"I was at a start-up incubator meeting the other day and I was the only woman in the room!" lamented Virginia.
"Would the guys even talk to you?" I asked. "Not that it matters – I find that when I meet male entrepreneurs they usually have pretty useless advice, like 'read this book' as if all the help they ever needed they got out of a book."
This was the brunt of the conversation between two women CEOs. Virginia is 40, working crazy hours at a start-up while I, 44, have just incorporated my medico-legal consulting practice. We ended the conversation by pledging to help each other, and I said I'd introduce her to a corporate coach I met through a legal client - another woman entrepreneur. That's the mentoring Virginia really needs: another CEO who knows how to communicate with and guide other women.
Reading books is fine. I read "Lean in." I read "You're Hired" by Bill Rancic. I just finished "The E Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Business Don't Work and What to Do about It." But the best business advice I ever got wasn't from a book. It was from other small-businesswomen who referred me to clients, suggested book-keepers and accountants, and told me how to avoid costly mistakes. Genuine mentorship. These are women who had an idea, figured out how to fund it, made the connections to promote it. They created businesses which weren’t there before – and now they employ people. These are women who are willing to take a risk.
That is the biggest hurdle for entrepreneurs in general, and for female entrepreneurs in particular: risk. Most of my successful female friends and colleagues are risk-averse. They are the "good girls" who did well in school and listened to their parents and teachers. It starts with the admonitions yelled to us on the playground to "be careful" every time a we climb too high on a play structure, after watching the boys do the same damn thing moments earlier to no reaction. But it also comes from life experience and social pressure. As Sheryl Sandburg discusses in "Lean in," there is a social pressure on women to defer to men and stand back; we are criticized for being too aggressive or pushy if we assert ourselves at work. It gets worse as we age and enter our child-bearing years. Becoming a parent is in itself a professional risk for women, who often have a hard time re-entering the workforce after maternity leave, or who find that time taken for being a stay-at-home mom is not considered valuable experience on a resume despite the long hours and multi-tasking the job requires. When you have kids there is little incentive to leave a cushy corporate or government job with benefits and health insurance to join a start-up and work nights, no matter how promising the venture. Most new business ventures fail.
Why are there no women in higher management? It isn't because we aren't in the workforce in sufficient numbers. It isn't because we aren't leaning in – successful women are leaning in and they still can't seem to climb the corporate ladder to CEO. But that's the problem: it isn't a ladder. Not all CEOs are promoted from within the ranks. Many don't climb the corporate ladder. They start their own companies and declare themselves CEOs.
It comes down to risk. If we are serious about increasing the numbers of women entrepreneurs we have to do something to offset the risk involved, personal and professional. It's not enough to "lean in." We have to encourage women to lead. We have to tackle the issues of child care and health insurance. In general, starting your own business actually increases your flexibility with child care. That's why many women-owned businesses start from home (where the kids are) on the internet, on e-Bay and etsy. As CEO I can make my own hours. I don’t need the approval of my boss or co-workers. But this flexibility has its costs in salary and health insurance. I no longer get paid vacations or "comp time," and I am paying for a high-deductible health plan with a health savings account to cover my entire family while we wait for my state to create a small business exchange this October. If and when it does, I can pool with other small businesses and make a better health plan more affordable for myself and any future employees. Until then, in the absence of single-payer health care like parent-entrepreneurs in other countries enjoy, I am on my own.
So as a small business owner this is my recipe for entrepreneurship that will help women (CEOs and their employees) thrive:
- Subsidized child care with extended hours for small business owners
- Small business insurance risk pools so that one and two-person companies can pool together to get reasonable health insurance rates
- Women-owned business collaboratives, where women can learn from and be introduced to other women entrepreneurs
- Women CEOs who mentor other women publicly and vocally. Who has Sheryl Sandburg mentored? I want to know!
- A venture capital firm that will invest in women-owned businesses with family-friendly business policies that promote work from home, flex-time and outreach
If you are a small-business owner please feel free to comment below and add to the list. I am partnering with other women entrepreneurs to help mentor others and I want your input.