Empowering women into business ownership / rise of the female entrepreneur
March 17, 2014
I carried out a simple exercise last week in my office after struggling with the common narrative around women’s empowerment which has traditionally been aligned in developed countries with the need to break the glass ceiling.
Now for those unfamiliar with this term, the glass ceiling refers to women in leadership roles across business and politics that invariably leads to debate around quotas. That said, we sometimes reflect incorrectly on this as a core focus area and forget that there are, in fact, hundreds of thousands of women who take a different path than climbing the corporate ladder and that is business ownership.
So, back to the simple exercise. In the top drawer of the desk in my office I had 489 business cards (yes I sat there and counted them). I decided that what I would do is codify those business cards into five groups:
Group 1: elected women politicians
Group 2: women in senior executive roles of a publicly owned company not owned by them (they had to be C level, which is a term commonly used to describe CEO, CFO, COO etc
Group 3: women who owned their own business
Group 4: women who were Directors of either public or private sector boards (or both)
Group 5: women who, like their male counterparts, worked for the “man” (that horrible but colloquial term for people who spend a great deal of their lives working for someone else)
Now I warn you, this is by no means a scientific experiment and there was no concise methodology applied. Also, the business cards that sit around my office may in fact be different to those in others merely because of the networks I move in. Right, now that we have the disclaimers out of the way what was the result?
Of the 489 cards a total of 417 belonged to women.
It must mean straight away that I am hanging around in great company. Of that number 8 belonged to Group 1 (elected women politicians) and only 3 were in Group 2 (women in senior elected roles). Now this was the big number – 329 belonged to Group 3, women who owned (or started up) their own business. Group 4 (women who were also Directors of Boards) was probably an incorrect cohort given that all 8 from Group 1 sat on Boards as a result of the position they held while all 329 who belonged to Group 3 were Board Directors based purely on the ownership structure of their business.
There were 77 women in Group 5 and in speaking with ten of them by phone to delve deeper into their backgrounds, all ten played key roles within their own community from being on the Parents Association at the local school to being a part time worker for their husbands small business (from doing accounts to paperwork, organising appointments during the weekend etc.).
When you look further at Group 3 you quickly discover some other very interesting dynamics such as 60% of them (roughly, my calculator tells me 61.347) run businesses in the services sector and when I looked at a random group of 30 cards their organisations looked as if they employed between 5 – 10 people (a check of the website and reports was the validating factor).
By far the greatest cohort belonged to women in the same sector who employed less than 5 people (quite often it was just them). Other businesses women ran were in the online retail sector (5%) and others were start-up charitable organisations. When I spoke to another ten women in Group 3 I asked them some pretty simple questions:
Why go into business yourself?
Were there any barriers?
What’s more important – busting the glass ceiling or being successful?
All of them answered in the same way to question 1: “why not?” or “I was over working for someone else” or “there was a niche in the market so I took the opportunity” and “I knew I wasn’t going to make it working for someone else”.In terms of the second question the answers were also very similar to each other with many describing the barriers as being more about process and bureaucracy than because they were female.
There was a generic hate of the tax office, reporting unnecessarily and the economy. In other words like a lot of people in business, irrespective of gender, the issue isn’t about being a women its about the economy, identifying people who want to buy the product or service, how to engage with social media, not being bogged down in process and so the list goes on.
When it came to the third question, “what’s more important – busting the glass ceiling or being successful” many responded as if the glass ceiling wasn’t the issue, the main game in town was being a successful business women and that, in their own minds would break the internal glass ceiling they felt was there.
Many also measured success in different ways – for example, some turned to the profit motivator and building a large multinational corporation (the millionaire dreams syndrome we all have) while others were looking for an income stream that they could largely control that enabled them to bring up kids (flexibility in working hours) and live a lifestyle (although it should be noted one conversation involved celebrity and how going to the opening of envelopes was just as much as an art form amongst women as it was men).So what does this all mean through a women’s empowerment lens cast over a developed country context?
Firstly, women in business is more about small and medium sized business than it is about breaking through the glass ceiling of the corporate world and therefore still working for the man. Women who ran their own business were driven by different priorities and therefore their focus led them to be more about the medium to longer term of something they owned as opposed to short termism.
These are all very important conversations points as we realise that the vast army of small and medium sized businesses out there in developing countries are in fact run by women and not be men. This is an important statement as small to medium sized business is largely the backbone of many economies.This also means that entrepreneurship is alive and well amongst a cohort of the female population which lends the next conversation to be around how we activate that army to empower the next generation of not so much women business leaders, but business owners and how we can replicate that from a developed country context into the third world. Interestingly enough I had separated a group of business cards out further from what ultimately came to be the 489.
There were also 19 cards from women in developing countries – where, you may have guessed by now, the majority were involved in owning and running their own business (14). Of these 6 were in Africa and the others located across Asia.Now, everyone still said political representation was important but the truth is many just saw getting on with the job of building their own business as being the key priority. The group of women whose names appeared on those business cards in my office are a fascinating example of large scale success – from Martha Tillar (owner of one of Asia’s largest cosmetics companies) to Irene Ross (standalone consultant working to support other women in business) the truth is, with networks such as Business and Professional and Women, UN Women and Women on Boards, the true potential lies in harnessing those organisations to empower women from both developed and developing countries into business ownership.
So, lets get this conversation going and pose another question? how can we take that collective success and generate it into a developing country context to empower the next generation of young girls in particular. Food for thought.
This article is a part of series @ EntreHub.org focussed on highlighting successful women in business. The series runs from the 17th of March – 7th of April 2014.
Author: Matthew Tukaki, Chair and Chief Entrepreneur of EntreHub Twitter: @tukakimatt Resources for reading: http://www.womenable.com/userfiles/downloads/2013_State_of_Women-Owned_Businesses_Report_FINAL.pdf
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