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Talking Back

Recently one of our competitors ran a column that was baffling, anachronistic, contradictory and patronizing to all entrepreneurs.

The column posed the question "Do men and women do entrepreneurship differently?" Hardly an original question, but to be honest, we've asked it, too. In fact, a decade ago when women entrepreneurs were considered first an aberration, then a phenomenon, many struggled to come up with definitions and explanations. But if I've learned anything in the ensuing years, it's that all business owners tend to define themselves first as entrepreneurs and consider their gender secondary to their business pursuits.

The author of the column sees things differently. Why? Well, he met one entrepreneur, Barbara Grogan, who founded a $10 million company--Western Industrial Contractors Inc. in Denver--chairs one of the branches of the Federal Reserve Bank and the Denver Chamber of Commerce, and serves on the boards of several corporations, including a Fortune 500 company. Sound good? Not good enough, apparently, because the author takes the entrepreneur to task for not growing her business to $100 million. Grogan is somehow a deviant entrepreneur because she made a choice to keep her business in its current debt- and mortgage-free state.

But the author provides Grogan an out. It's not really her fault, he says; it's her genetic destiny. Let me quote: "Throughout history women have been nest builders . . . " Oh, and yes, we also talk more than men. Apparently these tendencies were imprinted on women long ago when, according to the author, men were out hunting for critters to eat and women were "back at the cave, jabbering all day to their children."

Now, I don't want to mislead you; the author doesn't claim that nest-building is a necessary business evil. But for some unknown or unclear reason, it just doesn't work for entrepreneurs. No, in the author's entrepreneurial future, "we'll still see hunter men, taking big risks and creating empires, while most entrepreneurial women are content to emulate Barbara."

What world does this man dwell in? I know a lot of male entrepreneurs who would be very happy to be like Barbara. It's the '90s--the 1990s--and real men actually admit to enjoying their family time. But more relevantly, has the author heard of Estee Lauder, Muriel Siebert, Mary Kay Ash, Lillian Vernon or Marcy Carsey? Despite their jabbering genes, these women managed to create empires.

Or how about those (Silicon) Valley "girls"? Sandy Lerner co-founded Cisco Systems Inc. and, with her partner, pocketed $170 million when she left. Last year, Kim Polese co-founded Marimba Inc. of Palo Alto, California (she's now president and CEO), where she's creating Internet software.

Are these women mutants? Has their genetic code betrayed them? Or is this a sign of the times? I would like to remind anyone who buys into this hunter/jabberer propaganda that women have only recently been "allowed" entry into the entrepreneurial ballpark. Sure, some (the aforementioned legends, for instance) set an early pace. But for most women, running a business wasn't an option until the late '80s. And since that time, not only have women started at least twice as many businesses as men, but their success rates are higher.

Does that mean women make better entrepreneurs than men? No, that's as ridiculous an assertion as the one the article's author makes. Entrepreneurs are individuals. And they succeed or fail on the merits of their ideas, ethics and attitudes--not on whether they have one or two X chromosomes.

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This article was originally published in the November 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Talking Back.

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