Women entrepreneurs — more often than their male counterparts — launch businesses that generate modest revenue, provide some professional satisfaction, but operate well under the radar.
Typically, women owners don’t seem to scale up or go for the brass ring. Why is that?
Doing the math adds up to a reality check
In tracking women-owned entrepreneurial startups in 2009, the Kauffman Foundation reported that women-owned firms spiked from 1997 to 2002, growing almost twice as fast as U.S. firms overall, or roughly 20 percent versus 10 percent.
Yet in that same period, women-owned firms recorded lower survival rates as well as lower levels for size, growth, earnings and profits.
Kauffman concluded that women-owned firms are smaller and not as interested in growth as men-owned firms.
Alicia Robb, the report’s senior research fellow, had another spin. “The interesting thing about women entrepreneurs is that many of them may be purposely starting businesses as a lifestyle choice,” she said when the findings were released. “The number of women-owned businesses growing faster may reflect that women are going into business as a viable way to move out of the traditional employment market and gain flexibility. It’s hard to know if those kinds of businesses are where they want to be.”
So what’s going on: Ladies’ choice or gender inequity?
When I put out the microphone to women owners nationwide to find out, the response was a tsunami of opinions and stories.
After the deluge, the answer boiled down to the following: a little of each.
The personal remains political
“When it comes to business, men and women just don’t face the same challenges, whether due to the perpetuation of gender stereotypes, disparity of roles and responsibilities at home, or lack of equal opportunity,” says Shannon Reece, a business development coach based in Naples, Florida, who focuses on women entrepreneurs.
As a result, many women owners decide to make lemonade out of the social, economic and professional lemons that often come their way.
More can be less
Looking through a wider lens, women may be choosing more — not less — because they’re defining success differently. “Women might be willing to take a loss in pay so the needs for more of their parts are met: The mother need, the work need, the need to be a person beyond home or office,” says Sharon Chirban, a leadership coach in Boston.
“My female clients have very big lives,” agrees Rebecca Weingarten, a New York City career coach and psychologist specializing in women. “They have to be big to include the multiple roles they play that couldn’t have been imagined even a generation or two ago. ‘Big enough’ is good for many of them because it’s really actually huge to fit all that in.”
Business reflects life stages
Many women owners adjust to the rhythms of time and family concerns that shape their goals. They know their priorities will shift as businesses, marriages, kids, health, aging relatives, spiritual growth and other outside interests evolve.
In other words, that “having it all” clarion call has morphed into a push-comes-to-shove mantra: “I need to make trade-offs.”
“It’s a daily struggle between growing my business and being content with where I am — not wanting to put in more time that will take me away from my daughter, my boyfriend, my family and friends,” explains Jennifer Krosche, who launched her boutique PR agency based in Long Island, New York, last year after being laid off.
“I could definitely grow much larger than I am and look for new opportunities,” she says. “But I don't push the envelope the way I should because I'm content — for now.”
Embracing the well-rounded life
While it’s a typical concern, child care isn’t the only reason women run Goldilocks companies. Many women are funding their lifestyles.
For example, in 1997, Sheryl Woodhouse-Keese launched Twisted Limb Paperworks, an eco-friendly paper-making business based in Bloomington, Indiana, and never looked back.
“As one of the first 100 percent recycled invitation companies in the country, I had the opportunity to really grow if I wanted to. But work-life balance is extremely important to me and my husband,” says Woodhouse-Keese, adding that they don’t have children. A right-sized firm provides an outlet for her creativity and passions while giving her the freedom to travel and explore hobbies.
Funders still ignore women
Still, access to capital remains a challenge for women.
“Every female I know who has started a for-profit business wants to improve her bottom line and grow her business,” says Brooke Henze, student director of women in entrepreneurship at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. But VCs still give funds to entrepreneurs who “fit a stereotype,” she says.
Most investors look for rapid-growth segments, such as medical devices or IT/online models. Women's projects tend to be in other sectors, particularly in service firms, which don’t scale quickly, if at all. “Being left to foot all the bills and provide all the funding leaves women more attached to their businesses and pickier about the decisions they make,” sums up Henze.
Size is not the benchmark
Finally, points out Michelle Randall, who runs Enriching Leadership International, a Silicon Valley management consultancy, “size is a male obsession, and a less-relevant measure for women's success. Fulfillment may be harder to measure, but it’s far more appropriate for women-owned businesses.”
Joanna L. Krotz writes about small-business marketing and management issues. She is the co-author of "Microsoft Small Business Kit" and runs Muse2Muse Productions, a New York City-based custom content provider.