What If Women Entrepreneurs Ruled the World?

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Jet Fuel Series: A conversation with Dr. Paulette Brown-Hinds (Black Voice News), Dr. Rosibel Ochoa (University of California Riverside – Office of Technology Partnerships) and Connie Rutledge (FINNOVATION Lab).

Women entrepreneurs represent more than 95% of the SEED Lab fellows and the leaders of the mission-driven organizations Caravanserai Project has supported since its launch. As our work has been shaped by these interactions, we sought out some perspective on the past, present, and future of entrepreneurship from a group of successful women entrepreneurs who have worked with, led, and founded enterprises in a variety of sectors and environments.

The three leaders we called upon are seasoned entrepreneurs in their own right who have also made great efforts to invest in other women entrepreneurs. They also represent a variety of backgrounds, all of which have translated into the enterprises they’ve led through the years and their outlook on the changing landscape for small business and social enterprise founders.

Dr. Paulette Brown-Hinds, a journalist by training, is a second-generation publisher of Black Voice News and the founder of content production and strategic communications firm Voice Media Ventures. She teaches at UC Riverside and serves on numerous boards throughout the state of California, including the Inland Empire Community Foundation

Dr. Rosibel Ochoa is an engineer and inventor of two issued patents. Her career as an academic has taken her from Georgia Tech to UC San Diego to UC Riverside, where she currently teaches chemical and environmental engineering. She also serves as Associate Vice Chancellor of the Office of Technology Partnerships, the UCR’s main entity dedicated to supporting faculty and student entrepreneurs.

Connie Rutledge has been embedded in entrepreneurship and business management for over 20 years. She has developed and taught courses in entrepreneurship for the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and the University of Minnesota and is currently CEO of FINNOVATION Lab, which connects social enterprise founders through cohort-based programs.

Drawing upon their multi-disciplinary perspectives, several themes emerged in our conversations with each of them. These topics highlight promising trends and persistent challenges for women-owned businesses, as well as vital forms of support that can help unlock the full potential of women entrepreneurs going forward. 

Promising Futures for Women-Owned Businesses

“Having more seats at the table is happening,” says Connie. “When I first started working in venture capital and with tech-based businesses, I was usually the only woman in the room, and all of my partners were male.”

There is in fact greater and greater intentionality for investing in women and minority entrepreneurs.  Paulette and Rosibel have witnessed this positive trend, too. And they believe that the momentum can improve, with the pandemic presenting us all with opportunities to reimagine the way we all do business from the ground up.

“I think that now, there’s at least a conversation and acknowledgment that there have been these huge disparities for generations,” says Paulette. “So, I’m hopeful that there could be a reset, and a focus on equity, a focus in the business space not just in entrepreneurship, but with corporate leadership.”

The word “reset” came up again in our conversation with Rosibel. “This is an opportunity to reset and do it differently,” she says.

What’s different now for women entrepreneurs of color?

Learn more about Black Voice News and the Inland Empire Community Foundation.

“More and more venture funds are led by women — and men, too — that are focused on investing in female entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color,” says Rosibel. “There’s that intentionality without by any means sacrificing quality.”

Reflecting on the predominance of men in her venture capital years, throughout her entrepreneurial career, Connie has noticed discrete differences in the kind of representation taking place in other spaces. In the MBA program where she was teaching entrepreneurship courses, for example, the proportion of women in the program varied widely from year to year.

“Some years we would only have one or two women out of a class of 20,” says Connie. “Other years, we would have at least 35 percent or so.” She says that contrasts even further to her work with social enterprises, where she works primarily with women entrepreneurs.

“Of the three cohorts of FINNovation Fellows that we’ve done, they have been a majority female every year,” says Connie. “This year and the first year, we’ve had only one man in each cohort. Last year’s cohort was a little more evenly split, there were five women and four men.”

The progress towards parity in the startup space that Connie’s noticed, at least in terms of representation, has a similar parallel that Paulette has noticed with more established enterprises.

“I’ve seen organizations similar to ours getting exposure nationally and given more financial support because people are starting to look for mission-driven, Black-led organizations to support,” says Paulette. And data suggests there’s no shortage of the types of enterprises Paulette’s describing — women of color account for almost 90 percent of the new women-owned businesses annually.

“I don’t know if [more] new ones are developing so much as old ones, or ones that have been around for a long time, are being promoted nationally. And more corporations are following through on a commitment to equity.” 

Are things better for women entrepreneurs?

Learn more about UC Riverside Office of Technology Partnerships.

These promising trends did not just happen overnight and there is room for more improvement yet. Over the last few years, encouraging and supporting more women to join the entrepreneurial world was a direct consequence of talking out loud about the challenges they are facing.

“More and more visibility to what the barriers are, the challenges, and also the opportunities, is happening,” says Rosibel. But, in a sentiment echoed by Paulette and Connie, she says, “I want to see the change faster.”

Persistent challenges for women entrepreneurs

The past year certainly triggered a greater commitment to investing in businesses led and owned by people of color, and the focus and support for women-owned enterprises has grown exponentially. The trend is relevant because equity — in the startup space and elsewhere — is intersectional. And yet, some forms of support meant to elevate diverse small businesses may not take that into account, which is the first persistent barrier Paulette cites.

