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Women in business: Making it as a female entrepreneur

These tips on how to use business skills and resources can help overcome challenges faced by women business owners


Four out of every 10 U.S. businesses are owned by women, according to a 2019 Guidant Financial report – and those numbers are growing. Female entrepreneurs are a force to be reckoned with, and to hit their targets, they tap into their assets. Challenges abound in the business world, and…

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Four out of every 10 U.S. businesses are owned by women, according to a 2019 Guidant Financial report – and those numbers are growing.

Female entrepreneurs are a force to be reckoned with, and to hit their targets, they tap into their assets. Challenges abound in the business world, and women must often contend with a wide set of unique obstacles associated with their gender.

Some of the most successful female entrepreneurs in the country have overcome such problems. Here’s what they have faced – and how they’ve faced it down.

See related: A missing voice in financial services

Age discrimination

According to a recent AARP report, 57% of men between the ages of 45 and 74 said they have been discriminated against in the workforce based on their age. But 72% of women in the same demographic said they’ve been affected by it.

“I used to think that at some point in my life and career, I would no longer be a pioneer,” says Lucinda Wright, co-founder and CEO of Cask & Kettle, a ready-to-brew cocktail company. “I would accumulate enough accomplishments to prove my worth. To my disappointment, at 57 years of age (and one of a very small number of women to own and run a distilled spirits business), I’m still assumed to be the saleslady versus the CEO. This happened just last week!”

To handle such slights, Wright channels her frustration and disappointment into mental toughness. “Tenacity has been the key to moving forward for me,” she says. “You can’t change the way others treat you based on your age, but you can change the way you react. I just continue on, doing what I need to do.”

Conversely, being or appearing youthful can also be a detriment. Dr. Roshawnna Novellus is a gender equality advocate and the founder of the Atlanta-based debt investment platform, EnrichHER.

Because she looks to be in her 20s, some of her male colleagues assume she lacks experience. While they expect a young man to be innovative and understand technology, it’s the opposite for a woman.

“I was meeting with an investor about an algorithm I wanted to employ in my platform,” says Novellus, who has a master’s degree in information technology and a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering. “He said I’d have to get someone to help me with that. I guess my education and corporate experience wasn’t enough for him! When I said, ‘No I can do this,’ he was shocked.”

Novellus used to try to convince men who assumed she was a novice by showcasing her many awards and accolades. Not anymore. “It’s a waste of time,” she says. “You can’t convince people to change their minds, so find people who do believe in you and will support you. Concentrate on them instead.”

Beauty bias

Being judged on perceived attractiveness is another conundrum faced by female entrepreneurs. According to a study by ScienceDirect, physically attractive women are discriminated against when applying for masculine sex-typed jobs, a phenomenon known as the “beauty is beastly” effect.

When Novellus was a child, her mother enrolled her in modeling classes with the hope that she’d become more self-assured. It was effective, and to this day, she loves to don gorgeous clothes and cosmetics. When she does, though, she’s not treated as a knowledgeable start-up founder who has expertise in a male-dominated industry.

“It’s a struggle,” says Novellus. “Dressing up makes me feel confident, but it does have a negative impact when I talk about something technical. You’re not viewed as serious.”

But rather than switch to the bland uniform of Steve Jobs (or Elizabeth Holmes), she defiantly maintains her feminine fashion sense. “The best course of action is to present yourself as your most confident self,” says Novellus. “And if that means wearing the clothes you like, do it. Your self-assured attitude will shine through.”

Susie Carder, a profit coach and renowned speaker who is often in the public eye, has also experienced a variant of this phenomenon.

“I have blonde hair and because of that alone, some men assume I’m not smart,” says Carder. “Someone once introduced me as, ‘This is Suzy and she’s pretty.’ They would never do that to a man! And yes, I have curves. If I don’t hide them, there is a crazy assumption that I’m not educated … Being feminine is part of me. When I’m judged for it, I laugh it off.”

Intellectual prejudice

Even in 2020, there is a belief that women aren’t as capable as their male counterparts. A recent study published in the American Psychologist Journal found that despite objective evidence that women’s intellectual and business accomplishments are the same as men’s, their ability to make intellectual contributions is still not viewed as equal.

