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.