All around the world female entrepreneurship is on the rise. There is, however, still a long way to go, as women face challenges in areas like funding and social expectations.
In the U.S. alone, there are 12.3 million female-owned businesses — i.e., 40 percent of all American enterprises — and they net $1.8 trillion a year. The flip side is that those businesses employ just 9.4 million people, and account for over half the nation’s sole proprietorships. In fact, women only own 32.59 percent of the businesses that employ four people or more.
Liz Giorgi, founder of the content studio Soona, has been quoted as saying that “entrepreneurship is a lonely adventure.” It is embodied by women like Sara Blakely, who in 1998 founded the female shapewear company Spanx. Her “personal journey of success,” as she called it in a 2011 presentation, began when she grew disgusted with her job selling fax machines. It took several years and involved numerous detours. At one point, for example, she sought the assistance of a lawyer with a patent application. He was unmoved.
“He thought my idea was so bad,” she said in that presentation, “that he thought I had been sent by (the long-ago television show) ‘Candid Camera.’”
She persisted, however. Likewise when she contacted several North Carolina-based companies — all of them male-owned — about manufacturing her product, and was initially rebuffed. Finally one of the owners got back to her, having been convinced of the product’s worth by his three daughters.
Her company now makes an estimated $400 million a year in sales, and Blakely’s net worth is estimated at $610 million. In addition, she fosters female entrepreneurship through her foundation, and is among those who have pledged to give half her wealth to that cause as well. As she put it on her foundation’s website:
I never lose sight that I was born in the right country, at the right time. And I never lose sight of the fact that there are millions of women around the world who are not dealt the same deck of cards upon their birth. Simply because of their gender, they are not given the same chance I had to create my own success and follow my dreams. It is for those women that I make this pledge.
I’ve seen that first-hand during my years in northern Nigeria, where with my business partner, Adam Thompson, I co-founded eHealth Africa in 2010 and EHA Clinics in 2018. There were hurdles to be surmounted as we forged ahead, and we ultimately did so, raising $250 million over a 10-year period and spearheading initiatives that resulted in the eradication of polio from Nigeria and the containment of Ebola in West Africa.
With the understanding that Nigerian women face extraordinary challenges that many Americans do not, I founded eha Impact Ventures in January 2021 in an effort to support female-owned small- and medium-sized enterprises. While there are 252 million female entrepreneurs around the world, accounting for one-third of all entrepreneurs, they received just 2.3 percent of the venture funding that was doled out in 2020, down from 2.8 percent in 2019. Clearly there is need for support, a need to provide women with the wherewithal to grow their enterprises.
The California-based venture-capital firm Lightspeed Ventures represents an encouraging departure from the norm, having donated $125 million over the last five years to companies founded by women. Two tech entrepreneurs, Kate Brodock and Allyson Kapin, launched the W Fund in 2019, with an eye on providing capital for female-headed enterprises in their sector. Their goal is $48 million, a nod toward the percentage shift in funding that would put women on equal footing with their male counterparts.
That same year Cleo Capital, headed by investor/entrepreneur Sarah Kunst, raised $3.5 million for a scout fund — i.e., an investment in female scouts, who will unearth off-the-beaten-path deals for the firm. (This represents a breakthrough, given the fact that 91 percent of those making such calls are at present male.)
But it’s not just financial support that is needed. It’s a matter of providing rising female entrepreneurs with a roadmap, and helping them sidestep obstacles that are both societal and personal. American fashion designer Tory Burch is among those who understands the importance of mentorship, as she provides through her foundation yearly $5,000 fellowships to 50 female entrepreneurs for business education.
Others are no less insistent about the need for a positive, optimistic mindset — that aspiring entrepreneurs must power through the glass ceiling, understand who they are and what they hope to achieve. As Michele Ruiz, co-founder/CEO of the SaaS company BiasSync, told Addicted2success.com, “If people are doubting how far you can go, go so far that you can’t hear them anymore.”
Still, it’s a lonely quest, as Giorgi said. Blakely, for example, recalled in a 2018 interview that she was distraught before launching the idea that became Spanx.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Cut — I’m in the wrong movie,’ ” she said. “‘How did this happen? Call the director. Call the writer. This is not my life.’”
She redirected herself, understanding that she “liked providing people with something they didn’t know they needed … or they couldn’t live without.”
Certainly no one goes it alone, as Blakely also knows. There needs to be support, needs to be direction. That’s the only way a journey of success can truly reach its intended destination.