A woman at the foot of a man in an article about female entrepreneurs
Why are women always getting the short end of the stick? (Illustration By Elizabeth Wong, University of Rhode Island)

How Should We Talk About Female Entrepreneurs?

The conversation around women business owners might mean more obstacles for them than their male counterparts.

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A woman at the foot of a man in an article about female entrepreneurs

The conversation around women business owners might mean more obstacles for them than their male counterparts.

Starting a business is hard. Starting a business as a woman is even harder. A study carried out by Babson College’s Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership and Bank of America Private Bank titled “Beyond the Bucks” encapsulated many of the specific challenges women face when starting a business.

They spoke with 30 female founders — all of whom own businesses where revenue exceeds $5 million annually — who have all faced tremendous, yet similar struggles to get where they are. The three largest and most common challenges were market misperceptions, network exclusions and managing expansion while underfunded.

The founders felt that their competency and market knowledge was disregarded, they felt gender-based exclusion from established business and social networks, and they were often underfunded when looking to expand their businesses. Not to mention the wage gap, discrimination and other workplace disruptions women face every day.

Despite the numerous difficulties, female entrepreneurs aren’t backing down. The newest statistics around female-owned businesses are promising and inspiring. From the same “Beyond the Buck” study, it’s estimated women own 12.3 million business, generate $1.8 trillion in revenue and employ over 9 million people.

With the rising number of female entrepreneurs, I started wondering, “How do we think, talk about and approach female business owners?” International Women’s Day was earlier this month and among the celebrations, acknowledgment and camaraderie, it opened up a door for questions for me as a young woman with the goal of being an entrepreneur.

How much should we emphasize that the person who started a certain business is female? Does it really matter what someone’s gender is when it comes to creating a product or service for the greater good of a demographic? INC profiled Audrey Gelman, co-founder, and CEO of The Wing, last fall.

This past February, Gelman wrote a piece in Fast Company, where she personally addressed the INC article. She wrote, “I was the first visibly pregnant CEO on the cover of a business magazine … I was selling a new version of a decades-old fantasy that, as women, we can have it all: Be a young CEO, scale a fast-growing business, start a family. Not pictured were the brutal demands of growth, the overwhelming, uncharted waters of new motherhood, and the fear of failure that comes along with being a founder.”

When we’re engaging in conversations about female business leaders, we tend to exaggerate their gender as an integral addition to their business, emphasizing its relevance. Or we pretend the founder stepped around all the “traditional” confines of what it means to be female in order to be successful, essentially pretending being a woman doesn’t carry tremendous implications on its own.

Overplaying or downplaying a woman’s sex when talking about entrepreneurship is tricky. What matters and what doesn’t? Shirin Behzadi is the CEO and founder of Home Franchise Concepts. She also happens to be Iranian American and a woman. In an interview with Forbes, she said “I try to not focus on, ‘I’m a female, I’m a foreigner.’ I focus on what I’m good at.”

Acknowledging the founder’s gender, in some ways, recognizes their overcoming of all the challenges we know they face. But does emphasizing it perpetuate more stereotypes and contribute to the idea that being a successful female founder is “novel,” “exceptional” and push us further away from just seeing it as normal?

The examples above, while their broader influence and effects can be hard to measure, seem to be said and written with good intentions. That’s not always the case. Some discussion about female entrepreneurs can quickly become belittling, dismissive or even brutal.

The other day I read an article about The Museum of Ice Cream’s founder Maryellis Bunn. While the writer wasn’t flat out rude to Bunn, there were some subtle digs and an air of disregard. One area, among a few examples, particularly stood out to me. The article said, “She speaks about her business in terms of iteration, beta testing, and key performance indicators (KPIs).”

Intentional or not, statements like these imply it’s unusual for her to use this vocabulary. Why wouldn’t someone who runs a profitable and successful business talk about it like a business? It would be the same as pointing out a female soccer player talks about a game in terms of ball movement, penalties or assists. Why does it need to be said? It’s unnecessary and indirectly suggests that she shouldn’t be using this diction. Implying either her business isn’t “business” enough or she doesn’t belong in the space to being with.

Maybe this wasn’t the author’s intent, but again, we need to be aware of how we’re talking about these women. Words are powerful, we read them and assume we can also read the people they’re attached too. Words have the power to perpetuate or dismantle stereotypes and public perception, and it’s important to use them carefully.

