Entrepreneurship is never easy. For everyone who attempts it, there are hurdles galore. In fact, the greater part of succeeding as an entrepreneur is simply learning the skill of obstacle navigation, regardless of the business you’re in. The challenges, however, are not necessarily the same for each individual. Depending on your demographic, you may face challenges—and possess advantages—that others simply don’t. For women, breaking into independent business involves a host of factors that don’t affect men, for better and for worse.
Let’s address the elephant in the room first: I am male. I type this with a fully functioning Y chromosome at my disposal, and I’m not unaware of the irony of our tasking a man to chart the lay of the land for the ladies. However, that’s part of navigating the gender gap—understanding that men and women both have insights to offer each other, even concerning each other’s perspective. My writing this blog while producing testosterone also serves to illustrate what I think is a dearth of female voices in independent business, and my conviction that women entrepreneurs are an underserved market.
I’ve known and worked with many outstanding female entrepreneurs, not the least outstanding of which is my partner in business and life, Nicole (who personally edits this and all my blogs, in case you thought I was doing this all by my manly self). I want to see more women use their unique advantages and break through their unique obstacles, as she does on a daily basis. Hopefully, these few little insights can encourage that:
1. Women entrepreneurs don’t have to cater exclusively to women. One obstacle faced by women entrepreneurs is assumptions, and not just those of men. Often, a woman’s own assumption is that her best chances are with exclusively serving other women. There’s nothing wrong with catering to women or having a feminine brand—unless you’re doing so simply because you don’t think you can cater to both genders, based on your own.
Again, if your product is strictly for the ladies, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What’s bad, though, is when an entrepreneur accepts baseless limitations, or imposes them on herself for fear of an inability to compete. Most of the most successful female entrepreneurs I’ve seen have made unisex products, catering to the fellas as well or better than the fellas themselves do. Marketing expert Dorie Clark, Heroic Public Speaking cofounder Amy Port, Arianna Huffington: none of these women allowed themselves to be boxed into women’s markets, and we’re all better for it.
The reality is that the unisex business world is dominated by men. I don’t think that’s because men are inherently better than women at business. I think it’s because of limits that are imposed on women artificially. Businessmen rarely feel incapable of marketing to women, so why should the opposite be true? And why confine yourself to only ever selling to half the population?
2. Opportunities abound for women entrepreneurs. Related to the first point, there is definitely room for more female entrepreneurs in the market. This is because, again, the artificial limits imposed by sexist assumptions are keeping the supply way behind the demand. The different experience and unique perspective of women is simply something that consumers (and other budding business people) don’t get as much of. It’s a classic case of “who goes first?” With relatively few female mentors and role models to follow, the market needs pioneers. Remember: entrepreneurship is all about solving a problem. If you’re an independent business woman, you can help solve the problem of female underrepresentation. Why not you?
That’s not to say that only women need female leadership. Men need it too. Everyone in business can benefit from as many perspectives as possible—especially the ones that aren’t their own. For that reason, I hope to see more women acting as ambassadors; learning public speaking, taking on leadership roles, and generally putting themselves and their perspective out there.
3. It’s still an uphill climb for women entrepreneurs. This is just a cold, hard reality. While modern society likes to congratulate itself on making progress from the past, true equality of opportunity has not yet arrived—though it’s closer than ever. Regardless of how far the business world has come, a woman will be asked to prove herself more thoroughly, demonstrate greater competence, and work harder than her male counterparts to achieve the same status, pay and respect.
If you’re a woman, your competence and confidence will have to be the twin hammers with which you smash through what’s left of the glass ceiling. I advise every entrepreneur to lead with value, to make substance the basis of their image. That goes double for double X. Don’t hesitate to demonstrate your abilities and tout your successes. Look at the language on your website or in your professional dialogues. Are you underselling yourself? Are you focusing more on how you feel than on what you can do? You’re under no obligation to be submissive, however much it may be expected of you.
4. Many women entrepreneurs have abilities that many men don’t. While we can’t assign a certain skill set to all women, there are some things more common to women than men. Emotional intelligence. Empathy. Emotional endurance. It’s been my experience that our culture has encouraged these abilities less in men, and more in women. Men being subject to irrational and sexist expectations as well, many are underdeveloped in these areas. That’s where women can have a huge advantage, and why the female perspective is so desperately needed in business.
Being a woman in business (especially independent business), is a fundamentally unique experience. For all its disadvantages, the advantages are there. The need for a stronger female influence can be felt across many strata of the business world. I think that’s an opportunity. I hope that down the road, enough women will have seized that opportunity to make blog posts like this one much less relevant.