Breaking Through: Harnessing the Economic Potential of Women Entrepreneurs

This Spring, The Center for an Urban Future published a comprehensive report outlining the economic power of women entrepreneurs in New York City. According to the report, between 2002 and 2012 “women-owned businesses grew by 65 percent or 45 new businesses every day, adding more than 56,000 jobs and $3 billion in payroll to the city’s economy…Yet, women-run firms account for only 40 percent of privately owned businesses in the city, only 21 percent of firms with paid employees, just 17.5 percent of all private sector employees and only 13 percent of annual private business revenues. Moreover, the number of women-run firms in New York is growing at a slower rate than many other large cities.”  

In a symposium hosted by The Center for an Urban Future and CapitalOne’s Future Edge Initiatives, key stakeholders from New York City’s public and private sectors including entrepreneurs, investors, and local government officials, gathered at The Greene Space at WNYC & WQXR to discuss in detail the economic impact of women's entrepreneurship and how to support the growth of more female-founded companies and individual women entrepreneurs. Alicia Glen, Deputy Mayor, City of New York opened the forum with a candid and inspiring keynote speech calling out the need for businesses and government organizations to recognize the power women bring to the table. Following Ms. Glen’s keynote were two panels discussing the power and potential of women in entrepreneurship and how to boost women’s representation in NYC’s growing tech and startup sector. 

From left to right: Erin Andrew, Director, US Small Business Administration's Office of Women's Business Ownership; Monique Greenwood, Owner & CEO, Akwaaba; Laurie Fabiano, President, Tory Burch Foundation; Andrea Jung, President & CEO, Grameen America; Gregg Bishop, Commissioner, NYC Department of Small Business Services; Lexy Funk, Co-Founder & CEO, Brooklyn Industries; Jonathan Bowles, Executive Director, Center for an Urban Future.

From left to right: Erin Andrew, Director, US Small Business Administration's Office of Women's Business Ownership; Monique Greenwood, Owner & CEO, Akwaaba; Laurie Fabiano, President, Tory Burch Foundation; Andrea Jung, President & CEO, Grameen America; Gregg Bishop, Commissioner, NYC Department of Small Business Services; Lexy Funk, Co-Founder & CEO, Brooklyn Industries; Jonathan Bowles, Executive Director, Center for an Urban Future.

Throughout the panels and conversations, common themes arose including the role culture plays in entrepreneurship, underrepresentation of women on boards and in executive leadership positions, and the need for a community rooted in mentorship. In an attempt to provide actionable steps in the wake of the inspiring event, I’ve organized key takeaways into three sections: The Role of Women, The Role of the Community, and The Role of Men.

The Role of Women

The forum opened with an echo of the sentiment that women bear a great deal of responsibility in our underrepresentation in business and entrepreneurship. I agree to an extent—which is why I have included the role of women in these key takeaways. Before you can lean in, you have to stand up and rise. Women, we absolutely must acknowledge and unapologetically own our power and influence both as individuals and as a collective.

We are less likely to negotiate salaries when accepting job offers. As entrepreneurs, we are more likely to undervalue the growth and financial potential of our ventures. An anecdote from the forum outlined that when women pitch their companies to investment groups, they pitch the business in its current iteration—they pitch where there business is right now. However, when men pitch their companies, they pitch the potential of their business. Women must learn how to craft an enticing pitch that resonates with an investor's long-term vision and not simply report on where your company stands today. 

Additionally, while the value of community and mentorship cannot be overstated for any entrepreneur, it’s exponentially more important for women entrepreneurs to find connection and mentorship. Women face unique challenges in starting their businesses. Consider the fact that in a young, upwardly mobile family of four with two working parents: the woman is still expected to carry the brunt of household roles and responsibilities. It’s mothers who are called at the office when their child is sick at school—not the fathers. And it’s not just women who are married or mothers who face these challenges. Women are overwhelmingly looked at to handle familial issues including caring for aging parents or family members with deteriorating health. 

