company.”

Once Williams freed herself from having to do everything, she was able to rework her business model to compete better in an industry where fees are being squeezed. She reinvented her a brokerage as both flat-fee and full-service, and her listings jumped.

Their Role Models

One key way women are empowered to see their potential to start and persevere in business is through inspirational people in their lives.

These role models don’t have to be people in business. In fact, matriarchs are the No. 1 role models for women in our project — 24 percent named their mothers, mothers-in-law or grandmothers as their most important role model. In general, the younger the entrepreneur, the more likely she was to name a mother figure in her life as her inspiration, pointing to big changes in the status of women over the last half century.

Accessible role models are most often cited as participants’ key influences. For instance, other family members — fathers, both parents and other relatives — are named by one-fifth of them.

But celebrities in and out of the business world, religious figures and other luminaries are also influential, cited by 22 percent of our 1,000 Stories women, led by women from outside the U.S. Many were still fairly accessible personalities, however, including other women entrepreneurs (13 percent).

We like to think that last number will expand as more and more women choose entrepreneurship. Already, an estimated 224 million women in 67 economies around the world are starting or running their own businesses. In the U.S., there were 9 million women-owned businesses in 2012, up 28 percent from 2007, a growth pace hugely exceeding an overall business growth rate of 2 percent. Still, women only own 30% of U.S. businesses — and they are still generally smaller and shorter-lived than those owned by men, and not always by choice.

When “we see an equal amount of men and women running companies,” Duffy says, “and they’re all accepted equally, and they’re all accelerated equally, and they’re all capitalized equally, [then] everybody is going to win, right?”

Banner graphic by Rachel Wilson.

Posted: November 16, 2015

Riva RichmondWomen’s Stories Reveal the Richness of Female Entrepreneurship