Another recent trend has been the “expose” on female-founded companies and their “disastrous” workplace culture. This recent one about Outdoor Voices and their founder Ty Haney. But, this isn’t the first time it has happened, a similar article was written about Away, as well as many other female-founded businesses. In the same week I was writing this, The New York Times published a similar article about The Wing.

For me, it’s a messy debate. Female founders, in many ways, are expected to be likable, ladylike and the epitome of class and style. Smart, successful and sweet. It’s popular to criticize women who are blunt or not warm enough. There are undeniably higher expectations for female founders to perfectly have it all together. Maybe these articles wouldn’t have such a shock value if a man was running the companies, but it’s the behavior we assume women shouldn’t have that gets readers to click.

However, if these accusations are true, it doesn’t seem fair to just let the allegations slide because we know the high standards society has for women. Harassment and toxic culture have no place in any company, regardless of who started it. Ty Haney maintained it was a one-sided narrative, which very well may be true.

Haney shared an Instagram post where she wrote: “There is an unsettling trend lately to interview ex-employees of female-founded companies and report their claims either at face value or without any context,” and that she has “experienced both gender and generational differences firsthand and these have been very tough to navigate.”

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At OV, my playbook was different than what had been done before and this was intentional. I believed in zigging when others zagged and we built a beautiful, strong #doingthings community with a powerful mindset that moves people by doing so. This approach was uncomfortable for some especially those who had done it one way for a long time and I understand and appreciate that. I certainly wish I was more equipped for the trials and tribulations of being a manager of people. I led with conviction and our playbook was working. Then things changed. And because I stood up for myself, my vision, Team OV, and early investors I am no longer with the Company I started and am labeled ‘difficult’ and ‘mercurial.’ I have experienced both gender and generational differences firsthand and these have been very tough to navigate. I am unable to tell my story in full because of documents I was required to sign when being removed from my position at OV while on maternity leave. However, in response to what continues to be a one-sided narrative, and one in which I am not able to defend myself, I am proud to have strong conviction in my vision and my legacy. There is an unsettling trend lately to interview ex-employees of female-founded companies and report their claims either at face value or without any context. There is an eagerness to label business decisions like purchasing glass bottled water as frivolous rather than ask why this was a smart investment (because it’s part of an environmentally-minded experience that brought people to our events and retail locations which led to significant customer acquisition). These are trends that will only serve to drive women back out of the board room. Even so, I remain excited and hopeful for my next chapter. I’ve made mistakes and will apply the lessons go forward. I have some wisdom to impart. Most importantly, go slow, and be very thoughtful about who you bring into your garden. I move on humbled, energized, and ready to build again with peace and freedom. Thank you for being part of building this with me. I am forever a fan of OV and continue to believe in the power of #doingthings

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While this isn’t to defend Haney or discount the experiences of employees, I have no idea who’s right or wrong, it does seem more apparent the desire to “expose” female-founded companies. It’s almost as if people are looking for any reason to prove that a woman can’t successfully run a business. If she’s hit it big in the marketplace, she must have been a nightmare in the boardroom or vice versa.

I can’t help but notice that the journalist who wrote these pieces either didn’t ask or chose not to include quotes from employees that had good experiences. It’s like a subconscious desire to show the world that female founders can’t do it all.

I’ve also seen an alarmingly large trend in assuming that female founders can only be successful by creating products or services for other women. This was even a suggestion in the same “Beyond the Bucks” study, emphasizing that women should use this strategy to break into the marketplace. Conceptually this makes sense: Who better to make a product for a woman than another woman?

Who understands the space and needs of the target clientele better? Creating products by and for women should be celebrated and is extremely important, but it shouldn’t be the only narrative used to describe how female entrepreneurs can achieve success. It perpetuates a stereotype that there is one type of female entrepreneur and makes it harder for women to break into other markets. Again, women should build for other women, but it shouldn’t be the only thing we’re expected to do.

The dialogue surrounding female entrepreneurship is evolving as we see more women step into the market creating household brands and names. But, does the way we have these conversations about female entrepreneurs create more difficulties for female founders?

What subconscious biases are sneaking into our words even when what we are saying has good intentions? There might not be any one answer to this problem right now, except being aware of it. I hope that as these discussions happen more frequently, we’re more conscious of the stories we’re telling and the images we’re selling in order to promote, not prevent, change.

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