Our Definitions of Success: Meaning Over Money

Women are debunking the myth that entrepreneurship is about building the next big thing and making millions. Their goals are more lofty — and arguably more difficult.

Riva Richmond By Riva Richmond

By Rachel Wilson

PrintRomy Taormina calls herself “nausea relief chief” because she’s doing her best job when she’s alleviating morning sickness, motion sickness and the nausea that comes with anesthesia and chemotherapy.

The company she founded, Psi Bands, sells acupressure wristbands in more than 10,000 retail stores nationwide, including at major chains like CVS, Target and Babies “R” Us. Launched in the fall of 2008, the Pacific Grove, Calif., firm brings in about $1 million in annual revenue and employs four full-time people and an array of consultants.

Taormina is serious about her company, but success to her is much bigger than growth and profits. “Bringing a product to market that makes a measurable improvement in the lives of those who suffer from nausea is, by far, the most rewarding part of my business,” she told us. Even when she talks about money, Taormina grounds it in taking care of others — providing a living for her family (she is the primary earner) and her employees.  

“I come from a family of men and women that did community outreach their entire lives,” she says. “It’s more empowering to me than fully being driven by a financial motivator.”

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Romy Taormina, founder of Psi Bands

Taormina is not alone in these priorities. Work with meaning or that provides personal fulfillment is much more important to women entrepreneurs than traditional success measures like revenue growth achieved, profits earned, contracts inked and hires made, our 1,000 Stories project shows.

Indeed, women are busting the myths of entrepreneurship by resolutely prioritizing human values above cold hard cash. And as their presence grows in business, they are changing society’s ideas of success, too.  

Meaning Over Money

The 1,000 Stories project — a three-year effort, in partnership with Babson College, to collect rich data about the female entrepreneurial experience around the world — asked participants to describe both how they define success and their top success. Within their open essay-style responses, we identified seven broad themes. Those related to serving others and self-actualization stand out most, while financial attainment ranks dead last.

To be sure, our sample is self-selected, highly educated and heavily weighted in the U.S. (77 percent), India (19 percent), Canada (18 percent) and the U.K. (16 percent), so cannot be called representative of female entrepreneurs globally. However, other studies do support our findings. Indeed, both women and men give heavy weight to both social and financial goals in their businesses, according to Babson research.

Yet, the broader culture, especially in the U.S., still lionizes growth and profits as the primary measures of entrepreneurial and business success. Business schools and investors focus on growth and profit. The business press is preoccupied with financial markets, iconic public companies and spectacular upstarts, especially in high-growth industries like technology.

Definitions - ALLLargely overlooked are millions of small businesses that hum along nicely for years, serving happy regular customers and providing a solid living for owners and a handful employees. Very small and solo businesses are often dismissed as “lifestyle” businesses, based on the notion that choosing to make time for family or other passions makes for unserious business. Yet these are the types of companies that most women run, and added together they create solid economic bedrock.

But the culture is unmistakably changing. Consider rising interest in “social entrepreneurship” and the concept of a “triple bottom line” that combines financial, social and environmental value in the measurement of business results.

Women have helped drive this broader change, says Susan G. Duffy, executive director of the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership at Babson. “We’re shifting this cultural conversation — now that more women are starting and running thriving companies — to have a broader definition of what success is and what profit is,” she says. “You can definitely create social and economic impact at the same time.”

Reaching Others

Asked to describe success, many 1,000 Stories participants look beyond self-interest to “caregiver” goals of helping or inspiring other people (26 percent) or satisfying customers or employees (17 percent). Younger women ages 20 to 31 are particularly concerned with the expansive, idealistic goals helping or inspiring others (33 percent of U.S. women and 36 percent of those outside the U.S., compared with the 22 percent to 28 percent of older women whom cite this goal). Meanwhile women in midlife (aged 31-40) are slightly more likely to mention customer or employee satisfaction (18 percent).

Both themes are important to Elaine Wherry, who co-founded Meebo, an instant-messaging service, with two friends in 2005. She achieved what is arguably the pinnacle of today’s notion of business success when in 2012 she sold the firm to Google. Indeed, co-founding Meebo and overseeing its products is “probably the biggest success on my resume,” she says.

But in in her own mind, Wherry defines success sweepingly as “making impact in the world.” And she adds that, “personally, I loved building the team that made the product happen.”