“With businesses led by people of color, over 40 percent shut down during the pandemic,” says Paulette. “There were disparities in even the way support was given through the federal government. Ninety percent of Black businesses, for example, are sole-proprietor [operations] and don’t have any employees. So they couldn’t even apply for certain relief programs.” Within this group, women-owned businesses have been dramatically impacted. 

That phenomenon is an example of how intentions don’t always translate perfectly into access and outcomes. Coming up with approaches that serve those intentions in a holistic way is an enduring challenge. It’s one of several dissonances that characterize the barriers to entry that women entrepreneurs still face. Rosibel has encountered similar dissonances in the engineering space.

Systems-thinking and the practice of getting input from a range of stakeholders is a time-honored practice in designing a product to address an unmet need. It’s how Rosibel has been trained to think, and it’s how she trains her students to think — and for good reason. “You need to bring in multiple experts and multiple points of view and multiple experiences to have the most comprehensive way of addressing the issue,” says Rosibel. “If you think it’s going to be simple, you may not have the solution.”

And yet, those ethos haven’t fully translated in demographic terms to the kinds of people participating most in entrepreneurship. From her own trajectory as a woman in engineering, Rosibel has her own informed guesses about why that is. But to be sure, she started asking women what was stopping them. “They told us because of three things primarily,” says Rosibel. “One: We don’t see each other, we don’t see ourselves there. We don’t have role models. Two: We don’t have a network that we can learn, and be comfortable with. And three: There’s this understanding that as much as 96 percent of venture capital still goes to men.”

Rosibel has learned firsthand that the disparity remains significant despite ample research showing that once ventures get off the ground, female CEOs and founders perform the same, if not better, than their male counterparts.

A dissonance that Connie highlights relates to the massive number of women who’ve had to leave the workforce in the past year as a result of the pandemic — a figure that was approaching 3 million as of last month. “Part of what I think we’re seeing in the exiting of the labor force is a lack of flexibility as commitments to family and particularly children have skyrocketed, with homeschooling and concern about healthcare,” says Connie.

“If your employer can’t work with you, if you have a couple kids homeschooling, what are you going to do? What’s your choice there? I think a lot of people get interested in entrepreneurship because they at least have control of their time and work style.”

But, she adds, “It can create some dangerous burnout potential.” She explains that a high-growth startup is way more than a full-time job for one person. “Sometimes, it relies on family and friends in a way that not everyone has access to.”

Investing in women entrepreneurs 

Something we heard loud and clear is that there is no substitute for early-stage capital. We make a concerted effort with the Jet Fuel Series to highlight free and low-cost ways to build capacity and increase impact. But it’s important to stress for those in a position to support aspiring women entrepreneurs that the single most impactful thing they can do is invest in people.

“I think lots of times, people want to get away from investing money,” says Connie. “But money is the most fungible, right? Entrepreneurs can decide what they want to do when they have money.”

Rosibel similarly describes access to capital as “the lifeblood of a venture.” And Paulette singles it out as essential to making experimentation possible, and in some cases, buying you time and bringing on staff to make strides forward.

In non-monetary terms, Paulette, Rosibel, and Connie all cited specific areas of support needed for entrepreneurs within their respective disciplines.

For the media space that Paulette works in, and with other entrepreneurs she works with, the needs beyond financial support includes financial business literacy and personalized coaching. “Money doesn’t take the place of perspective and strategy,” she says. “If you just give me the money, I don’t necessarily know what to do to make it most impactful and useful.”

In academia, Rosibel emphasizes the need to incentivize entrepreneurial participation among faculty and graduate students. “When you’re a faculty member, you don’t have incentives. Your compensation and your recognition and your career path are not incentivized by participating in entrepreneurial programs,” she says. “You are discouraged, in many cases.”

How to support women entrepreneurs?

Lear more about Finnovation Lab.

One of the most powerful aspects of the cohort-based learning Connie’s seen through her work at FINN Lab is simply the emotional support and affirmation that peers in a similar position can provide each other. She thinks it’s something that all entrepreneurs could benefit from, but few have access to.

“Starting a company can be a crazy idea to everyone you know,” says Connie. “Being connected to other people who are trying to create something new can really be a great sounding board and source of emotional support.”

Accelerating progress for women entrepreneurship

Neither Paulette, Rosibel, or Connie would say they’ve witnessed a sea change for women entrepreneurs during their careers. That’s because there hasn’t been one. All the successes and positive trends for women-owned businesses and enterprises to date largely are the result of steady, incremental progress. But that doesn’t mean that progress can’t accelerate more dramatically.

We asked each of these leaders how they would explain that we all stand to gain from the success of women entrepreneurs. After giving the question some thought, they all returned to the point that women are half the population.

“We’re 50%!” says Connie. “If we can’t exercise our skills and ambition and imagination, then what are we missing out on as a society?”

Sometimes, the simple math makes the point best. Everybody has benefited from fuller participation of women in every facet of society. And women don’t need a separate category or special treatment — they just need the opportunity and tools to compete.

The Jet Fuel Series aims to bring different perspectives to the debate that currently dominates the mission-driven sector, addressing the needs of nonprofit or for profit entities alike. Caravanserai Project will publish a monthly blog based on conversations we had with various stakeholders such as futurists, community leaders, academics, entrepreneurs, captains of various industries, from different walks of life and locations whose unique experiences and views hopefully will help us and our network reimagine our efforts in order to increase our impact and advance our missions.

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