Where Are The Riot Grrls?

Times are better than ever for entrepreneurial women. So why aren't more of them in your face?
Magazine Contributor
13 min read

This story appears in the December 1999 issue of . Subscribe »

The entrepreneurial boys are everywhere--smart, shrewd, mega-rich and so unnaturally young, you wonder if you'll ever see gray hair on the cover of a business magazine again. Billionaires just seem to get greener and greener. Yet, with startlingly few exceptions, they don't seem to get much more female.

Most of us can name at least half a dozen men under 40 who have made walloping millions. But the number of similarly high-profile young entrepreneurial women is disarmingly small. For entrepreneurial women, the analogy goes something like this: Overexposed: Michael Dell. Underdeveloped: Your Name Here.

On the other hand, this is hardly a bad time to be an entrepreneurial woman. In terms of sheer numbers, women business owners are more powerful than ever before. The National Foundation for Women Business Owners in Silver Spring, Maryland, reports that the number of women-owned businesses has more than doubled in the past 12 years, to 9.1 million firms. Women-owned companies represent 38 percent of all U.S. businesses and account for a healthy $3.6 trillion in annual sales.

Also healthy: attitudes among young women entrepreneurs, who aren't weighted down by fear or discrimination. Where baby boomer women rose up against traditional barriers to success, today's post-feminist generation barely acknowledges them. In fact, Brenda Do, 29-year-old co-founder of Rock Solid Products Inc., a plastics manufacturer in Reno, Nevada, says being an Asian-American woman may have helped her first company, an e-commerce start-up, secure financing. "The bank told us they were eager to work with companies that weren't headed by middle-aged white guys," says Do, who expects Rock Solid's sales to hit $800,000 this year.

Jennifer Hodges, 30-year-old founder of San Juan Capistrano, California, Hero Nutritional Products and creator of the top-selling Yummi Bears line of children's nutritional supplements, also sees no handicap in being a woman. "Too many women approach business with a huge fear of competing with men," says Hodges. "I grew up in a family that told me anything was achievable. For me, being a woman has never been a disadvantage."

"What these women are saying is that they don't want to be viewed as successful women, but rather as successful people," says psychologist Dr. Sylvia Rimm, whose book See Jane Win (Crown Publishers, $25, 800-795-7466) tracks the childhood and young adult experiences and attitudes of 1,000 successful women. "They no longer view themselves as pioneers [for being in nontraditional fields like entrepreneurship], even when they are. They're concentrating on accomplishing what they're trying to accomplish, not on trying to change the world."

Is this progress? Certainly. Compared to the bad old days--when the most impressive entrepreneurial woman couldn't secure a bank loan without bringing her husband along to cosign--being able to take care of business without viewing yourself as a poster child for the feminist cause is an absolute breakthrough.

Freelance writer Gayle Sato Stodder (gsato@pacificnet.net) is co-author of Entrepreneur Magazine's Young Millionaires (Entrepreneur Media Inc., $14.95, https://www.entrepreneur.com).

The Tech Gap

But is the playing field level? Not exactly. In fact, women and men aren't always playing the same game. New York City entrepreneur Aliza Sherman, 31, who launched the women's Web site Cybergrrl (http://www.cybergrrl.com) in 1995, sees technology as a major dividing line between the sexes.

"We describe our site as `Community, content and resources for women who want to transform their lives through technology,' " says Sherman, whose sales at Cybergrrl Inc. doubled last year. "That's significant, because women are not as [prominent] in the technology business as men are." Yet technology--notably the Net--is precisely where young entrepreneurs are making big bucks in a hurry.

Rimm sees this technological deficit as a wide-ranging challenge--one with its roots set deep in our culture. "It goes back to basic math skills," says Rimm. "Traditionally, girls in our society don't think of themselves as being good at math and science." Yet math and science are the basis for many of today's most lucrative entrepreneurial areas--whether in high-tech, biotech or plain old business. "Without fundamental math skills, it can be very difficult to function in the business world," says Rimm.

Of course, entrepreneurial women--lots of 'em--overcome the math hurdle every day. Some never even feel the stretch. It's just possible that many more women who could be business and technological geniuses never even give it a shot. The result: an inexplicable thinning of the herd. Says Sherman: "I actively seek out other women entrepreneurs my age, but there aren't that many at my level."

The Big Picture

Technology isn't the only trend shaping women-owned businesses. "Women-owned companies, on average, are smaller than firms owned by men," says Elizabeth Gatewood, director of the Johnson Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Indiana University in Bloomington. "One reason may be that women tend to own service businesses," which are less capital-intensive.