Such a presumption isn’t lost on Beate Chelette, founder of The Women’s Code, a professional development company that helps entrepreneurs set up their ventures to achieve growth potential. As skilled as she is, she’s not immune to the false notions about her business acumen.

“A lot of men just assume you don’t have the know-how,” says Chelette. “It’s bizarre. Just recently I was talking to some men and they asked me how I knew about the SEC filings that they were all talking about. They were shocked. Had they done their own homework on me, they would have known I had the facts.”

Chelette’s antidote to this kind of prejudice is to go the extra mile with preparation. “Sometimes to prove ourselves, we have to be smarter than men,” she says. “Be an information junkie. For example, I always check out profiles and pending lawsuits, read all the SEC filings. I do as much as I can to know the other side’s weakness and strengths. Do your research. It gives you negotiation power.”

Classic sexism

According to a 2019 study conducted by the technology consulting firm Ensono, 1 in 4 women who have attended a tech conference experience sexual harassment, and 41% report having one that makes them less likely to attend a future event.

However, exchanging ideas and forming contacts at these events is usually necessary. Randi Bryant, a renowned diversity and inclusion strategist, has a go-to response up her sleeve whenever she’s approached about something not related to her job.

“I attend conferences frequently where I network and distribute business cards. Frequently, I will have men reach out to me to take me out on a date instead of contacting me about business,” says Bryant.

So, what does Bryant do? “I tell them that I appreciate the offer to eat out, but as my schedule is so busy, it would be better if I email them more information about my diversity and inclusion services,” says Bryant. “This tactic has proven to be effective. When they know what I do, they get the message.”

One would think the fashion world is free of sexism, but not so, says Renee Greenstein, designer and founder of the best-selling fashion lines, ATTITUDES by Renée and Women with Control. Unfortunately, the industry remains male-dominated, so women must continue to break barriers.

“When I was working for another company, a man said to me, ‘For a broad, you’re asking for a lot of money,’” says Greenstein. “Another time, I had just come back from a business trip and I was set up to be blamed for a huge problem. They thought they could get away with it because I’m a woman and wouldn’t speak up. I did, of course. You have to.”

Ultimately, leaving the toxic workplace was Greenstein’s best course of action. “I left and started my own companies,” she says, and has now been selling her garments and jewelry on QVC for 23 years. “You have to know when to walk and do it yourself. Look at the names of my companies – they say it all!”

Building a network

While networking can be a pain, never underestimate the power of women who’ve been through the entrepreneurship process – and have wisdom and guidance to impart.

The Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) is a well-touted place to find mentors via its Women Business Leaders Resource Center. This well-established nonprofit group can also help connect you with funding and grants.

Also, the more interaction you have with successful women, the better. “I have over 27 mentors that I’ve collected over the years,” says Novellus. “They are all extremely important, because each has a specific skill. In fact, I’m a mentor too. As a community, we have to help other women’s businesses grow.”

Networking groups can connect you with like-minded businesswomen and they’re available all over the country through the Meetup platform. Associations such as the National Association for Women Business Owners and The Female Entrepreneur Association are other options.

There are also women-only mastermind groups, such as the CEO Society, where you learn from experts and challenge each other to do better, go farther and overcome all the obstacles women in business face.

“I belong to a high-level mastermind group that you have to be a bad ass to qualify for,” says Carder. “But wherever you go, you should find women who will support you. Get involved with a group or person who will celebrate you, who wants to hear about your business and accomplishments and can offer great advice.”

See related: How to get a business credit card

Resources for female entrepreneurs

Launching your own business doesn’t have to rely on an immediate and tremendous amount of cash. There are many funding resources that focus on the needs of female entrepreneurs – including Novellus’s company, EnrichHER, which specifically creates borrowing opportunities for women-led businesses.

Other sources of business loans for women are divided into sectors – such as the The Female Founders Fund that assists women-led startups in the e-commerce space and BELLE Capital USA, which concentrates on technology and health companies headed by women.

Small business grants for women are another great opportunity for entrepreneurs, as the awards are basically free money. A few grants worth exploring are the Eileen Fisher Women-Owned Business Grant, Girlboss Foundation Grant and Amber Grant. Another great resource is GrantsforWomen.org – a comprehensive database of opportunities for women across industries.

Female entrepreneurs may have to deal with special circumstances to achieve their goals, but with preparation, perspective and perseverance, it can be done.

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