Personal Attainment

Many women told us they define success in the very personal terms of finding happiness or pursuing a passion (17 percent) or achieving specific goals (12 percent).

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Lisa Druxman, founder of FIT4MOM

“My personal success has been creating a career that’s supportive of motherhood and that enables me to share that passion and help women nationwide realize a similar dream,” says Lisa Druxman, the founder of San Diego-based FIT4MOM. For 14 years, her company has offered programs that help new mothers both achieve physical fitness and receive emotional support from a community of other mothers. By pursuing a franchising business model, she has also helped create livelihoods for 250 women franchisees who provide her programs in their towns.

“I am so proud of what we do for our clients (giving women the strength for motherhood at every stage) along with giving our franchisees and instructors rewarding career opportunities that still allow them to enjoy valuable time with their families,” she told us.

A Better Life

Smaller groups of women in our study say they find success in their personal development or growth (13 percent) or in finding a happy balance between work and other priorities in life (11 percent), be they family or personal passions.

Unsurprisingly, work-life fit is more of a theme for women in the child-rearing ages of 31 to 50 (10 percent to 13 percent). Take Jennifer Kearney, who founded her energy-management consulting firm in 2007, 6 months after the birth of her son because her employer would not accommodate a flexible work schedule. That company became her first client, though. Today Gotham 360 has 13 consultants in two cities and hauls in $1.8 million in annual revenue.

The firm’s growth has been slower than it might have been because of her desire for family time and beach life on the New Jersey coast, where she surfs, she says. But that’s fine with her. “Success to me is the delivery of goals on my own terms,” she says, which include being good to clients, having time with family and mentoring a new generation of women engineers.

Anne Dowling, a former competitive skier, also has priorities beyond work. She is running a pair of unapologetic lifestyle businesses in Breckenridge, Colo.: Ridge Street Wine, a wine shop, and a related store, Breckenridge Cheese and Chocolate, which sells wine by the glass and a variety of artisanal cheeses and chocolate. The two shops bring in $400,000 a year in revenue, enough to support her family — her husband, Kenny, works there, too — while also providing her the freedom to hit the slopes.

Money Matters (To a Point)

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Michelle Myers of My Virtual Paige

Meanwhile, making money and attaining financial freedom or independence (8 percent) is least mentioned as a definition of success by the women participating in our project, a fact that may be partly explained by the relative privilege of this highly educated group. When they do mention money, it often comes in the same breath in which they talk about taking care of family, employees, customers and other beneficiaries of their success.

For instance, Michelle Myers started My Virtual Paige, a company that provides professional services to tree, lawn and landscaping firms, after losing her job and facing financial crisis as a single mother with two young children.

Her company now manages firms across the U.S. and Canada. “We have doubled our business year over year in both 2014 and 2015 and are excited about the growth we continue to see,” she told us.

Success, she says, is “having created a business that supports my family, as I fulfill my primary roles of wife and mother. Continuing to provide at-home jobs for parents. Supporting our amazing clients as they do the hard work in the field each and every day. Allowing all of us to continue to grow.”

Supporting Women’s Success

Women’s multi-faceted view of success may not figure in mainstream-press headlines, business-school textbooks, Shark Tank winners or big-budget biopics. But women entrepreneurs can take comfort in knowing that they’re not the only ones with expansive definitions.

Knowing that “‘I’m part of a broader movement of how business is getting done. I’m not an oddball.’ I think that’s really, really powerful,” says Duffy of Babson.

Validation of “feminine” values and ways of leading can bolster women running businesses, inspire more women to start businesses, and help them plan for and achieve success on their own terms. Lucky for us all, their magnanimous notions of achievement will likely mean that wealth and job creation and economic growth will have ripple benefits for families, communities and the planet.

Banner graphic by Rachel Wilson.

Posted: November 16, 2015

Riva RichmondOur Definitions of Success: Meaning Over Money
  • Shahzadi Tunio

    Our organization (Women Entrepreneurship & Development Organization WEDO) can volunteer survey in Pakistan, if shared the format with us for the continuity

  • Teresa Speight

    Wow. ..this really speaks to me. There are days when I think I need to seriously monetize what I do, but then I would have to decide how that would change my messaging. Great article!