Another potentially limiting factor is motive. "When we looked at the reasons people started businesses, women were more likely to cite internal reasons: `I've always wanted to have my own business,' or `I think I have the right skills,' " says Gatewood. "Men were more likely to cite external reasons, [such as] identifying a need in the market or an unmet consumer demand."

As a result, women were no less successful at starting and maintaining businesses. "But if women are paying less attention to market demand, they may be limiting the growth of their companies at some point," observes Gatewood.

Societal pressures may also play a role. Says Rimm: "We still tend to protect girls from competition; we protect them from losing. And in doing so, we take away from them the chance to develop the courage to take risks. Instead, we encourage perfectionism," which can be paralyzing in business.

Finally, women are subjected to a panoply of life concerns that make the single-minded pursuit of career success difficult. "Women's spotlights tend to be clouded by the need to be pretty and attractive to men," says Rimm. It begins in middle school and continues throughout a woman's life. No one expects Bill Gates to look like a supermodel. With women, looks are almost always an issue.

More serious factors weigh in as well. Balancing career and family remains a key challenge for working women. But then, so does the need to balance one's primary work with "outside" interests--creative endeavors, community work, spiritual issues. The popular theory that men's brains function differently--that the male brain is singular in focus while the female brain is multitasking--only reinforces what years of socialization have brought to bear. Men are raised to focus laser-like on their careers. Women, it might be said, take the wide-angle view.

Grrl Power

Now for a little backpedaling. If all these factors conspire to keep women entrepreneurs out of the public spotlight--or at least a little to the left of center stage--they do not prevent women from setting lofty goals, getting their brains in gear, working like dervishes in overdrive and flourishing on their own terms. Many, like Evette White, are succeeding well beyond their early expectations.

White, 34, bought Image III, a Nashville advertising agency with sales now approaching $6 million, in 1994. She was already a veteran at both entrepreneurship and design, having started her own graphics business in 1983, just out of high school. Still, "It was not my goal [when I started] to be where I am today," White says. "Getting [past] the $5 million level has been incredible."

In the universe of Jeff Bezos and Jerry Yang, passing $5 million may not seem like much. But for White, who has built her business brick by brick--and without the benefit of a zillion-dollar IPO--it's a huge accomplishment.

Hodges is another example of surpassed expectations. She started Hero Nutritional Products in 1994 out of her parents' garage. Though she absolutely believed in her product--a line of all-natural children's vitamins and nutritional supplements that look and taste like Gummi Bear candies--she did not foresee the velocity with which they'd take off. "The product hit the stores in November 1996," Hodges recalls. "By November 1997, we were the number-one- selling children's vitamin supplement [in the health-food market]." Sales for 1999 well exceeded $1 million.

Hodges' ultimate goal: to build an empire. "I want [us] to be the largest nutraceutical company in the world," she asserts. "We're on the ground floor of this trend, and I don't see any limit to what we can accomplish."

Veena Rao is equally ambitious. At 28, Rao is the brains behind 5-year-old Veena & Co., a North Bethesda, Maryland, sports-marketing and special-events business that boasts two dozen high-profile clients (including NBA star Christian Laetner). Rao admits she's already accomplished more than might be reasonably expected in five years: She is a young woman succeeding in a notoriously competitive field. But she also pronounces, with absolute confidence, that she intends to build Veena & Co. into the premier sports-marketing firm in the country.

Rao isn't crazy about being reminded that she's beating the odds. "When I started this company, I didn't know if what I was attempting would work. No one had created a company with our range of services before," she says. "But I had reason to think it might work. And once I got started, there was no way I wasn't going to make it work. That's what a lot of people don't count on. You become so invested in your own business that you do what it takes." Just the kind of attitude that makes talk about gender bias, negative socialization and feminine life challenges seem like so much blah, blah, blah.

Get Your Ego Out

And still, it's a puzzle. There's no shortage of young women starting businesses. And no shortage of success stories, either. But when you roam the popular consciousness, it's all about young entrepreneurial guys. "I'll celebrate the day when 38 percent of the business owners interviewed for every article are women," says Sharon Hadary, executive director of NFWBO. "That would be an accurate representation of reality." Yet, apparently, this remains an elusive goal.

If, indeed, it is a goal at all. "I don't want to become an icon," says Brenda Do. "It's not my goal to have my face on a magazine cover. This is not about the accolades."

