By Michelle Ciotta

PrintMore often than not, female entrepreneurs are looking for, and finding, role models close to home — literally.

When we asked the women business owners involved in our 1,000 Stories project to name their most important role model, 24 percent of our project participants choose their mothers, mothers-in-law or grandmothers. Moms certainly aren’t the only family members our 1,000 Stories women look up to — fathers, parents in general and other relatives are named as key influences by one-fifth of our participant pool.

It’s true that 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, especially women from outside the United States. But even so, many of their non-family role models are accessible personalities, including other women entrepreneurs (13 percent) and other, lower-profile idols.

Accessible role models are important, says Susan G. Duffy, executive director of the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (CWEL) at Babson College, because most women want mentors to help guide them amid day-to-day struggles.

Role models are a “fundamentally part of how women view their potential,” she says. They are key to understanding “what success looks like,” and “getting socialized to what it means to be a woman entrepreneur or an entrepreneur in general.”

The Power of Mom

A breakdown of the role models named by our 1,000 Stories project participants.
A breakdown of the role models named by our 1,000 Stories project participants.

Mothers and grandmothers are the most cited role models in the U.S. across all age ranges, save the most senior female entrepreneurs among 1,000 Stories participants. Indeed, the younger the entrepreneur, the more likely she was to name a mother figure in her life as her inspiration.

Some 28 percent of participants aged 30 and younger, and 26 percent of those in the 31-to-40 range, name a woman family member or matriarch as their role model. Compare that to the mere 11 percent of women business owners aged 61 and older who did so — women whose matriarchs were likely less active in the workforce and public sphere.

We’ve seen this pattern in other projects we’ve pursued. Women we considered for our list of Young Women to Watch, for business owners aged 35 and under, often name their mothers in this context — many of whom turned out to be entrepreneurs themselves. Meanwhile, applicants to our Power List of outstanding female entrepreneurs aged 35 to 55 also list maternal women in their lives as influencers, though in fewer numbers.

Young women’s nearby female role models are expanding now, too. “We’re just starting to have a generation of young women that can look around at their babysitters or their neighbor’s mother, or whoever, and say, ‘Oh she doesn’t only work, she owns her own company,’” Duffy says. “And that begins to shift things.”

Two New York City beauty business owners — Lisa Price and Yve-Car Momperousse — certainly took their cues from their mothers. Price is the founder and owner of Carol’s Daughter, a line of natural care products named for her late mother.

In her 1,000 Stories submission, Price says: “Even though she has been gone for [over] 10 years now, I know that how she lived her life is the right way to be. I make life decisions through that filter, and I always want to know that she would not only be proud of me but respect and understand my choices and my decisions.”

Momperousse of Kreyol Essence also says her mother, who is also an entrepreneur, is a direct influence, especially in tough times.

Her eco-friendly luxury beauty business uses natural resources from Haiti, where Momperousse’s family originates. When an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, it was her mother who encouraged her to keep moving forward with her work.

Yve-Car Momperousse.
Yve-Car Momperousse of Kreyol Essence

She recalled in her submission: “My mother said, ‘Now more than ever, our people will need jobs and a way to be self-sufficient. Do not be overly emotional. Be sensible about what is the long-term benefit of the contribution you can make. Continue to build your business.'”

Today, Kreyol Essence has sold over 20,000 units, and between the U.S. and Haiti, it employs 75 people (not including 230 farmers with whom it has contracts). The business recently opened up a production facility and is gearing up to plant its own ricinus,the plant that castor oil comes from, in an effort coordinated with the Richard Branson and Clinton Foundations.

Momperousse is also in talks with retailers like Whole Foods and Walmart to take Kreyol Essence into stores. Through it all, her mother has been a key support. “My mom has been with me throughout the whole journey. We don’t talk every day, and we often disagree, but she continues to inspire me. And when she sees me faltering, or veering away from the course, she aligns me,” she says.

More Inspiration From Nearby

Parents together and other relatives were named by 20 percent of participant entrepreneurs, including Ramona Fantini, founder of Pino Gelato.

Both her parents “gave me the love, support and encouragement from the beginning, which has shaped the person I am today,” she told us in her 1,000 Stories submission. “They are responsible for instilling within me the need to constantly challenge myself and raise my bar, all the time remembering to give thanks.”

When we spoke with Fantini recently, she said that her father, now deceased, was an especially influential force in her life. She’s not alone — fathers are a key role model named by 9 percent of our 1,000 Stories women. Outside of the U.S., fathers are even more influential, cited by 14 percent of project participants.

And the number of familial role models available to up-and-coming entrepreneurs seems to be increasing over time. Count Me In, a nonprofit that works with American Express OPEN, found that younger American women business owners have more access to familial entrepreneurs than their older counterparts.

Of her father, Fantini says, “His work ethic filtered through me. He never missed a day, he always gave 150 percent and he was loyal. There was pride in everything that he did,” she says. “Whatever I do has to be the best that I can do it. And I take tremendous pride in my accomplishments.”

As she should. Today, Pino Gelato has five locations throughout the eastern U.S., and Fantini aims to open up more next year. The company employs up to 40 people, depending on the time of year, and pulled in $2.14 million in revenue in 2014.

Ramona Fantini.
Ramona Fantini, founder of Pino Gelato

Fantini, who remains close with her 84-year-old mother, still largely credits her parents for her success. “They taught me in what I think is the best way to learn: by example,” she says.

Celebrities and Other Icons

For many women residing and starting up businesses abroad, such exemplary figures are more likely found in celebrities and other famous personalities (24 percent). Fathers, parental units and grandparents combined came in second place (23 percent), while mothers and mothers-in-law came in third at 19 percent.

Beyond those geographic differences, the lower echelons of the role-model list were relatively consistent, both here and abroad. Female executives (13 percent globally), respected industry figures (8 percent), and partners, children and grandchildren (6 percent) consistently followed older family members and celebrities for all women business owners who took part.

Rounding out the list were mentors, business partners, friends and themselves, for a combined 8 percent overall.

Changing Role Models

The answers of our U.S. and younger project participants show that role models for female entrepreneurs are changing. Feminist movements over the past half a century have led to an influx of working women the world over, especially in the U.S., where younger generations of women have an ever larger pool of career-oriented women in their families to emulate.

This shift is happening in many other countries now, too. According to the 2012 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Women’s Report from Babson College and the London Business School, women were able to find and connect with other female business owners almost 60 percent of the time in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 41 percent of the time in developing parts of Asia.

Celebrities will always have their allure, but accessible role models are crucial, especially as the role of women in the workplace changes around the world. While big players can impact millions of fans and admirers, women who have strong role models nearby will often turn toward them instead to find a deeper, more personal connection.

In the meantime, the key is to have role models who can provide vital inspiration. “We know that we’re all influenced by what we see around us,” says Babson’s Duffy. “So when we see images of what success looks like through popular culture, through our families, through our education systems, and media, which is part of popular culture, we reinforce that this is what entrepreneurs look like, that this is what leadership looks like, that this is what women look like.”

Banner graphic by Michelle Ciotta.