It’s important to build a community of those who you can relate to, who can offer real, constructive guidance and feedback. Connecting with someone who can not only provide valuable business knowledge or transformative introductions, but who also just “gets it”, is powerful. Find your community. Just last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio launched WEnyc (Women Entrepreneurs NYC), an initiative based out of the New York City Department of Small Business Services that is dedicate to helping women start and grow their businesses. WEnyc stands to be a great launching pad for women looking to connect with other women entrepreneurs.  

The Role of the Community

For the sake of this post, I use the term community as an all-encompassing term describing the public and private sectors including existing businesses, investment groups, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies. 

Overall, women-led companies have received only 7% of all venture capital funding in the United States. In a recent study led by Alison Wood Brooks, researchers found that when it comes to investments, though the content of the pitches was identical, only 32% of those pitched by a woman was funded as compared to 68% of those pitched by men. Firstly it’s important for the community at large to acknowledge and recognize its own unconscious bias. Know that there is a very real issue that goes beyond a “talent pipeline problem.” We need angel investors and venture capitalists to invest in female-founded companies and we need the private and public sector to create investment funds that support and develop female-founded businesses. Access to capital is key and we must make sure that women have access to capital in the way that men do.

Perhaps by putting more women in board, partnership, and leadership positions will help overcome some of these cultural biases. “The wife test” is common among major investors who are pitched opportunities with a major female consumer base: venture capitalists (who are overwhelmingly male) will go home and ask their wives to provide their opinions on various products. Perhaps if there were women in the room at the time of the pitch who had actual (and not perceived) influence over investment decisions, we could do away with this antiquated trope. We need the community to stop making excuses and learn to be better recruiters of diverse talent and we need our community to take an active role in educating and developing a pool of diverse talent. Essentially, if you cannot find qualified, competent talent, try harder. 

Understand that women-founded businesses have different needs and be willing to provide that infrastructure. I’m a member of New York based coworking giant, WeWork and in touring their Chelsea HQ, I was impressed by the comfortable seating options, private phone booths, and even quiet rooms where one can nap or spend a few moments in meditation. But what if I were a mother? Where’s the nursing room? There’s a “jam room” complete with musical instruments and sound-proof walls. There’s a full-time barista and the requisite ping-pong tables, but where’s the childcare? [UPDATE: The recently opened WeWork location in Williamsburg, Brooklyn does in fact feature a space for new mothers.]

At first glance one might suggest that mother entrepreneurs (or the unfortunately nicknamed “mompreneurs”) aren’t really WeWork’s target demographic. To that suggestion I would recommend they take a look at Amber Venz Box, co-founder of RewardStyle and LikeToKnowIt which are valued at $290 million. The twenty-something entrepreneur is smart, stylish, and has a very keen understanding of a profitable population that most large agencies are still trying to wrap their minds around: professional bloggers and social media influencers. She’s also a new mother. 

It’s time to think of women as a powerful asset to the overall equation and not simply a niche. Create environments that support diversity and inclusivity of all types of entrepreneurs.

From left to right: Brooke Moreland, Co-Founder & COO, Jewelbots; Susan Lyne, Founder & President, BBG Ventures; Nicole Hamilton, Founder & CEO, Tactile Finance; Jalak Jobanputra, Founder & Managing Director, Future/Perfect Ventures, Board Member, Center for an Urban Future; Judy Messina, Journalist, Author, Center for an Urban Future's 'Breaking Through' Report. 

From left to right: Brooke Moreland, Co-Founder & COO, Jewelbots; Susan Lyne, Founder & President, BBG Ventures; Nicole Hamilton, Founder & CEO, Tactile Finance; Jalak Jobanputra, Founder & Managing Director, Future/Perfect Ventures, Board Member, Center for an Urban Future; Judy Messina, Journalist, Author, Center for an Urban Future's 'Breaking Through' Report. 

