We asked the female entrepreneurs who took part in our 1,000 Stories project for their start-up stories. And the most established — those women who have been in business for 6 years or more and have the most employees — almost exclusively say they started their businesses out of a desire to fill a need, solve a problem or fulfill a passion.
Their successes demonstrate the staying power and growth potential for businesses designed with those goals in mind. Indeed, those goals can be vital; businesses often fail because of a lack of market understanding or unique value proposition.
Among the entire pool of women who participated in our project, filling a gap in the marketplace or solving an ongoing problem is the No. 1 reason for starting a business (41 percent). This is not surprising; the 2014 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, a definitive study from our partners at Babson College, has documented this fact as well.
Men, too, are busy chasing opportunity. But there’s an important distinction to be made: The women who participated in our project often highlighted social or philosophical components to their work that extended well beyond a desire to make money.
Susan G. Duffy, executive director of the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (CWEL) at Babson College, calls it “intentional impact, as opposed to coincidental spillover.”
“Whether they’re women entrepreneurs or women in government or women in corporate leadership, they want to make a difference, and so they’re motivated to have an impact on the world beyond profits,” she says.
CWEL research director Amanda Elam has come to similar conclusions. “Male business owners are more focused on the numbers — they want to have the biggest business on the block, and they have a drive for this numerical demonstration of accomplishment and growth,” she says. “With women business owners, they have a strong commitment to their customers, to the quality of their products.”
Elam adds: “Women start businesses not just for themselves — they’re doing it out a of sense of obligation or need to take care of the people around them.”
The Intersection of Need and Heart
Take, for example, serial entrepreneur Jill Blankenship. In 2005, she started her first company, customer-service firm Frontline Call Center, to fill a need for steady jobs in her Orcas Island, Wash., community.
As a tourist destination, work there tends to be seasonal. “Opening Frontline Call Center became a viable business opportunity that could meet the need for steady employment in this rural area with severe location challenges,” she told us.
Ten years later, the company is pulling in $2.1 million in revenue a year. She also started three other tech-centric companies along the way — Ternio, Frontline Services and Coach.Talk.Now — which earn a combined $3.25 million in annual revenue. In all, Blankenship employs 128 full-time staffers.
In an interview, she said, “The call center gave me the ability to run my business from anywhere and to bring in clients from anywhere. It’s a win-win situation, one that has allowed me to grow not only locally, but nationally as well.”
Meanwhile, younger entrepreneurs looking to fill market gaps are often leveraging social networking sites and blogs to build their client bases — entrepreneurs like Jordan Jones of Packed Party LLC in San Francisco.
The idea for her venture — which sells themed care packages full of spa goodies, small books, teas and more as alternatives to flowers or candy — came to her one tough night after moving to the Bay Area from Texas.
“I was on the phone with my mom, and told her I was having a ‘pity party’ for myself. I woke up in the middle of the night with a dream about being able to send individuals themed party packages — like a ‘pity party’ for one,” she wrote. Jones spent the rest of that sleepless night turning her idea into a full-fledged business plan.
Two years later, Packed Party has shipped over 10,000 packages to customers around the world, some as far away as Australia. It also has a significant social media following (Packed Party’s Instagram account alone has over 51,000 followers).
And expansion is in the works; the company is launching jewelry and drinkware lines and moving into retail spaces in the coming months. She declined to disclose her revenue figures, as she is currently negotiating with investors.
Jones attributes her venture’s success to the clarity of its mission, a simple idea that simply hadn’t existed before she came along. “Packed Party has a clear brand,” Jones says. “We grew doing it our own way, by staying true to our vision. It payed off.”
Pursuing Passion and Purpose
A sizable group of respondents cite the pursuit of purpose and meaning (20 percent) or passion (13 percent) as the reason they started up.
Nadine Cino was one of them. She’s the cofounder of a New York office-moving-supplies company, Tyga-Box Systems, and an ardent environmentalist who wanted to save trees. “My idea was prompted by my passion — it flows from an emotional place,” she says.
Cino employs a diverse team of eight full-time employees and one intern. And last year, Tyga-Box earned $1.8 million in revenue. Best of all, it is making an impact. The company’s reusable moving boxes have eliminated over 250 million pounds of cardboard from landfills and saved 25 million trees from being destroyed.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Ciinndey Wong, a health industry veteran in Malaysia promoting healthy tea consumption everywhere, was also motivated by passion when she founded tea purveyor Rhymba Hills.
Wong saw how this natural resource of Malaysia, where she lives, wasn’t selling well in the international marketplace due to poor marketing and packaging. Adding a layer of sophistication to the imagery and patterns on her packages has allowed her to find success where others have not.
While the company is still small, Wong says revenue has grown “in the double digits for the past two years,” and that she is winning customers in the nearby markets of Hong Kong and Singapore.
Life and Money
Given women’s traditional caretaker roles, they are often the ones grappling to balance work and family obligations. However, we found that a surprisingly low number of women in our 1,000 Stories project name achieving work-life balance or work flexibility as the primary reason for starting up (4 percent).
Perhaps even more surprising, economic necessity and the pursuit of financial independence were at the bottom of the list, comprising just 4 percent and 2 percent of responses, respectively.
This may be largely due to the demographic breakdown of our 1,000 Stories women. Many come from relatively affluent backgrounds, and a significant portion have earned advanced degrees (43 percent) — factors that put these women in less needs-based positions.
What This Means for Women Business Owners
Our findings reveal both the creativity and business savvy of women entrepreneurs in identifying niches in which they can make money and grow, while also finding personal fulfillment. Yet there’s definitely room for improvement. The 2015 Gender GEDI shows that European women in particular struggle to spot such business opportunities in the first place.
And though women are a fast-growing contingent of the entrepreneurial world — preliminary data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Business Owners shows women-owned outfits surged 28 percent between 2007 and 2012, adding 2.1 million businesses to the economy, compared to a 2 percent rise for all businesses — they still continue to lag behind men in number.
So, what more could be done to help women start successful businesses? How can we enable women around the world to identify — and then act upon — opportunities within our global marketplace?
Activists at the National Association of Women Business Owners and the National Women’s Business Council, as well as organizations such as Ellevate and Golden Seeds, are hard at work on solutions to the challenges women typically face (for our 1,000 Stories women, those include sales, marketing, cost management and manufacturing). Beyond that, female-focused incubators, regionally focused initiatives and improved access to financial assistance and mentors could also do wonders to help women move onward and upward.
But getting more women to see entrepreneurship as a viable career choice, and helping them find success, is also important. And this requires tapping into what drives and inspires women business owners in the first place.
“Women can compete and they can thrive and they can grow. And, yes, we can expand our notions of what is good enough by this more comprehensive view of why people run businesses,” Duffy says. “Yes, it’s to create wealth. It’s also to create economic impact far beyond our own companies.”
Banner graphic by Rachel Wilson.