For Decades, These Same 3 Issues Have Held Women Entrepreneurs Back. Here's What You Can Do About It.
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Since my book Dive Right In – The Sharks Won’t Bite: The Entrepreneurial Woman’s Guide to Success was published in 1995, I have seen plenty of amazing changes happen for women founders, including an increase in resources, networks and opportunities. I have observed these positive shifts not only in my own work life, but also through mentoring women and being involved in a number of female-focused organizations, such as the National Association of Women Business Owners and the National Women's Business Council.
But despite these positive changes, overall revenues for women-owned businesses have stagnated. In fact, women’s share of revenue has actually decreased from 4.4 percent to 4.2 percent of all U.S. firms since 1997. What’s more, according to the National Association of Women Business Owners, only 4.2 percent of women-owned enterprises ever reaches the million-dollar mark. Why? That’s a tough question to answer, but I suspect that it partially involves various forms of gender bias or stereotyping. We have expectations about how women should think and behave, and how driven they should be when it comes to business, success and money. This bias, on the part of both men and women, has changed little during the past 20 years, although now it can often be more subtle.
But gender bias is not the only roadblock to building a thriving business. Women’s own fears and beliefs often stand in their way to success. Here are three of the personal barriers that continue to plague women and what they can do about it.
One of the biggest problems I saw in the mid ’90s with women wanting to start businesses was their inability to choose one business and focus on it. They would tell me about all the businesses they wanted to launch but kept stalling. At first, I thought this was a commitment issue until I realized that it was a form of perfectionism. Everything had to be perfect before they would officially launch.
Today, I see this in the woman who won’t start a business until she has the perfect name for the company, the woman who won’t delegate tasks because she can do it better herself, or the woman who obsesses over the fact that a client complained about some minor glitch. Yes, the name of your company is important, but don’t let it keep you from launching. And doing everything yourself is a way to get tasks done perfectly, but it’s not the way to build a business. You need employees, partners or outside help in order to grow. And, of course, you want satisfied customers, but don’t let something minor through you off track.
Women often blame themselves for minor imperfections. Don’t do that. You need to fix the problem and move on.
2. Money discomfort
For women, discussing money is often seen as unattractive. When I was growing up, girls were sometimes told, “Don’t worry your pretty little head about that.” I realize that it’s difficult to imagine someone being so politically incorrect today, but there are other ways that girls and women are taught that money is a messy topic and it’s better for them to stay away from it.
Often women internalize this message and act as if money is just too boring or difficult for them to think about. Or worse, the concept of financial success makes them feel guilty. Notice that I wrote “concept,” because I don’t know any woman who is financially independent who feels guilty about it. On the other hand, guilt and discomfort with money impacts business growth in countless ways, from setting fees and prices to controlling cash flow and obtaining financing.
Here’s just one example: A top financial advisor recently told me that, in his experience, men are better than women in defending their numbers when seeking funding. I believed him. His advice to women was to prepare carefully and to completely understand their cash flow projections. But this is impossible if the topic of money bores you, or makes you feel guilty, unattractive or hopelessly ill-at-ease. To succeed, women must overcome their discomfort with money, especially when gender bias on the topic is still alive and well in the business world.
Women have been socialized to be “liked” since time immemorial. Today, we recognize that the need to be liked can stand in the way of our entrepreneurial success. The bottom line is simple: In business, it’s more important to be respected than to be liked, whether dealing with clients, employees, suppliers or other stakeholders. And the good news is that being respected usually means being liked as well.
I suggest that women pay attention to this need in all business interactions, but especially during their sales presentations. Too often women tell me that they did everything they could to charm and please the perspective customer but walked away without a deal. Some women even compared the sales meeting to dating, feeling painfully rejected when they didn’t get the business.
But a sales presentation is not about being liked (although, I admit that it does help). Effective sales is about identifying a customer’s needs and providing solutions to his or her problems. Seeing yourself as a solution-provider is an important step to overcoming the likeability mindset and an essential ingredient in growing your business.
While work still needs to be done, there’s lots of good news for women who want to start and grow their businesses. There are more books, online advice, coaches and business organizations for women entrepreneurs than ever before. But most importantly, we’re finally recognizing that women really do view and run their businesses differently than men and that they need the support of other women to learn and grow. This plays out in women-only networking groups and even in shared workspaces for women. Women feel comfortable supporting and confiding in each other. We understand that this doesn’t put us into a female ghetto. It simply gives us the opportunity to be open -- and to still operate in the broader business world of men and women. We want everyone to enjoy success. So, if entrepreneurship is the path you chose, your chances of success are infinite.