The Role of Men

Men, you play a part in this as well. Every movement needs allies—and make no mistake, this is a movement: it requires a shift in our collective consciousness and radical steps to change our current trajectory. Men, educate yourselves on the power that women bring to businesses and the economy in general. Understand that the underrepresentation of women in entrepreneurship and the inequity in our access to capital is not just a problem for us, but that it is also a problem for you. Know the power of your privilege and influence and use that to highlight the need to increase diversity in board memberships, partnerships, and executive leadership positions. 

Be aware of your own unconscious biases and cultural conditioning and how that might affect the empowerment and growth of your female colleagues and thus, your business as a whole. If you’re an entrepreneur or building a business, hire women from the beginning. Company culture is created at inception, and the sooner you incorporate women, the easier it is to continue a culture of diversity and inclusivity. Mentor women entrepreneurs. Help develop their skills and make introductions that can spark a catalytic moment in the future of their business. 

And finally, but perhaps most importantly, stop interrupting us.


Meditation as a tool for innovation: Dallas entrepreneurs embrace daily practice

What do entrepreneurs Russell Simmons, Arianna Huffington, and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff have in common? Besides their obvious business acumen, these entrepreneurs and media moguls all count meditation as a key to their success and well being. Every year millions of Americans resolve to take better care of their health, and thanks to changing perceptions regarding mental health and wellness, many of us are taking a more holistic approach to our health—starting with our minds.

You’d have to be living under a rock (or buried in emails) to ignore the rise of meditation in business and mainstream culture. From Entrepreneur to the Harvard Business Review and everywhere in between, it appears the startup train has entered the meditation station. Udemy, the online learning platform even has a dedicated Meditation for Entrepreneurs course “helping entrepreneurs focus, become more balanced, and live happier lives—one breath at a time.”

“Meditation has made me a more centered and balanced person, providing me with a calmer mind to help tackle the challenges of being a entrepreneur,” said Robert Andrews, Vice President ofBreathalEyes, a startup that allows users to test blood alcohol levels using an app on their smartphone.

So, what exactly is meditation?
Meditation is a practice in which you quiet the mind in order to reflect, achieve higher consciousness, or achieve some kind of mental clarity. In essence, its the practice of sitting quietly and doing nothing—the polar opposite of daily life as an entrepreneur or anyone working at a startup. While meditation has gained popularity in the U.S., shifting from a subculture practice beloved by new-age hippies to a well-regarded tool for thought-leaders and influencers, meditation has been around for thousands of years. The practice of meditation is as vast and diverse as it is venerable.

“If you’ve got a killer case of active mind or ADD, which so many entrepreneurs so often do, it enables you to channel that energy into the right buckets. Perhaps even more importantly, you’ll learn when to use your mental energy and how,” Molly Cain, Executive Director of Tech Wildcatterssaid of her daily meditation practice.

There are many types of meditation, each with its own unique approach and intentions including zen, Japa/mantra, kundalini, and transcendental meditation among many others. Meditation on its own isn’t a religion or specific spiritual practice, rather a “precise technique for resting the mind..it is a science, which means that the process of meditation follows a particular order, has definite principles, and produces results that can be verified,” Yoga International states.

“I started meditating about 18-24 months ago, and have seen successively greater benefits from the practice,” said Maximillian Wall, CEO and co-founder of Dallas Urban Farms. Wall practices Japa—or mantra meditation, harnessing the power of intonation to clear his mind. “Meditation has expanded my awareness of my self, personally and in business. Business is only one iteration of life, but meditation absolutely transforms them all, across the board,” he added.

One of the more popular forms of meditation—particularly for entrepreneurs, is mindfulness meditation. According to Psychology Today, “mindfulness meditation is unique in that it is not directed toward getting us to be different from how we already are. Instead, it helps us become aware of what is already true moment by moment.”