Nor is it all about money. White, whose ad agency has already begun the sprint from $5 million to $10 million in annual billings, isn't interested in the unbridled pursuit of growth. She is interested in doing a good job. "When I can make a difference in my clients' businesses, then I know I've accomplished something," she says. "In fact, as my clients grow, I have no choice but to grow."

Meanwhile, White is determined to maintain some perspective. Yes, she has a thriving business, but she also has a life. And a family--a husband and three school-age children. Success for her is measured not by the ascending line of upward sales, but by an ever-widening circle of gains and triumphs. "I'm just as proud of being part of the volunteer program at my children's school as I am of anything I've done in business," she says. "That's an accomplishment, too."

Cover This

In fact it is. It is not, perhaps, the kind of accomplishment that bestows celebrity. But then, that's celebrity's problem.

You can look at the magazines in the business section of your favorite newsstand and ask: Where are the riot grrls? How is it that women still have not come far enough to achieve parity? Why are women not taking the business world by storm? Why don't they do what it takes to hop that final hurdle?

Or you can flip the question around and ask what the rest of the world isn't getting about young entrepreneurial women. At last, here is a generation of businesswomen unbroken by discrimination, undeterred by competition, no longer bound by tradition. Will they succeed by traditional standards? Undoubtedly, some will. Some already have. But this generation will also succeed by its own standards, which are more diverse and intricate than money and fame.

These are the riot grrls. Whether we learn to recognize--and celebrate--their achievements will be a measure of our worth, not just theirs.

Lots To Learn

In a recent Gallup Organization survey of 1,000 men and women between the ages of 14 and 19, Dr. Marilyn Kourilsky of the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Missouri, found that a majority of young women had an interest in entrepreneurship, but relatively few knew how to actually run a business:

  • 6 in 10 women polled (62 percent) were interested in starting their own businesses, compared to 7 in 10 of the men (72 percent).
  • Only 16 percent of female respondents rated their knowledge and understanding of running a business as good or excellent; 84 percent rated their knowledge as fair to poor.
  • A full 65 percent of female respondents thought it was "very important" for businesses to give back to their communities. Only 2 percent said this was "not at all important."

Driving Forces

A 1998 study by the National Foundation for Women Business Owners, sponsored by Salomon Smith Barney, found that motivations have shifted for today's new entrepreneurial women. Slightly more than half (51 percent) of women who started businesses in the 1970s and earlier were primarily inspired by an entrepreneurial idea, compared to 35 percent of women who've started up in the past 10 years. Meanwhile, 46 percent of newcomers cite being unchallenged, downsized or subjected to "glass ceiling" issues in corporate life as key motivators, compared to only 23 percent of the seasoned women entrepreneurs. Here are the specific responses:

Reason For Start-Up

  • Entrepreneurial idea

Time In Business: Fewer than 10 years: 35%; 10-19 years: 48%; 20+ years: 51%

  • Glass ceiling

Time In Business: Fewer than 10 years: 22%; 10-19 years: 15%; 20+ years: 9%

  • Unchallenged

Time In Business: Fewer than 10 years: 14%; 10-19 years: 10%; 20+ years: 8%

  • "Fell into it"

Time In Business: Fewer than 10 years: 10%; 10-19 years: 11%; 20+ years: 14%

  • Downsized

Time In Business: Fewer than 10 years: 10%; 10-19 years: 10%; 20+ years: 6%

  • Family event

Time In Business: Fewer than 10 years: 5%; 10-19 years: 5%; 20+ years: 7%

  • Born to be

Time In Business: Fewer than 10 years: 3%; 10-19 years: 1%; 20+ years: 2%

  • Re-entry

Time In Business: Fewer than 10 years: 1%; 10-19 years: 1%; 20+ years: 4%

In The Big Leagues

Women-owned firms have long suffered the stereotype of being small, boutique-type businesses and solo enterprises. But that's changing, according to figures from the National Foundation for Women Business Owners. Not only do women own 9.1 million firms in the United States and generate $3.6 trillion in annual sales, but they also employ 27.5 million people. That's a 320 percent jump in employment since 1987.

Contact Sources

Cybergrrl Inc., aps@cgim.com.

Hero Nutritional Products, www.yummibears.com.

Nationals Foundation for Women Business Owners, (301)495-4957.

Rock Solid Products Inc., www.rocksolidproducts.com.

Veena & Co., (301)230-2324, vee32@aol.com

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