“I’ve been meditating for over three years almost daily. The best thing that I’ve ever done for myself,” Jeannette Cajide, Dialexa VP of Corporate Development said. Mari Mergerson, co-founder of Dangle, MBA student, and mother of a one-year old also incorporates meditation into her daily routine. “My plate is constantly full,” she said, adding that meditation helps her to be present, prepared, and creative. “At night, I am able to reflect and accept my day’s experiences, which I feel has helped me grow and be more creative throughout this journey,” Mergerson explained.

Aside from mental clarity and increased creativity, meditation also has links to real physical health benefits.

“Meditation isn’t a cure-all for our health issues, but there is growing evidence that dedicating more time to mindfulness and relaxation can make significant improvements in overall well-being,” Rachel Winstead, a Dallas-based creative marketing strategist explained on the blog for Soap Hope, a Deep Ellum-based startup in the natural health and beauty space. Benefits like lower blood pressure, better memory, and treatment for depression and anxiety are among the key reasons why more Americans are making daily meditation part of their routines.

How does one meditate?
One of the most appealing things about meditation is its accessibility—you can meditate anywhere. Popular apps like Headspace bring guided meditation to your smartphone, limiting the intimidation factor of starting a practice on your own.

For those who prefer the connection and learning opportunities of a group, places like the Dallas Meditation CenterDallas Shambhala Meditation Center, and the Kadampa Meditation Center of Texas offer workshops, courses, and retreats. As meditation becomes more mainstream, there will be no shortage of entrepreneurial opportunities for bringing the practice to new audiences. Sleek, spa-like meditation centers are already common in places like Los Angeles and New York and it’s only a matter of time before we see Dallas sprinkled with boutique meditation centers like Greenwich Village’s MNDFL.

Katie Jo Whisenant, associate at commercial real estate firm Alt + Co and co-founder of their subsidiary Alt+Co LAUNCH which focuses on startups, has a client with plans to open a meditation center in the Turtle Creek area of Uptown Dallas soon. A weekly mindfulness meditation series hosted by Katie Troutman launches next week at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.

*this post originally appeared on Launch DFW

Everything I know about startups, I learned from Mad Men.

I know it seems like a stretch to compare a show that highlights the advertising industry in the 1960s with the innovative world of startups, but when you look past the smoke, misogyny, and general tomfoolery, Mad Men can teach us a lot about startups and entrepreneurship.

In honor of one of the greatest shows in television history, here are some startup life lessons from the team at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

You have to ask for what you want.

No one is just going to give you what you want, you have to ask for it and work your tail off to achieve it. Peggy Olson learned quickly that anything she wanted at Sterling Cooper, she had to ask for it. From her own office to a raise, she asked for just about everything. Sometimes the answer was “no” and sometimes it was “not right now”, but she still had to ask. Know your worth (or your company’s worth), prove yourself, be assertive and ask for what you want. You know who never asked for anything? Harry Crane, and he silenced himself out of a major exit and a bunch of money.

Learn the art of storytelling.

There’s a good pitch, and there’s a Don Draper pitch. No one could pitch like Don — except, arguably, Peggy, and what they did in every amazing pitch was tell a story. It doesn’t matter what you’re selling (remember the Heinz baked beans pitch?), do it with everything you have. And practice, practice, and practice some more. The best storytellers rehearse and the killer creative team at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are no exception.

Hire women.

Peggy Olson played an instrumental role in the transformation of the agency when she started writing copy in season one. It seems foolish today to think that an agency would try to sell products to women without even consulting one, and yet this happens all of the time. Jessica Alba, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of The Honest Company shared the story of the early days in her company during a keynote at SXSWi. In the discussion, she highlighted the doors that were shut in her face because the group of all male investors just “didn’t get it”. It wasn’t until their wives became pregnant that they understood the value of a company like hers. Unfortunately stories like this happen all the time, but folks are steadily catching on that including women on your team is a solid business move.

Be so good they can’t ignore you.

At the end of the first part of season 7 (thanks in part to some creative problem solving courtesy of Roger Sterling and the stellar reputation of the agency’s creative team) Sterling Cooper was primed for acquisition by advertising giant McCann Erickson. When the guys back at Sterling Cooper asked Roger why McCann would want to acquire them, Roger says “because we became so much of a threat they wanted to neutralize it with cash”. And that was a great place to be considering another deal was on the table that could end the agency entirely.

Always be innovating.

Don’t rest on your laurels. Sterling Cooper’s bread and butter was Lucky Strike cigarettes but as the tobacco industry started to decline rapidly, they had to change their game. The agency has been reluctant to embrace technology and time will tell how that affects the fictional advertising agency in Mad Men. But from a historical perspective, we already know what happened to advertising and media industry giants when they failed to innovate (just ask anyone, including this girl, who was looking for a job in advertising circa 2009).

Thoughts on Hiring for Culture

Each year there are topics that dominate the panels at SXSWi. In 2014 it seemed like everyone was talking about millennials or diversity (specifically gender diversity) in technology. While those are areas that still warrant conversation, this year’s panel discussions and presentations seemed to focus heavily on culture in the workplace.

I had the pleasure of attending a session called “Yes We Code: from the Hood to Silicon Valley”. Besides loving the well-crafted title, I was mostly excited that the panel was hosted by Maxine Williams, Facebook’s global director of diversity, and Van Jones, co-founder of Yes We Code. I was looking forward to hearing their thoughts and given the topic, I assumed the session would be filled with diverse groups of people hoping to hear more about how to make our little world more inclusive.

I couldn’t have been more wrong: “Yes We Code” had the lowest attendance of any session I went to during my five days at SXSWi.

While I felt embarrassed for all of those that elected to see Grumpy Cat instead of participating in a nuanced and highly relevant conversation, as an audience member it was a gift. Ms. Williams and Mr. Jones facilitated one of the most interesting, positive, and candid dialogues I’ve ever participated in. The audience was able to ask thoughtful questions and the panelists took every single one—including mine:

“How do we as an industry, reconcile the notion of ‘hiring for culture’ when it becomes a euphemism for hiring people who look and act ‘just like me’?” 

Mr. Jones (who is just as delightful as you would imagine) took a deep breath before replying, “when I hear the phrase ‘hiring for culture’, it’s like nails on a chalkboard.”

Jones added that “hiring for culture” has become one of those phrases that make it easy to overlook potential candidates because they “aren’t a good fit.” And being a “good fit” for a company these days seems to rely more heavily on whether or not you’d hang out with that person after hours than whether or not they are qualified for the job.

There are certainly situations where someone truly may not be a good fit: not everyone is a good fit for a fast-paced work environment of a startup or the quick turnaround times of digital media.

But unfortunately, what happens is saying someone isn’t a good fit becomes an easy out to not hire someone because they are different. This happens time and time again for women, racial and ethnic minorities, and those of lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

To be clear (and before anyone starts blowing up the comments section) I’m not suggesting that you hire people that are difficult to work with or unqualified to meet some sort of diversity quota. Rather, I’m suggesting to not make “hangoutability” a thing.

I’m consistently shocked by how many companies are building products to be used by women with not a single lady on their staff or board. Try listening to a company pitch about a product for pregnant women with a group of investors who are all men over the age of 45—speaking on behalf of women consumers—without rolling your eyes (I tried and failed at this a couple weeks ago). I’ve lost count of how many times people have sent me drafts of advertising material with not a single person of color to be found in any of the imagery involving people.

We need people who are different from us on our teams. We need people who challenge the daily status quo of even the most innovative startups. Hiring someone who is talented, experienced, and different from you is an asset and should be treated as such instead of a burden or trendy human resources initiative.

There are a number of startups across North Texas who are doing an amazing job of hiring for talent and merit—not just for culture. Furthermore, there are a vast number of organizations who are actively working to level the playing field for those from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

I challenge us all to learn from those paving the way. I challenge all of us to question our intentions behind “hiring for culture” and look at hiring for talent, experience, and skills and then building a strong company culture that values diverse experiences and opinions, and a team where all are valued and contribute to the overall success of the company.